An Interview with Artist Thornton Willis

September, 2013

JK: After working with wedge and zigzag shapes, you were ready for a change in the forms you were using.

TW: I got experimental for a while as I reached around, trying to find a way out of the Zigzags.

JK: Some of the work you did at that point clearly anticipates more recent paintings. For example, in 2008 you did a series that you called Lattices that was based on a grid structure. You worked with this type of structure as early as the late 70s.

TW: At that time, I did a few works like Three Ladies that have a lattice structure. They are related to the Slat paintings, but years had gone by, and my process had changed. No longer working wet into wet with rollers, I was using brushes. I had slowed down the process to where I could make very fine-tuned adjustments. The earlier lattice paintings were, by comparison to my recent ones, more atmospheric, more tentative.

Three Ladies, acrylic on canvas,
244 x 198 cm (96 x 78 in), 1978-79

JK: And here is a painting from 1986 that has a gridded structure and quite clearly anticipates your recent Lattice series, as seen in Red Field with Lattice.

TW: If you’re looking for a personal history of my art that is linear, you won’t find it. I reuse ideas all the time. I think other artists and musicians must do this, too—like a writer who creates a character in a novel who reemerges in another book years down the road. These ideas have lives of their own, and we go back to them, give them new life and bring them forward, changed by time just as we have changed.

Lattice #2, acrylic on canvas,
199 x 149 cm (78.5 x 58.5 in), 1986
Red Field with Lattice, oil on canvas,
178 x 132 cm (70 x 52 in), 2008

JK: The geometric forms are more complex in your next series.

TW: The Steps, as I called them, were based on interlocking forms.

Steps paintings, Mercer Street Studio, 1986

I was searching for compositions that were more dynamic than the figure/ground relationships I’d been involved with earlier in the Wedges and Zigzags.

Untitled, oil on paper, 76 x 56 cm
(30 x 22 in), 1988
A Painting for You, oil on canvas,
35.5 x 28 cm (14 x 11 in), 1988

The painting Mass Driver is a bit of an anomaly in this group. The color is unusual for me, and a lot of it appears to have been stained in. The lines were drawn with compressed charcoal or conté crayon, then fixed with a coat of clear medium.

Mass Driver, acrylic on canvas, 203 x 152 cm
(80 x 60 in), 1987

JK: Your next series, which you call the Prismatic paintings, was generally based on the triangle.

TW: I wanted to return to diagonals. I made these paintings over a number of years, and they evolved quite a bit during that time.

Slow Dancer, acrylic on canvas,
213 x 155 cm (84 x 61 in), 1992

Of all my work, they are the closest I’ve come to Cubism

JK: How so?

TW: The space is organized around smaller cubes of space, which is what Cubism is about, especially Analytical Cubism. But I am not a Cubist; it was a movement that occurred way before I was born. Yet it is a part of our artistic language. At the time, I referred to these works as “Biomorphic Cubism.” In these paintings, all the triangles, zigzags and stripes come together in a prismatic way. The idea, the challenge in all my work is to keep it all on the surface in a unified field where no one element emerges or recedes. It’s not that easy to do.

Crosby, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 152 cm (80 x 60 in), 1993

In the early Prismatic paintings, I laid out a grid on the canvas and worked within each grid area.

Andre Zarre Gallery, New York, NY, 1993

JK: You often gave the shapes a heavy outline.

TW: The early work did not have these outlines. Artist Vincent Longo called them “armatures,” and the later work did have these dark lines.  The lines add complexity and sort of ground the colored intervals—like stained glass.

Cityscape, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 122 cm
(60 x 48 in), 1999
Delancy, acrylic on canvas, 196 x 155 cm
(77 x 61 in), 1999

I use these lines when I feel they add structure.

Painting with Triangles, acrylic on canvas, 274 x 244 cm
(108 x 96 in), 2000

JK: Then the series changed abruptly.

TW: After the events of 9/11, I couldn’t work for some time. Then one day, I walked into the studio and made a painting very quickly—like an attack on the canvas. A Cubist Painting for Vered simply burst out of me like a release of cathartic energy.

JK: This painting has a clear downward thrust.

TW: We were all affected by the images of 9/11. We saw the collapse of the World Trade Center. Terrible. So it was not surprising that, in the first painting I made after that, my subconscious perhaps infused it with a sense of massive forms falling down. But when artist Neil Jenney purchased it years later, I don’t think he knew about its history.

A Cubist Painting for Vered, acrylic on canvas,
213 x 152 cm (84 x 60 in), 2001 (Collection of
Neil Jenney, New York, NY)

I wanted to continue to make dynamic paintings with a lot of movement. I realized that I needed to have something to help structure them, so I began to identify certain points along the outside of the canvas where I would let the triangles touch the edges.

Coyote Dreams, acrylic on canvas,
229 x 152 cm (90 x 60 in), 2002

After a while, I pretty much knew where the points should be located, though this would change some depending on the size and proportions of the canvas. I would make everything converge back to these points. I found that I could subdivide the larger areas further, but I kept all the shapes three-sided.

Geo-Matrix, oil on canvas,
213 x 152 cm (84 x 60 in), 2003

I feel that the last works in this series are the most satisfying, the most resolved.

Spaceout, oil and cardboard on canvas,
224 x 196 cm (88 x 77 in), 2006
Redeemer, oil on canvas, 201 x 157 cm (79 x 62 in), 2006

In my earlier triangle paintings, the format consisted of a tight grid of mostly isosceles and right-angle triangles. The newer triangle works differ in that the dominant forms are scalene and obtuse triangles. I’m not a mathematician, and these images morphed in a fun way. The idea here, also stemming from Cézanne, is to take an image, view it from slightly different angles, and then combine the views into one.  If I rotate my earlier triangle forms slightly, I get this secondary or simultaneous view that differs from what you get from simple one-point perspective.

Fighter, oil on canvas, 203 x 154 cm
(80 x 60.5 in), 2006
Cross Spin, oil on canvas,
127 x 102 cm (50 x 40 in), 2007
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