An Interview with Artist Thornton Willis

September, 2013

JK: Next, in what would prove to be an important move, you got a new loft in SoHo.

TW:  I moved to a loft on Spring Street where I lived for two years. I had quit teaching, so things were difficult financially.

JK: Several key things would influence your next body of work, including both the physical and the art environment of SoHo in the late 60s.

TW: SoHo at that time was essentially an abandoned light manufacturing district. Many buildings on Mercer and Greene used to be sweatshops. Most of the buildings were vacant by then, and landlords were notorious for burning them down because they couldn’t make any money from them. Rents were very cheap, and artists began to move in.

Most of the buildings had cast iron fronts with sides made from old, irregular, handmade bricks. There were vacant lots between the buildings, and the walls invited grafitti artists. I felt that looking at these old brick walls, you could see evidence of the history of the buildings. Wandering around this abandoned neighborhood at night was like going into a cave and reading its history on the walls. I was looking for something to get me going, and these rough old walls definitely influenced me. And living in SoHo, I also began to meet lots of artists who were doing exciting, innovative work.

JK: Among the artists you met was a group working at one of New York’s oldest alternative spaces known simply as 112 Greene Street where the space was open to artists of all disciplines who were allowed great freedom of experimentation.

TW: The building was owned by artist Jeffrey Lew who, in collaboration with artists Alan Saret and Gordon Matta-Clark, opened the large ground floor and basement as an exhibition space. They began having shows when Process art was the most current thing happening. I found I could relate to that kind of work.

JK: That’s not surprising. Process art—with its focus on the actual making of the work—seems consistent with your feelings about painting. You wanted to explore abstraction experimentally, and, even as a young child, you enjoyed all the various sensations associated with the physical act of mark making. And you’d responded to marks that had a strong energetic, emotional valence.

TW: This was a very exciting time for me—making art, feeling free as a bird. I began what I called my Slats series in my Spring Street loft. In those days, I was thinking a lot about process, using process to produce a kind of structure. These are really process paintings—made in one long, non-stop session in a kind of athletic performance, worked back into again and again.

 Fraise, acrylic on canvas, 274 x 297 cm (108 x 117 in), 1969 Fraise detail

I began the Slat paintings by putting a sheet of plastic on the floor to hold the liquid in. I worked on very large, unstretched canvases laid out on the plastic and stapled along the edges to the floor. First, I’d use large sponges to wet the canvas. Then I’d use the sponges to dab on some homemade acrylic, staining the canvas with several colors. I placed gallons of prepared paint all around the canvas and set up a 10- or 12-foot ladder. Using four-inch rollers on long extension poles, I’d paint some wide stripes across the canvas. Then I’d climb the ladder, study the canvas and come down and make more bands. I was working wet into wet, so I couldn’t stop. A painting could take between about 10 to 14 hours to complete.

Due to the pressure on the roller, paint would squish out on either side of it, creating interesting edges along the bands. In my later work, I would continue to work with edges, though I would more consciously manipulate the shape boundaries. With the Slats, the edges simply happened as a part of the process.

 Red Wall, acrylic on canvas, 262 x 274 cm (103 x 108 in), 1969
(Installation photo, Thornton Willis, Painting: 40 Years,
Sideshow Gallery, 2007)
Red Wall detail

I thought of the Slats like walls with bands of paint stacked one on top of another. Though these paintings are pretty structured due to the bands, there was also a lot of chance involved in the process, and I liked that. I believe that the Slat paintings are as close to what I’m trying to create as an artist as I can ever get. They’re very magical, very spiritual to me, and I think everything I’ve painted since has, in a sense, been a reaction to them.

JK: You showed the Slat paintings in 1970 with the help of your friend and neighbor, Alan Saret, who was a central figure in the Process art movement.

