An Interview with Artist Thornton Willis

September, 2013

Thornton Willis was born in Pensacola, Florida in 1936. He has lived and worked in New York City since 1967. Willis served in the Marine Corps from 1954-57. He received a BA from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in 1962 and an MFA from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1966. Willis has received numerous awards, including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Painting Fellowship in 1979, a National Endowment for the Arts Painting Fellowship in 1980, an Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Fellowship in 1991 and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Painting Fellowship in 2001. Willis’ work is widely collected and appears in over 40 public collections across the US and abroad, including: in New York City, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Museum of Broadcasting; elsewhere in New York, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca; in Washington, D.C., the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery; in Connecticut, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield; in Colorado, the Denver Museum of Fine Arts; in Pennsylvania, the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; in Louisiana, the New Orleans Museum of Art; in Georgia, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art; in Oregon, the Portland Art Museum; in South Carolina, the Columbia Museum of Art; in Virginia, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Art Museum; and outside the US: in Switzerland, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, La Chaux-de-fonds; in Sweden, the Malmö Konsthall, Malmö; and in Australia, the Power Institute of Fine Arts, Sydney. Willis is represented by the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York City, New York.


JK: How do you view the act of painting?

TW: To me, painting is an existentialist act. It’s something we do that comes from the fact that we exist, that we have countless experiences that make up our lives. This is true for cave paintings or even for simple hand prints made in such a way that the maker knew they had some kind of meaning, as if to say, “I’ve been here, and I’m showing you my desire to communicate, to share my experiences with you.”

The Ceremony, oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm
(72 x 60 in), 2012

I’m not sure what makes a person respond to a painting and why so few people really do—maybe that’s why I’m a painter. I’m trying to understand visual language, how we communicate things that we can’t necessarily verbalize, feelings or states where we universally meet, places we can all share. I try to reach this in my painting.

Pushpuller, oil on canvas, 201 x 165 cm
(79 x 65 in), 2006

To me, being an artist is an all-encompassing lifestyle. Life has lots of ambiguity; it has a tragic side, yet it can be blissful, too. I store up my experiences and try to encapsulate the feelings I have about life and what it means. I use this to make the most powerful, dynamic paintings I can, injecting what must be injected into one’s art—spirit and meaning.

Black Warrior, oil on canvas, 178 x 150 cm (70 x 59 in), 2008
(Collection of the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art, University of
Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL)

I struggle to deal with what I feel is real to me in this busy, confusing world. To express such concerns through paint—this wonderful plastic medium—it’s a mysterious thing that I don’t fully understand.

JK: You’ve always been interested in abstraction.

TW: I’m not interested in painting pictures of things. I don’t think of my paintings as pictures—I think of them as a “not-pictures,” as objects. I want my paintings to be very special kinds of objects that take their place in the world of objects, that engage and actually reach out and touch the viewer.

Streets of Tupelo, acrylic on canvas, 175 x 213 cm
(69 x 84 in), 1984 (The Maslow Collection, Scranton, PA)

My desire to make abstract paintings grows out of an aesthetic need—a longing to create the kind of impact that New York School paintings had on me back in my early 20s. I’m pretty eclectic in what has influenced my work over the years, but I still tend to think of myself as an Abstract Expressionist. That group of painters had an enormous and lasting influence on me.

Night Train, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 254 cm (84 x 100 in), 1980
(Collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA)

Yet I don’t think painting is something we simply learn to do and then go about it. It’s something that happens through an ongoing process, through the actual doing of it. I love the act of painting—I’m driven toward it. And it can be a cathartic experience for me—like a renewing or refreshing—to come out on the other side of a painting and feel that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

Complimentary, oil on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2011
A Structured Abstraction, oil on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2011

Over the years, in whatever particular approach I’ve taken to painting, it’s always been a peg to hang a formal problem on. I think of art making as a kind of playing—like problem solving or playing with ideas. I always try to push the envelope, to push my work to a different place and see what happens. I’m never really completely satisfied with my work. Sometimes, I’ll have paintings in a show that I’d like to get back and develop further. I feel like my work is almost never finished, so I’m always a bit on edge about it, and that motivates me. I never get complacent about my work.

