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Modern Artist: William Baziotes
William 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
  • Baziotes was interested in the formal qualities of New York Expressionism as well as the eerie, figurative elements of European Surrealism.
  • Baziotes' style favored the mysterious, dreamlike, and poetic.
  • The painter was a co-founder of the Subjects of the Artist School, a highly influential forum for artists in 1940s New York.

William 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 Training
Baziotes' 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 Period
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 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 Death
Unlike 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.

While 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.

Henri Matisse
Joan Miró
Pablo Picasso
Roberto Matta
Roberto Matta
Jimmy Ernst
Robert Motherwell
Mark Rothko
William Baziotes
Years Worked: 1934 - 1962
Robert Motherwell
Mark Rothko
Adolph Gottlieb
Abstract Expressionism

"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."

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See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

William Baziotes
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
June 1995
Art in America

William Baziotes: Joseph Helman Gallery
December 2001

1964 Interview with Samuel Kootz
William Baziotes' Art Dealer