TW: Alan had left the 112 Greene Street group and had established his own alternative space at 119 Spring Street. He invited me to show there, and I agreed. At about the same time, I was approached by a new gallery in SoHo, Paley and Lowe. We hung the work in Alan’s space, and Paley and Lowe sponsored the show. I joined their stable of artists, which at the time included Mary Heilman, Joan Snyder, Peter Pinchbeck and others. The gallery was owned by Jeffrey Paley. His father, William Paley, who built CBS, bought one of my Slat paintings.

 Black Wall, acrylic on canvas, 307 x 361 in (121 x 142 in), 1969
(Installation photo, Thornton Willis, Painting: 40 Years,
Sideshow Gallery, 2007)
Black Wall detail

JK: You showed a Slat painting in a 1970 traveling exhibition called Lyrical Abstraction held at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

TW: Larry Aldrich bought about 30 paintings from the artists in the show—including one of my Slats—and would later gift these works to the Whitney.

JK: Unfortunately, in the midst of this early success and heady times, you had to leave New York City.

TW: I was very excited about living in the city, but I couldn’t keep my head above water financially. When I was offered a teaching job at Louisiana State University in New Orleans in 1972, I moved down there for two years. I was glad to get the job, but the whole time I was thinking about getting back to New York. In New Orleans, I made some pretty transitional work—painting on large canvases on the wall rather than the floor, and I showed some Slat paintings at a local gallery, Simonne Stern, as well as the Delgado Museum, now the New Orleans Museum of Fine Art.

JK: It didn’t take long when you returned to New York City in 1974 for you to get another loft—your current loft on Mercer Street.

TW: Those years down South had been pretty disruptive to me as a painter. Shorty after returning to New York City, I met painter Vered Lieb. We moved into the Mercer Street loft and later married.

JK: What were you painting at that time?

TW: I had been trying to make paintings like I assumed Joan Mitchell did—almost like an automatic drawing. But I was also beginning to think in a more predetermined way about shapes, and as I did this, my work would move more and more toward geometry.

At the time, I wasn’t really sure what to paint. The Slats were behind me, but I continued to think about bands. The first paintings I made after the Slats were like stripe paintings.

JK: White Lines, a work on paper that you made in 1975, is representative of that work.

White Lines, pastel on paper,
76 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in), 1975
(Chase Manhattan Collection, New York, NY)

I began with stripes that were horizontal and vertical. Shortly after I began this work, I introduced diagonals and formed zigzags.

Untitled, oil stick on paper, 56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in), 1974

Sometimes I let the stripes intersect, and sometimes I used tape to achieve crisper shapes.

Untitled, pastel on paper, 61 x 76 cm (24 x 30 in), 1975
(Chase Manhattan Collection, New York, NY)
JK: These works on paper led to the first large body of paintings that you would make at your Mercer Street studio.

:  I was working on my first large Zigzag painting where the bands were quite wide. I decided to paint everything out except the central zigzag, leaving one huge, sail-like shape that I filled in. I called this shape a “wedge.” I thought this was a very powerful, dynamic shape. I wanted it to be like an entity that sat with a strong presence at the bottom of the canvas. These paintings were very much about weighted forms—forms under the influence of strong gravity.
Bisby, acrylic on canvas, 262 x 213 cm (103 x 84 in), 1977
(Collection of Neil Jenney, New York, NY)

In the Wedges, I was dealing with a figure/ground situation, and I allowed a certain amount of ambiguity. I played with the shapes’ edges, painting them back and forth. As I’ve said, edges are very important in my work. They can be exciting places where things happen, like where the ocean meets the land and there’s lots of activity as animals scurry back and forth. I was adding wall compound to the paint to thicken it up, and the surfaces of these paintings are rough and knotty with overpainting.

Red Warrior II, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 254 cm (84 x 100 in), 1980

JK: Where did you show these works?

TW: For the first six years after I returned to New York, I showed in a number of group exhibitions, but I didn’t have a gallery. In 1979, I was invited to do a solo show at 55 Mercer Street, a cooperative gallery where Tom Nozkowski was the president. The show was well-received and got a big review in the Village Voice with a full page reproduction of a Wedge painting.

