On exhibit from September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020 is a select retrospective of work by William Bailey at the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, Looking Through Time.
The exhibition was organized by Mark D. Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, who together with William Bailey selected the works for the exhibition. Bailey and Mitchell spoke in the theater within the Yale Art Gallery. Mark asked thoughtful questions and provided context while Bill spoke in his mesmerizing, mildly humored voice with a touch of cantankerousness often followed with generous qualification. Mitchell presented Bailey respectfully and reverently and kept the conversation going along gracefully.
The paintings, drawings, and prints in Looking Through Time were open for viewing right after the talk the evening of September 14, 2019 and included many stunning still life paintings and a few of the figure paintings. In the talk, Bailey said he would like to have included about eight more figure paintings in the show.
The figure paintings balance the still life paintings in a wonderful way. They give a range and humanity to his world, a place of the imagination that reaches widely over the metaphysical and the figurative. They could be seen as Platonic objects, people, and places.
Over the decades I’ve known him, one of the qualities I have admired most about William Bailey is his ability to include and talk about all kinds of art work, his openness to many ways of working. In giving critiques to his students, back in 1979-81 when I was his student, he seemed to hold no stylistic bias. One time, when I mentioned this tradition of openness to many ways of working, he rebounded with, “That’s the tradition! Albers started it.”
Many of his students from decades ago were present at his Looking Through Time talk: Peter Ziou, Riley Brewster, Dennis Congdon, Sue Lichtmann, Jan Cunningham, Kyle Staver, Janis Nowinski, Deborah Kahn, and Mickey Faulkner, among them. I suppose the show could also have been called Looking Through Space because the constructed sense of fore, middle, and background space and the frontal, contemplative aspect of space continue to exist together in Bailey’s inventive works. With all of the these painters from recent Yale School of Art history gathered together, it was a bit like a family reunion, looking through time, past, present, and future.
As a teacher, both by example and in his speech, authenticity was and is at the heart of what Bailey was looking for and what he championed. I remember my first awareness of his own work which was certainly authentic for its humility and beauty, his early still life paintings, in particular a table with eggs, a frontal geometric-looking Siennese-colored tableau with eggs upon it, in a sombre light, a tonal moment of seemingly timeless transcendence. The Bailey painting embodies kairos, that moment of epiphany, still, and poetic.
Bailey Still Life with Ochre Wall oil on canvas, @ 48 X 54″ 1972
Just how abstract this painting is in conception is revealed by an influence Bailey mentioned in his talk, the oval paintings of Larry Poons.
Orange Crush by Larry Poons
Bailey also admires the Italian “primitives” or Metaphysical painters, Carlo Carra, Georgio de Chico, Giorgio Morandi.
Il Figlio del Costuctorre by Carlo Carra
Two Morandi paintings in the permanent collection at Yale Art Gallery.
Bailey once noted the way of Hopper uses color, the way one local color would meet a form, traject behind it, and then come out the other side of a form as another color. He showed me how this happens (as in the colors to right and left of woman’s shoulders in Hopper’s Chop Suey).
Edward Hopper‘s Chop Suey
Distance is, along with authenticity a key element in Bailey’s wisdom and his magic. And his paintings are all about distance. They are about seeing through the lens of hindsight, in the clarity of memory, in the constructed reality of daydream.
His reality is idealized and fought for, a poem about the prose of life, a Piero della Francesca sort of geometrization of the Courbet-ness of nature.
He sees in a light that is one-directional, a clear tonal light that dawns on a timeless dusk. One light transcends his favorite things, his adored people, folks in simple clothes, in Shaker interiors, in some mystical place where you might see out to Hopper’s Room by the Sea, or gaze unto Whistler’s Mother‘s place.
After he served in the Korean war, Bailey was educated on a grant from the government, the GI bill. He is in many ways the ultimate Albers prodigy. His paintings are in many respects abstract. “Maybe I am an abstract painter after all”, he said at the time of his 2016 show at Betty Cunningham Gallery in New York City.
Homage to the Square by Albers.
But Bailey is also a figurative painter and in 1982 his work was on the cover of Newsweek magazine, seen as part of a New Realist movement.
Bailey’s Portrait of S. oil on canvas 50 X 40″ 1980
It’s a work influenced by a Balthus painting.
Later works were informed by Courbet’s compositions and of course by Morandi whose retrospective was narrated by Bailey in the headphones tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008.
I have often wondered about the relationship of Pop Art, New Realism, and Narrative Art. Is narrative not there in Bailey’s post 9/11 painting that is in the Looking Through Time show, in the Portrait of S, and in the painting called Torre with its shadow falling diagonally?