I tend to paint in spurts. I’ll get a sense of what I want to do and have a burst of energy that goes into a painting. Then I’ll sit in my chair and look at the work. I try to get the painting to a point where I feel I have a resolution—but then, there may be lots of resolutions. It’s an open-ended thing.

A Study in Black and Red, oil on canvas, 35.5 x 28 cm
(14 x 11 in), 2012 (Tom Armstrong Collection,
Fisher Island, NY)

Over time, we do become more familiar with what we’re tying to accomplish; we get better at it. But we really challenge ourselves by changing. In my own work, I’ve gone through a lot of changes, yet it’s all connected. I try to let the work evolve—this keeps me interested—and occasionally, I may make a sea change or do an about-face.

JK: How would you characterize the larger changes?

TW: The main change I’ve made over the years is when I go from the use of right angles to using diagonals and then return again to right angles.

Installation photo from the exhibition: Thornton Willis, Painting: 40 Years
(Sideshow Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, 2007)

I’ll make a decision to use diagonals, and I’ll use them for a while …

Half Spin, oil and acrylic on canvas, 61 x 46 cm
(24 x 18 in), 2006
Wizard, oil and acrylic on canvas,
61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 2006

… then I seem to shun them, stay away from them altogether for a period of time.

Freedom Rings, oil on canvas, 246 x 178 cm
(97 x 70 in), 2009

JK: The way you handle paint contributes to a sense of immediacy that you want.

TW: I’m very direct and straightforward in my painting. It’s important to me that I leave some traces of how my paintings happen. I want my hands on and in the work; I want to be in the work, and I want the viewer to feel this. Over the years, I’ve experimented with paint handling, though in recent years, I’ve settled into a certain way of working. I paint with brushes, underpainting with acrylic and finishing off in oils. I like to try to let things happen—paint drips or forms overlap edges. I put things in, take them out—there’s always a layering, a building involved. Accidental things may happen, and I’ll try to work with them.

Black Bear, acrylic on canvas, 290 x 274 cm (114 x 108 in), 1993

JK: Your forms are often quite minimal.

TW: A lot of powerful art has influenced me over the years. I try to bring those influences together into something that’s truly mine. Certainly I’ve been influenced by minimalist principles, and I enjoy some of the ideas behind it. I was impressed by the powerful forms of Al Held, Ken Noland, and others.

Pink Suit, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 inches), 1982

But I’m not wedded to making my work reductive. The primary idea in Minimalism seemed to be to take away, to pare things down to the barest essentials. But I don’t think that’s ultimately the answer to what a painting is. I do believe in getting down to essentials, but I still want to feel the painter and the painter’s hand in the work.

Face Up, oil on canvas, 173 x  x 150 cm (68 x 59 inches), 2012

JK: Over the years, your forms have primarily been geometric.

TW: It occurs to me that from the beginning, I have evinced an interest in the structural quality of painting, which has led me to solutions and attempted solutions that are essentially geometric. Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, de Kooning and Franz Kline are among my favorite painters, all of whom used structure and geometry to resolve their paintings.

My use of geometry has evolved through the years. It may initially have been influenced by my early training as a student in architecture and basic design. It has become a way of organizing space, of organizing all the information that goes into my painting, that feels natural to me.

Red Dogs, oil on canvas,
201 x 155 cm (79 x 61 inches), 2010

JK: Were you also influenced by Cubism?

TW: Cubism is certainly one of the most important influences on my work, first in the sense that it was a major influence on the Abstract Expressionists who inspired me to paint. And the structural nature of the cubists’ work—especially Braque and Picasso—is a big influence on what I mean by saying that I try to use a geometric space. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the most exciting paintings I’ve ever seen. But, in the end, it’s always about making the work your own and of your own time.

Installation photo from the exhibition: Thornton Willis, Painting: 40 Years
(Sideshow Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, 2007)

JK: And the influence of the New York City environment?

Juggernaut, oil on canvas,
201 x 155 cm (79 x 61 inches), 2010

TW: Living in New York City, especially in recent years, I am seeing a tremendous amount of new development, buildings being built upon older buildings. The urban landscape, the skyline, the architecture, the inescapable environment itself have indeed influenced my paintings. Juggernaut represents the unstoppable, ongoing development of the city.

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