Blue Soldier, acrylic on canvas,
213 x 155 cm (84 x 61 in), 1978

Next I showed in a group exhibition curated by art critic Sam Hunter at the Sidney Janis Gallery. The show was called Seven Young Americans, and Sean Scully was in it as well. After the show, I was approached by Victoria Oscarsson who, with Elizabeth Harris Hood, asked me to join their new gallery, which had just opened on 57th Street. I showed with Oscarson-Hood for five years, had three solo shows, and the shows more or less sold outAfter my first show, I was approached by Sydney Janis. I realized that his gallery would be a big step up for me, but I stayed loyal to Oscarson-Hood—even when Janis invited me again the next year!

JK: You certainly must have been enjoying all this success. And in 1979 you were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the following year, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

TW: Yes, these grants did a lot to boost my confidence at the time. Frank Stella was one of the jurors on the Guggenheim selection committee, and his vote was important to me. I had always respected Stella as a painter and innovator. The grants also provided much needed financial assistance.

Two Wedge paintings. Mercer Street Studio, 1979 (Collection of Robin Symes, London, UK)

JK: You sold two of the Wedge works through what must have been an exciting studio visit.

Thornton Willis with Wedge painting, Bisby, Mercer Street Studio, 1977

TW: Dealer Barbara Guggenheim would sometimes direct potential collectors to my studio. One day she called to say that Robin Symes, a British antiquities dealer, and a friend of his were coming over. A limo pulled up, which was pretty unusual in those days; folks were staring. I didn’t catch the woman’s name and wasn’t sure who she was for the first few minutes. I had to ask Symes, who told me she was Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I remember asking her how her own art was going because I recalled that she used to paint watercolors in the Rose Garden when she was in the White House. She was instrumental in selecting two Wedge paintings, Canarsie and one other, for the collection of her longtime companion, Maurice Templesman.


Canarsie, acrylic on canvas, 244 x 183 cm (96 x 72 in), 1977
(Collection of Maurice Templesman)

JK: You also made some double wedge paintings.

TW: By 1982, I felt I had exhausted the single wedge image. Along with the single wedge paintings, I had made many works on paper and exhibited a great deal here and in Scandinavia. I really needed to pose myself a different issue, a new challenge, even though it meant changing the work and most likely alienating collectors. But the urge to move on was strong, and I began by superimposing two wedges going in different directions and working the weighted feel of the form and field.

The House at Three, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 244 cm (84 x 96 in), 1982
I explored the edges and vertical columns that formed on either side of the overlapped forms. I was reinvigorating the wedge while reinventing the stripes of my earlier work. The added complexity and the overlap of the triangles produced a prismatic quality I would later pursue in triangle-based paintings.
Summer Suit, acrylic on canvas, 198 x 229 cm (78 x 90 in), 1982
(Collection Malmö Konsthall, Malmö, Sweden)

JK: Next, you returned to the zigzag form.

Shazam, acrylic on canvas, 213 x 244 cm (84 x 96 in), 1982

TW: The bands in many of these paintings were very thick.

Hot Shot, acrylic on canvas, 274 x 305 cm (108 x 120 in), 1983

I wanted to achieve the same feeling of weighted forms that I’d achieved with the Wedges.

Approach, acrylic on canvas, 274 x 305 cm (108 x 120 in), 1983

I had originally transformed stripes to wedges by zigzagging the straight lines until I found the embedded triangle that became the “wedge.” I never forgot the original zigzag that got me there. The new Zigzags in these pictures are fatter and have more architectonic weight and tension than the earlier ones.

Installation view, Oscarson-Hood Gallery, November 1984

JK: Sometimes you changed the orientation of the zigzag.

TW: It was fairly arbitrary. I have a propensity towards horizontal paintings, but every now and then, I set myself the problem of working on a vertical canvas.

Blue Twister, acrylic on canvas,
152 x 122 cm (60 x 48 in), 1985
(Collection of Gabriele Evertz and Andrew Wojtas)
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