William Baziotes Life and Art Periods

"It is the mysterious that I love in painting. It is the stillness and the silence. I want my pictures to take effect very slowly, to obsess and to haunt."

WILLIAM BAZIOTES SYNOPSIS

William Baziotes was a New York painter whose lyrical and often mysterious works relied heavily on subject matter derived from biomorphism and Symbolist poetry. He was an integral part of the Abstract Expressionist circle and exhibited with them frequently. Like his peers, he was deeply committed to concerns of paint application and abstracted forms, yet his interest in the medium of paint was combined with many sources for his imagery to produce works that evoked particular moods, or dream-like states - often more closely related to European Surrealism than to Abstract Expressionism. This duality in his work was described as "biomorphic abstraction" and was influential to artists such as Mark Rothko.

WILLIAM BAZIOTES KEY IDEAS

Baziotes was one of the few Abstract Expressionist artists who remained committed to the figure. He took his early Surrealist-inspired explorations further by creating strange, primitive imagery that seems to have been pulled from the darkness of the subconscious. His works in this vein were described as "biomorphic abstraction" because of his use of organic forms and other figurative elements that were not easily identifiable.
Unlike his Abstract Expressionist peers, even Baziotes' most experimental canvases contain a structured, almost grid-like composition that was influenced by early Cubism and the artist's work with stained glass. In conjunction with this underlying structure, however, Baziotes also felt that art should evoke emotions and moods through color, shape, and paint application, thus many of his works have a lyrical or poetic element.
comment to editor

WILLIAM BAZIOTES BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

William Baziotes was born in 1912 to Greek parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His family moved shortly thereafter to the working class city of Reading, Pennsylvania, where Baziotes spent his childhood. As a young adult, Baziotes worked at the Case Glass Company from 1931 to 1933, antiquing glass and doing other chores while taking an evening drawing class. It was 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 have a significant impact on his work throughout his life. Vazsakas encouraged Baziotes to pursue art and Baziotes moved to New York City to study painting in 1933.

MORE

Early Training

William Baziotes Biography

Baziotes attended the National Academy of Design in New York City from 1933 until 1936 and also studied the work of the Old Masters during this period. He taught in Queens for the WPA Federal Art Project from 1936 to 1938 and then worked on the WPA Easel Project from 1938 through 1941, where he was paid to stay in his studio and make art. It was in these various jobs that he was introduced to artists working in the Surrealist idiom, many of them European immigrants. He met the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta who was a proponent of automatic painting and who exerted a large influence on Baziotes. Robert Motherwell, whom he also met during this period, became a close friend. Baziotes married Ethel Copstein in 1941, and they lived in Morningside Heights, New York. One of Baziotes's early group shows was the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942.

The Surrealist interest in the psychic and subconscious dimension manifested itself in the odd, lyrical forms that populate Baziotes's paintings, with the Spanish painter Joan Miró being a particular inspiration. Many other New York painters in addition to Baziotes, including Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko also turned to what they deemed primitive or mythological forms in an attempt to get at a more universal significance.

Mature Period

William Baziotes Photo

Baziotes was a major figure in the galleries, schools, and clubs that constituted the social world of Abstract Expressionism. 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 took place at the Cedar Street Tavern on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. Others were more purposeful. 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 Years and Death

Unlike Rothko and Still, who moved away from mythic symbols and allusions to more purely abstract work, Baziotes's paintings maintained a Surrealist and figurative quality.

William Baziotes Portrait

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's important exhibition Ten American Painters. Baziotes died of lung cancer in 1963.

WILLIAM BAZIOTES LEGACY

While stylistically Baziotes remained somewhat apart from the main Abstract Expressionists, he 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.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
comment to editor

WILLIAM BAZIOTES 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."

"It is the mysterious that I love in painting. It is the stillness and the silence. I want my pictures to take effect very slowly, to obsess and to haunt."

"The emphasis on flora, fauna and beings brings forth those strange memories and psychic feelings that mystify and fascinate all of us."

"My whole intention in painting is to make a thing poetical . . . when I paint, I do not consider myself an abstractionist in the sense that I'm trying to create beautiful forms that fit together like a puzzle. The things in my painting are intended to strike something that is an emotional involvement - that has to do with the human personality and all the mysteries of life, not simply colors or abstract balances. To, it's all reality."

"And when the demagogues of art call on you to make the social art, the intelligible art, the good art, spit down on them and go back to your dreams, the world, and your mirror."

William Baziotes

William Baziotes Influences

Interactive chart with William Baziotes's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

CLICK TO EXPAND

LEAVE A COMMENT OR SUGGESTION BELOW

We will address your comment shortly.
Error occured while saving commment. Please, try later.
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henri Matisse
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Roberto Matta
Roberto Matta
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Roberto Matta
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a French poet and art critic during the mid-nineteenth century. His poetry depicted the harsh realities of urban poverty in nineteenth-century Paris, and often focused on the flanuer (one who wanders the city to experience it). The Baudelarian idea of the flaneur is a lasting legacy of the modern era.

