December 2007

Comeback Kid

The return of Thornton Willis reflects the enduring legacy of abstract painting.

by James Panero


F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” However in the past few years, a painter by the name of Thornton Willis, born in 1936, has re-emerged from near-obscurity. Almost 40 years after his New York debut, and after a brief shot at fame in the 1970s as a post-Minimalist, Willis is now creating some of the boldest work of his life, with critically acclaimed back-to-back New York solo shows, at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea and Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg. In an era defined by market trends, Willis is that uncompromising artist who still manages to rise above public taste.

“I was always an abstract painter,” he recently told me. “I’ve always done what feels right.” Willis is one of my favorite artists to visit in the studio. I spoke with him in his unadorned SoHo loft, among canvases propped against the walls, in the same neighborhood where he has lived and painted since the late 1960s. Here Willis is an original artist-resident, someone who has painted his way through the neighborhood’s transformation from industrial wasteland to multi-million-dollar residential enclave.

“I hardly think when I paint; I’m feeling,” says Willis. Seeing abstract art for the first time in the 1950s, he continues, “was like a punch in the face, a punch in the gut. A boom! Something fundamental to the human condition. I didn’t know what painting was before that. Seeing that work was the epiphany that brought me to painting. I’ve been chasing that ever since.”

Willis’s chase began in Pensacola, Florida. His family roots go back to rural Virginia and Georgia. His father was a Church of Christ minister, an evangelical who established congregations throughout the South. When his mother fell ill, Willis went to live with his grandparents. He was 7. “I always liked to draw. When I was 4 years old, my dad used to sit me on his lap and read the Sunday comics to me. They were in color. I was fascinated with the boxes, the color.”

Willis began in architecture school at Auburn University in Alabama. There he caught two traveling exhibitions: One featured the students of Hans Hofmann, the legendary painter and teacher of the Abstract Expressionists, and the other was a show of New York School painters brought by the American Federation of Arts. “Seeing those paintings spoke to me. It hit me on the head,” Willis recalls. He decided to become a painter, transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi to pursue abstract painting under the G.I. Bill. He then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study with Melville Price, an abstract artist from the 10th Street years who died in 1970 at the age of 49. In a recent interview with, Willis said, “From Mel I learned that the idea was to ‘live the work.’ To ‘be in’ the painting and to see the work as an extension of one’s self.” The life of the artist does not always fit into one’s assumptions about art history. By the time Willis arrived at abstract painting, Pop Art and Minimalism were in their heyday. “I see myself as having rejected those two possibilities,” he says. “Minimalism was reductive. I could not work that way. I need to act out on a painting. I need to work through accident.”

Willis moved to New York in 1967, a time when painters were starting to challenge the confines of Minimal art and experiment again with improvisation. “It was when Brice Marden and Richard Serra and Bob Ryman and Sean Scully began,” he recalls. “Alan Saret and Gordon Matta-Clark and Lynda Benglis were finding new ways of making art: Serra tossing lead into the corners; or Saret working with chicken wire. It was sometimes referred to as the ‘fold and pleat’ movement. My work was taking the same cues.”

In the 1970s and early ’80s, through experiments with lines and voids, Willis developed a signature style that brought him international attention. He called it “the wedge.” Predicated on the relationship between figure and ground, a tension that Willis built up in his edging and color choice, these haunting images could resemble a curtain or a mountain peak, a threshold or a monolith. Wedges such as “Bisby” (1977) found an eager market. Collectors and dealers ranging from Larry Gagosian to Charles Saatchi to Sidney Janis to Jackie Onassis (who called Willis “Maestro”) scrambled to the studio and galleries to buy them.

At the time, Serra advised, “Just keep doing the same thing, Thornton. Just keep doing the same thing,” Willis recalls. But at the height of his fame, Willis felt he had exhausted his motif. He abandoned the wedge. He gave up figure-ground paintings. With work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim, he in fact gave up painting entirely.

When Willis returned to painting in the late 1980s, his market had moved on. But Willis brought with him a new focus on Cubism and new interests. “I was reading about quantum physics, how everything is absolutely saturated with matter. With the figure-ground paintings there was the idea of negative-positive space. But in quantum physics I realized that everything is filled. There is no such thing as negative space. This influenced my own thinking about painted space. My paintings became areas of energy bouncing off each other. Cubism seemed to have that in it already.” Triangles and facets filled his canvases. Work such as “Gray Harmony” (1993) featured regimented designs of quiet beauty. Then came 9/11, and that changed everything. “The first plane went right over our house. I said, ‘That plane was really low.’ I listened. Kept listening. Then I heard something go ‘snap’ and I went to the fire escape. All day, refugees were streaming up the street. People crying. People covered in soot and ash. I went out onto the street and watched the towers come down.”

In shock, Willis did not work for six weeks. Then one morning he got on the other side of it. “I just started to draw,” he says. In three hours, he created his first painting after the attacks: In “Cubist Painting for Vered” (2001), a work dedicated to his wife, Willis did away with measured construction. “I realized the world was taking a major change, with more uncertainty.” Drips ran down the front; the painting wept.

A new urgency now fills his compositions, a tension between the structures of Cubism and the gestures of Abstract Expressionism. He says he struggles with these recent paintings. Edgy, bending and sticking out into our space, they are animated by a career in abstraction. The art critic for The New Republic, Jed Perl, has called them “wonderfully persuasive” and suggestive of “an emotional terrain at once rambunctious and saturnine ... Although Willis was always a powerful painter, he seems to me to be a far more inviting artist now.”

The life of Thornton Willis is a testament to the fact that an artist at any age, in any style, can produce remarkable work. He has been chasing abstraction for 40 years, and now, once again, the art world is starting to chase him.

1 Comment