SynopsisWilliam Baziotes was a New York painter whose work dealt with the shadowy and mysterious realm of mythic subject matter and the human unconscious. Like his Abstract Expressionist peers, he was deeply committed to concerns of paint, color, and abstracted forms. But under the influence of Surrealism and other European traditions, his work took on a more lyrical and enigmatic character.
Key Ideas / Information
ChildhoodWilliam Baziotes was born on June 11, 1912 to Greek parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His family moved shortly thereafter to the working class city of Reading, where Baziotes spent his childhood. As a young adult, Baziotes worked at the Case Glass Company, antiquing glass and doing other chores. It was also in Reading that Baziotes met Byron Vazsakas, a poet who became a good friend and who introduced the painter to the work of Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets, whose writing would continue to have a big influence throughout his life.
Early TrainingBaziotes' early career demonstrates just how large a role Surrealism played in the formation of the painters who would later be called Abstract Expressionists. One of Baziotes' early group shows was the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942. Surrealism argued for a reliance on "automatic" gestures, random marks or brushstrokes that bypassed the rational intentions of the artist. In this way, deeper, psychic meanings could be expressed. The Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta was a big proponent of automatic painting, incorporating drips, swirls, and other "accidents" into his abstract compositions, and he exerted a large influence on Baziotes.
This interest in the psychic and subconscious dimension also manifested itself in the odd, lyrical forms that populate Baziotes' paintings. These range from irregular geometric star and flower shapes, often with black contours in the early work, to smooth and glowing abstracted figures in the later work. To some extent these forms derive from Surrealism and other European influences - the French painter Joan Miró in particular was an inspiration. But it was also part of a distinctly Abstract Expressionist riff on such traditions. Many New York painters, including Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko turned to what they deemed primitive or mythological forms in an attempt to get at a more universal significance. The modern world, rife with superficial distractions and the terrors of war, Depression, and nuclear threat, offered little in the way of meaningful subject matter. Mythic tales and ideographic forms, by contrast, had been means of human expression since time immemorial.
Mature PeriodBaziotes was a major figure in the galleries, schools, and clubs that constituted the social world of . He had his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in 1944 and a second one in 1946 at the Samuel Kootz Gallery. Even more important than the galleries were the schools and clubs that the Abstract Expressionists founded and attended. Some of these were quite informal, like the regular discussions that would spool out at the Cedar Street Tavern on Eighth Street in the Village. But others were more directed. In 1948, Baziotes, along with David Hare, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko, founded the Subjects of the Artist School, a group that, among other things, provided a speakers' forum where American and European artists could address topics of interest for the modern painter.
Late Period and DeathUnlike Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, who moved away from mythic symbols and allusions to more purely abstract work, Baziotes' paintings maintained a Surreal and figurative quality to them till the end. In fact, much of his later work is marked by a deeply poetic feel, with birdlike or abstracted figures perched against a timeless, mottled ground. In a 1959 issue of the journal It Is, Baziotes described his interests this way: "It is the mysterious that I love in my painting. It is the stillness and the silence. I want my picture to take effect very slowly, to obsess and to haunt."
Baziotes worked throughout the 1950s as a teaching artist, at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, New York University, the People's Art Center at the Museum of Modern Art, and the City University of New York, Hunter College. In 1962, he was included in Sydney Janis' important exhibition Ten American Painters. Baziotes lived with his wife Ethel in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, and died of lung cancer on June 6, 1963.
LegacyWhile stylistically Baziotes remained somewhat apart from the main Abstract Expressionist mode, he still exerted a tremendous and shaping influence on many painters at the time. He was one of the first New York artists to actively experiment with automatic drawing and other Surrealist techniques, and he created forums for debate that were central to the New York scene in the 1940s. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York organized a memorial retrospective of his work in 1965.
Below are William Baziotes' major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Years Worked: 1934 - 1962
Quotes"Each beginning suggests something. Once I sense the suggestion, I begin to paint intuitively. The suggestion then becomes a phantom that must be caught and made real. As I work, or when the painting is finished, the subject reveals itself."
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
By Michael Preble
William Baziotes: The Poetic Spirit Robert Reed Cole, Louis A. Zona, Ethel Baziotes
By Robert Reed Cole, Louis A. Zona, Ethel Baziotes
A Misfit Emerging from Oblivion
February 3, 1995
The New York Times
William Baziotes at Blum Helman
Art in America
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cut-outs, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
ArtStory: Henri Matisse Page
|Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró Page
|Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting, and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
ArtStory: Pablo Picasso Page
|Roberto Matta was a Chilean-born artist who lived and worked in New York in the 1940s. His interest in automatism and painterly effects helped forge a crucial link between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
ArtStory: Roberto Matta Page
|Jimmy Ernst, an artist and the son of Surrealist painter Max Ernst, played an active role in the Abstract Expressionist scene in New York, where he served as director of the Art of This Century gallery.
|Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
ArtStory: Robert Motherwell Page
|Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
ArtStory: Mark Rothko Page
|Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism Page
|Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 20s and 30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
ArtStory: Expressionism Page
|Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
ArtStory: Adolph Gottlieb Page