Above, Bailey’s painting, Still Life Torre oil on canvas 46 X 35″ 1984
In this painting from 2001, the skyline quality of the still life objects (where objects stand for buildings and the wall evokes the sky) seems quite intentional. The gap in the center suggests the lower Manhattan skyline’s sorrow in losing the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
Something that fascinated me was the dynamic between Bailey, Laderman, Chaet, and Charkow. Laderman had held a seminar during my second year at Yale called Slow Painting. It was a deep course diving into perspective, narrative, early Siennese painting, color mixing and theory, working from life, and still life and figure painting. A Life in Art was the name of a slide show Laderman gave to his students.
Laderman still life.
A clear relationship abides in their work while it is also quite different. Bailey’s still life paintings transcend the descriptive hard core qualities of Laderman’s ones. Bailey creates a surface of oil paint and wax (in the early paintings) that has a lustrous mat patina. The still life paintings were as his friend and poet Mark Strand used to say, like little hill towns in Umbria. They were based on favorite vessels Bill Bailey collected and had in his studio (not in front of him but rather somewhere behind him or around him) but those things were just catalysts for forms that were presences, perhaps symbols.
I often read Bailey’s paintings as family portraits. Standing at distance, their arrangements, their relative placement seems complex and metaphorical. The imaginary lines that connect their comparative heights, their horizontal spacing from each other, the short and tall intervals, all seem to spell out a strategy, an end-game, some kind of code or truth, observed and felt.
Often titled in Italian (and he noted in his talk at Yale recently how much he liked the sound of the language), the paintings are telling a story that is specific while embodying a quizzical wisdom that is pure Bailey. At his talk September 12, 2019, he did mention the relationship of his paintings to landscape, to some Italian hill town, how the colors of a place he and Sandy might visit on a Sunday afternoon, might lend a light or palette to a still life.
Growing up, Bailey was a loner who found solace in drawing, drawing in the back seat of a car, on the move from one place to another. His world was the world of his work, of his imagination, and of his tenacious and stubborn will to get it right, to learn to draw anatomy and space and grace, and later to draw cylinders and mechanical things.
Bailey was blessed with a teaching career that not only gave stability but inspiration to his work. He clearly loved working with promising and emerging painters.
Bailey is a pivotal artist whose vision and unique sensibility are influential, inclusive, and memorable. While trains come and go, Bailey, like a monument in the late afternoon light of a de Chirico piazza, stands steadfast, and illuminatedly still.
Harmonics have to do with intervals; distances yield both clarity and peace.
In his recent work, the extent of his admiration for Courbet is evident.
When William Bailey was speaking on September 12, 2019 at Yale Art Gallery’s theater on the night of his opening for his exhibition, he recounted the story of meeting Albers.
Bailey had taken the train up from NYC and brought with him an envelope of his drawings. But when he arrived at the Yale School of Art, at Street Hall (now part of the expansive Yale Art Gallery’s eastern wing), he was refused access to Albers for lack of an appointment. But the well dressed Albers appeared at a door, welcomed the young Bailey, and soon declared (even though Bailey had not formally applied), “I take you.”
In his talk recently at Yale Art Gallery, Bailey’s reverence for Albers was clear as he started and ended his talk with mention of Albers, wondering at the close, what Albers would think of his work.
One of the paintings in the Yale Art Gallery show that I’d not seen before and that captivated me, was this one.
On my second viewing of the Looking Through Time show (in December), I was touched by the sense of light in the paintings and by the subdued Italianesque palette. This time, I arrived with six Miss Porter’s School students and Advanced Interdisciplinary Art History teacher Kate Ebner.Kate asked me to talk about Bailey’s show and I again started with the early painting from 1972.
I noted that I was seventeen years old then and that I’d met Bailey seven years later in 1979 when interviewing for Yale’s MFA program in Painting. As I talked about his work, it was hard for me to separate my personal recollections of my time as a student at Yale School of Art and as a gallery assistant at Schoelkopf Gallery, from an objective look at Bailey’s work, his actual paintings, drawings, and prints. I recalled my interview with Bailey and Chaet, and my discovery back then of Bailey’s and my mutual admiration for de Chirico, the Magic Realists, and Metaphysical painters of Italy in the 1920s.
I mentioned in talking with Kate and the Porter’s students, many of the things already in this blog, his admiration for Albers, the influence of Poons, Balthus, Courbet, Morandi, the use of wax, the association with family portraits, the distortion of objects to meet the relational needs of each painting, the hill town sense, the story of Portrait of S, the narrative quality of that painting, his tubes of Windsor Newton earth colors, his house in Umbria where he’d go with his wife and two children, and finally and most importantly, my admiration for and thanks to him.
This is a painting I made many years ago after bringing some Porter’s students to one of his receptions at Betty Cunningham Gallery back when it was on 25th Street in NYC.
Then I returned again to see his work.
In the solitude of his oeuvre, I could feel its melancholic meditation again, its quiet exactitude, its otherworldliness, its companionship, its quirky bridge quality, its way of connecting different worlds.