Modern Art Information Charles Baudelaire
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Ernst
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Motherwell
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Surrealism
Surrealism
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Expressionism
Expressionism
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 1920s 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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Adolph Gottlieb
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner was an American abstract painter and a prominent first-generation Abstract Expressionist. A student of Hans Hofmann's, and a pioneer in the all-over technique of painting that later influenced color-field artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and her husband, Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Lee Krasner
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced 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 postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Biomorphism
Biomorphism
Biomorphism was a twentieth-century art movement with close ties to Surrealism, Art Nouveau and Abstract Expressionism. Coined by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the term referred to styles of painting and sculpture that assumed an organic appearance or form, and contained characteristics reminiscent of nature. Pioneers of biomorphic art include Joan Miró and Isamu Noguchi.

Modern Art Information Biomorphism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Symbolism
Currently, no information is available for this item. Please visit this page in the future as we are expanding quickly.
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clyfford Still
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector and patron of the arts. She gave important exhibitions to many modern, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Peggy Guggenheim
Currently, no information is available for this item. Please visit this page in the future as we are expanding quickly.
The Parachutists
The Parachutists

Title: The Parachutists (1944)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Parachutists showcases several of Baziotes's early influences. His interest in Cubism was short-lived but is evident in the faceted rendering of the parachutes and the grid-like geometry of the composition. His debt to Surrealism and especially their automatist techniques can be seen in the drips of paint that run down the canvas along with the scumbled brushwork through which color is directly blended on the canvas. The brilliant color and the heavy dark lines reveal his debt to the aesthetics of stained glass. The subject matter is a possible homage to the parachutists of D-Day who, at great risk to their lives, were dropped behind enemy lines at the beginning of the invasion of Normandy in 1944.


Duco enamel on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice

Dwarf
Dwarf

Title: Dwarf (1947)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This work is one of a group of paintings from 1947 that are all distinguished by a single figure dominating the composition. The primitive, grotesque figures are derived from Surrealist biomorphism and are not clearly human or animal. Like The Parachutists (1944), this work is also about war, but without the lighthearted, almost playful quality of the former. Dwarf instead captures the gruesomeness and violence of war in its reference to a mutilated figure without arms who has oversized, sharp teeth. All of the images in the group have concentric circles or spaces in their lower halves that are meant to be suggestive of female genitalia or targets. The works are a good example of the "biomorphic abstraction," that marked much of the artist's output, characterized by organic forms that are familiar, resembling both plants and animals, but that do not coalesce into recognizable shapes. His use of such imagery is perhaps tied to his interest in Symbolist poetry that is characterized by indirect descriptions, making multiple meanings possible.


Oil on canvas - MoMA

Flesh Eaters
Flesh Eaters

Title: Flesh Eaters (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the early 1950s the artist turned more to abstracted depictions of nature with less of a focus on surface and paint handling and, indeed, Baziotes began to eliminate brushwork altogether by repetitive rubbing of the oil paint on the surface. In Flesh Eaters the soft application of paint creates a soft lyrical or poetic quality that contrasts markedly with the title of the work and thus creates ambiguity. The forms have become less recognizable than in the previous decade, evoking a primitive, primordial world where enigmatic and sometimes aggressive plant and animal forms float and collide.


Oil and charcoal on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Pompeii
Pompeii

Title: Pompeii (1955)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This work stands out in Baziotes's oeuvre because of its reference to a specific geographic location and its strong use of color. Baziotes was fascinated by ancient Roman civilization and while the painting does not depict anything specifically Pompeian, it evokes both the violence of Pompeii's end and more generally the enigma of the past. The rectangular shape along the upper half of the canvas, for example, references the Roman use of wall paintings in domestic decoration. The all-over, dominating red evokes the fiery and dramatic end of Pompeii in the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in 1979, when the city was engulfed in lava. The sinuous gray motif in the foreground is less specific and could indicate flames, bulls' horns, or any number of other things, but, along with the black cloud at the center of the painting, contributes to an overall feeling of doom and mystery.


Oil on canvas - MoMA

Dusk
Dusk

Title: Dusk (1958)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This work represents Baziotes's mature style: abstracted, biomorphic forms that float in a sea of muted, soft color. The lyricism of the work underscores the artist's interest in poetry and interior states that is especially marked in his work from the 1950s and 1960s. The lack of a defined space for the forms gives the work a timeless feel, while the forms themselves have become less menacing and jagged. With its misty setting and emblem of power, the work evokes a primordial rite or ritual.


Oil on canvas - Guggenheim, New York

Aquatic
Aquatic

Title: Aquatic (1961)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The sea, as a place of unfathomable depth and ancient origins, was a common theme in Baziotes's work. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Baziotes became increasingly interested in evoking an oceanic or aquatic feeling through subtle and shifting grounds of color. The shapes here recall seaweed or underwater creatures, and the sharp edges of Baziotes's early biomorphic forms have been smoothed and further abstracted. 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." This late work shows a delicate but clear shape against an aqueous, amorphous background. The contour lines of Baziotes's earlier period have all but disappeared.


Oil on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.