John Willenbecher tells me that his recent paintings are about “connecting the dots.” One of his lifelong interests has been the night sky – abstraction in nature – which he traces to his childhood interest in astronomy while growing up in eastern Pennsylvania. For his thirteenth birthday his parents gave him A Primer for Star Gazers by Henry M. Neely. Full of basic scientific information, the book also guided Willenbecher through the constellations, which he thought of as “attempts to make some kind of sense, impose some kind of order on the great random dispersal of lights in the heavens.”
Willenbecher’s “absolute passion for the glittering panoply of the night sky” manifested itself in his early work – painted constructions – which he began showing in New York in 1964, with shows also in Chicago and Los Angeles. I first saw his work in 1975 at a 57th street gallery, where he exhibited “Five Cenotaphs for Étienne Boulée,” which were done in gray acrylic on arch-shaped, wooden panels. The view was of the night sky, sometimes with a labyrinth, ladder or bridge superimposed over it. Cones, tetrahedrons and spheres were arranged on the shelf that projected out from each of the arched panels, which were inset in a shallow, white wooden box.
Étienne-Louis Boullée was a visionary neoclassical French architect and influential teacher who stripped away ornamentation as well as advanced an abstract geometric style inspired by classical forms. Among his many impractical proposals was a “Cenotaph for Isaac Newton” that would have taken the form of a sphere 450 feet high and that you could walk into. According to Willenbecher, “[t]he interior was a vast planetarium created by thousands of holes in the domed ceiling through which sunlight passed. At night the interior was to be lit by a great armillary sphere suspended in the center.”
In retrospect, Willenbecher’s work never fit comfortably into popular stylistic trends such as Minimalism, Pop Art, Color Field painting and Painterly Realism, all of which gained market attention and critical support during the 1960s and’70s. He didn’t, as the saying goes, play it safe. The other thing to be said about him is that he didn’t go to art school. He majored in art history at Brown, and took three years of graduate studies in art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Originally, he planned on writing a Master’s thesis on the drawings of the Florentine artist, Mariotto Albertinelli (1474-1515), friend of Fra Bartolomeo and teacher of Jacopo da Pontormo, whom Willenbecher has characterized as an “obscure Renaissance painter.” For him, the aha moment occurred after he returned to New York and saw the exhibition, The Art of the Assemblage, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961, curated by William C. Seitz.
Willenbecher’s early work consisted of glass-fronted box constructions both influenced and affirmed by Joseph Cornell, another self-taught artist. Over a career spanning six decades, he has stayed true to his roots in painted constructions, while defining a path that is all his own. The result is a body of work made up of distinct periods that do not resemble anything going on around it. At the same time, Willenbecher’s trompe l’oeil paintings of marble slabs, started in 1985 and continuing through the early 1990s, anticipate Marc Handelman’s “Dimension Stone” paintings by nearly three decades. The technique Willenbecher developed to convincingly render the marble into acrylic paint on wood panels is both breathtaking and necessary, which makes them even more masterful. As he pointed out to me during my recent studio visit, they are another example of “abstraction in nature.”
As someone who followed Willenbecher from a distance (we are acquaintances), and who realized that he hadn’t had a show in more than a decade, I wanted to see what he was up to. Certainly, my memory of the early work, which was strong enough to have made a lasting impression was motivation enough. I was also thinking about something Roberta Smith recently wrote in her New York Times review of a show at White Columns: “[the] artists show promise, but so far they are operating within fashionable styles rather than making the work that only they can make.” Smith concluded her review with: “The fact that critics are tired of ‘current painting tactics’ would seem to validate a much more personal, less formulaic approach.”
Doesn’t Willenbecher fulfill Smith’s criteria? Since he first began exhibiting in the early 1960s, hasn’t he made the work that only he could make? Driven by a philosophical understanding of a particular perception – the age-old attempt to make sense out of what the artist calls “the random dispersal of lights in the heavens” or the chaotic aftermath of the Big Bang –Willenbecher has never resorted to comforting systems or reassuring aesthetic agendas regarding transcendence or historical necessity.
It seems to me that Willenbecher, whose sources are hardly fashionable, is no more idiosyncratic than Cy Twombly. Inspired by the classical world, as was Twombly, Willenbecher has made work that refers to the visionary neoclassical architect, Boulée as well as labyrinths, Greek myths and the night sky. Didn’t the Greeks believe that astronomy – gazing at the imponderable – was a royal science? Isn’t the night sky a serene view of chaos and limitlessness?
Willenbecher has worked across disciplines, making paintings that are objects and sculptures. The problem is that he doesn’t have a gallery and hasn’t had one in many years. But isn’t it also true that if having a brick-and-mortar gallery counts as a marker of significance, then the marketplace becomes a central factor in deciding what is worthy of attention? Is a conventional gallery still the first public space everyone looks to in order to find out what’s going on, or is it now art fairs? If it weren’t prohibited by the unwritten rules governing the print world, how many critics who write for magazines and newspapers would champion someone whose work has not been seen in a pubic space? Isn’t the Internet challenging these conventions? Might not this be a good thing?
In his recent paintings Willenbecher reinvented himself by transforming his roots in sculpture and nature-based abstraction into something wholly invented. All the references to the night sky and marble have been jettisoned. At a point when many artists revisit something they have done earlier in their career or settle into a mode of making what they are familiar with, Willenbecher has defined a territory that is all his own. There are affinities, but pointing them out would only underscore the originality of this artist’s work. Willenbecher is doing exactly what Smith called for: he is making the work that only he can make, and he got there by being patient and following his intuitions and preoccupations without looking over his shoulder or taking his cues from what is considered fashionable.
The paintings are done in acrylic on fiberboard, which the artist has made in two sizes. They are exhibited on a shelf and lean against the wall. He starts the painting by placing it on the floor, and with a dropper he makes dots of color across the surface, usually in around four colors. The dots are different sizes and the patterns are random. After the artist makes the dots, he puts the painting on the wall and continues working. Just in terms if scale, the artist begins with the smallest elements first, which seems counterintuitive to me.
As far as I can tell from the finished paintings, in the next phase–which is deliberate–the artist creates a ground out of sharp edged, curving shapes that evoke incomplete circles, scimitars and sails, many of which seem to be molting into something else, that interlock among the random patterns of dots, using some of the dots as starting and endpoints, while leaving others to float freely. And while the ground literally connects the dots, it is impossible to discover the logic behind the composition, which kept this viewer, at least, looking and looking. It is in the sustained looking that (other views come to) your attention.
For one thing, the shapes keep shifting and reconfiguring, extending and contracting, like morphing clusters made of different colors that never mix. The second thing is the relationship between the dots and the multi-colored ground keep changing. Are they overlaid on the ground or piercing it, like the holes in Boulée’s “Cenotaph for Isaac Newton”? The paintings, he tells me, can be oriented in one of four ways, emphasizing the verticality or horizontality of the work. There is no top or bottom. He has elevated all-overness without resorting to a gimmick, because it is the composition that makes the different orientations possible.
This is Willenbecher’s genius: he has made paintings in which stability and disorder are inseparable. Made of acrylic paint on a flat piece of fiberboard, the paintings are bodacious, festive, thoughtful, controlled, disarrayed, and delightfully topsy-turvy. Like those ancient stargazers who imagined the hunter Orion and the archer Sagittarius striding the night sky, Willenbecher mixes observable reality and inventive imagination so perfectly that they have become virtually indistinguishable from each other.