William Stewart seems to be doing “deja vu all over again,” to quote the famous Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. As of this year, Stewart has switched from his well-established figurative and landscape painting to pure abstraction, albeit abstract color and form strongly inspired by nature, he says.
A life-long artist living in Taos, and a drawing and painting instructor at University of New Mexico-Taos since 1983, Stewart said he made a similar about-face more than 50 years ago.
“I had success early in life, in my 20s, and was told to keep doing the same thing and ‘we’ll make you famous.’ I turned around and did figurative, the exact opposite,” he remembers a touch ruefully, but not truly with regret as he adds, “I think it’s important to not be a part of the market.”
In those days he was part of the New York avant-garde and showed at O.K. Harris Gallery in Soho, New York City; followed by shows in Köln, Germany, with Rudolph Zwirner Gallery, and at the Paris Biennale, where he was invited by Daniel Abadie. His most recent show was in 2010 at the Prince Street Gallery in New York City.
“It was in the wild ‘60s and ‘70s, I did sculptural pieces – textural – and I painted on it. It was a very ephemeral type of work that wasn’t meant to last.”
It was during his two-month 2015 Emily Harvey Foundation residency in Venice, Italy, that full-on abstraction emerged from his fingertips and caught his attention as never quite before. He kept five pieces from the Venice period, went to Greece and started exploring color all over again. He began the new 21-part “Venice Series” of monoprints and watercolor abstractions on Rives paper during his March 15-31, 2017, artist-in-residency at the Watermill Center in the Hamptons, New York – concluding with an exhibition of the “Venice Series” in the center’s vaunted gallery.
His figurative watercolors of past decades almost always contained more or less abstracted landscapes, but with a certain machismo not typically associated with the delicate washes of water media. There often seems to be an undercurrent, a reverberation bubbling just under the surface, agitating to be born, to be seen.
In the abstract “Venice Series,” the violence of birth has been replaced with relative calm – of establishing a relationship with new life, new organizations of line, of color, of form.
“Now I feel I’m falling through the cracks,” he says. “The monoprints are more minimal. I feel it’s all more lyrical and there’s a certain restraint that’s a little new to me.”
Charles A. Riley II, one reviewer of Stewart’s Watermill exhibit, noticed a “suggestive economy that balances color and the blank of the sheet,” and monoprints VIII, IX and X, “which riff on a central pair of columnar strokes bridged by a lyrical passage that combines colors often found in [Cy] Twombly or early [Philip] Guston – roseate blooms of pink and maroon that mingle with pale greens and lavenders … across the meaningful gap that Stewart uses in most of his compositions, an opening to the blank of the paper.” (http://hamptonsarthub.com/category/reviews/art-reviews)
And like Twombly, who said his line is “childlike but not childish,” Stewart loves children’s artwork, “the innocence and freshness of it” he said. “It’s wonderful. I love seeing a child approach a piece of paper. It’s very inspiring. I want to reach a place where I just have to make it, like children, they’re very direct.”
Stewart has been involved with teaching all ages from a school in Palma de Mallorca in Spain to universities including City College, New York City; Farleigh Dickinson in Madison, New Jersey; as well as with museum education departments including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in California and the Newark Museum in New Jersey. He got both his Master of Fine Art and Bachelor of Fine Art from University of Texas, Austin in 1962 and 1960 respectively, with a graduate teaching assistantship in the Drawing, Architecture Department in ‘62.
Stewart says he was just following an inner urge when he first started doing this work in Venice and Greece, later in New York and now back home in New Mexico.
“Every time I start, I think – I feel – that I’m painting for the first time. It’s unstructured,” he says about his process. “It’s hard to explain where it’s coming from. I’m very open to having a new experience of my work.
“It’s very easy for me to look at someone else,” he says about student work. “I look at where they’re coming from. Just seeing their first brushstrokes or drawing or etching, I can see, I can get their mood. I’m giving them information, other painters that might interest them, either contemporary or from the past, not just keeping them in a little womb, I try to enlarge their direction.
“I work with the individual student, to find their core. I try to bring that out, that sensibility the student has, not transferring my own sensibility to them. I hate that.”
Stewart starts his very popular Tuesday and Thursday Summer Plein Air Painting workshop for beginning and advanced painters on Thursday (July 6) at Baca Park. Call (575) 741-0950 for more details, cost or workshop alternatives.
His fall 2017 Beginning Watercolor Painting class is registering now. Register at taos.unm.edu/home/register-2017.