THORNTON WILLIS: THE LATTICE PAINTINGS
By James Panero
It is possible we understand abstraction less now than we did a hundred years ago. Every day, incrementally, we lose a little of our abstract consciousness. For most of us this process occurs without notice. We grow accustomed to a world less illuminated by abstraction’s peculiar light. Looking back over the last fifty years, art historians may one day speak of the counter-reformation staged by the zealots of literalness against the holdouts of the abstract vanguard. Thornton Willis has a particular sensitivity to what that loss may bring. He has never given up testing art’s abstract potential. He paints meditative objects as far removed from ordinary existence as were Kandinsky’s in his day.
Thornton is by now a Soho old-timer, a master painter with pigment under his nails and a lifetime of engagement with the history of art. He arrived in New York in a moment of abstract experimentation as part of the generation of post-minimalists and process artists. For forty years he has advanced by feel. “I like the smell of medium. I get it on my hands and paint with my hands,” he says. The loft studio where he lives with his wife, Vered, has changed little from the time he moved in decades ago. Why should it? Thornton knew what he wanted to do from the moment he put brush to canvas.
Today you may find Thornton in his studio mixing his own special dryers, acrylics, and oils. He uses the same mayonnaise-like medium he picked up from de Kooning that he keeps in a whiskey bottle: one part linseed oil, one part turpentine, one part stand oil, a dash of demar varnish, and a dash of water. He moves quickly from one canvas to another. He wants each painting to lead to the next. He uses an undercoat of acrylic to get down the basic colors and forms and then goes back in with oil, building up the surfaces. He says he has perfected his drying times: “I put in long hours when I’m really cooking. I work at night. When the juice is flowing I want to get it done.” Sometimes forward, sometimes around again, with roughness and grace he follows where his own paintings take him.
This is Thornton’s second exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. The rectangular structure of his latest work may strike some as an abrupt departure from the triangular facets he refined in his last show. Why not more of the same? The answer is that Thornton resists his own perfection. “I got to that point where I thought I had pretty much worked it through. I felt finished.” As Thornton labored over a large canvas he called “Entanglement,” which he expected to be the culmination of his triangular phase, the shapes started to change. “I had the painting to some point where it was finished, but I wasn’t happy with it. It was disappointing to me. For two years I had worked towards that painting and it was a letdown. And so I just opened it up again and boom, this is what happened. The bands started to be more dominant than the triangular shapes. It was moving me back to this.”
The result became “Conversion,” a painting made right on top of “Entanglement” that brings Thornton back to a theme he has been working on since his first forays in rectilinear shapes in the 1970s and 1980s. Thornton calls them his “lattice” paintings. “This particular idea really started with my earliest work in New York. I realized I never totally fleshed it out. I wanted to reinvestigate it. And that’s how this work came about. The grid has always been my orientation, so it feels natural to move back to this work.” “Conversion” inaugurates and “opens up” the body of work we see in the current show.
Thornton is more interested in the process of abstract art than in its completion. He wants to keep his paintings open and undone. This openness allows him to move from one painting to the next. It also elevates his work from mere design into objects of contemplation. “I’m seeking something that plays with the viewer. You want the viewer to take part in the process.” This approach accounts for the raw quality we see in Thornton’s paintings at first viewing. Once drawn in, however, we begin to interact with the technical dynamics that exist beneath the surface. This latest work calls upon Thornton’s full range of abstract abilities to undermine simple readings of figure and ground, forward and back, top and bottom. Thornton breaks down a painting’s illusion of deep space to energize his viewer’s full engagement. Ever since his wedge paintings in the 1970s, Thornton has played with the density of volumes, the interaction of colors to come forward and recede, and the character of the line. Thornton’s paintings begin and end with the line. Edges dissolve. Underpainting peeks through. Thornton plays his lines like the strings on an instrument.
Thornton’s road to abstract art began in the rural South. The son of a minister, he grew up in Alabama and Florida. Shake Thornton off and you can still see the earth clinging to his roots. His worldview was formed in the South by Gothic tragedy. Thornton’s father, in a horrific accident at age twelve, blinded his sister with a gun and ran into the woods. His family feared he would take his own life. Instead he had an epiphany. He dedicated himself to God. As an adult Thornton’s father worked as an itinerant minister in the Church of Christ. He preached in the Florida panhandle and the deep South while caring for his blind sister, his ailing wife, and his children. Before he died in a head-on collision on the road to Bible class, he taught Thornton to quote scripture in the small cotton towns of Alabama, the same ones that now supply Thornton’s canvases.
One of Thornton’s earliest visual fascinations was reading the comic pages on his father’s knee. The landscape of his childhood has never been far from his abstract work. “There are things growing up, these old back highways in the South. You would have billboards along the side of the road and they would get weathered and peeled and you would see broken up collage. It was part of my visual growing up and I identified it with Alabama. I grew up mostly in rural areas, and I remember things like old structures, a gravel pit, some big old structure. I would always be fascinated with these kinds of things.”
Thornton is not a religious man himself, but he has followed his own calling in paint. His awakening occurred at an exhibition of abstract art that passed through Alabama in the 1950s – a show of Hans Hofmann and his students. “That was like a punch in the face, a punch in the gut. A boom!,” he said of the effect. “Seeing that work was the epiphany that brought me to painting. I’ve been chasing that ever since.” Thornton has been chasing abstract painting for nearly half a century.
Now age 72, Thornton shows his genteel Southern slightness. He looks out at the world with rain clouds in his eyes and magnolias in his voice. He has come to resemble his paintings more and more, with skin the texture of brushstrokes, his spirit in bold colors, his honesty in the painted shapes that collapse illusions. Thornton’s unassuming path to the forward positions of art speaks to the truth of what he does. “There’s a naive place from where I want to work.” he told me. He never chose to be an abstract painter. Abstract painting chose him, instilling a single-mindedness that has a glaring honesty. “I’m a straightforward person,” he explains. In an art world destroyed by cleverness, he occupies the last avant-garde position. His honesty would put us to shame if it were not so embracing. As abstraction’s preacher he has never been more charismatic.