PHILADELPHIA — After working as a full-time preparator at the Museum of Modern of Art for over twenty years, the painter Mark Williams decided it was time to retire. During his working years he disciplined himself to paint on evenings and weekends. In anticipation of his retirement, he knew that a sudden abundance of time could be destructive. He decided, as a preventative measure, to restrict his palette to black, white, and gray.
His current exhibition, Positive Echo, at Larry Becker Contemporary Art consists of thirty-four paintings. Twenty-seven of these adhere to the limited palette. The upper portion of “b/w/g #1” (2016), with its pronounced brush strokes, looks viscous, as if it has just been completed. The black underneath the white feels like a horizon that’s just barely visible in the fog.
Williams paints within the tradition of geometric abstraction and considers Agnes Martin, El Lissitsky, and Kazimir Malevich among his “art ancestors.” Like that of his forebears, Williams’s work has remarkably subtle moments. In “b/w/g #4” (2016), a thin white line runs vertically through the black rectangle on the left side. Near the top of the rectangle the white overflows slightly into the black, upsetting the impression of precise lineation. Likewise, at the left end of the horizontal black rectangle in the middle of the canvas, a short white line bleeds into the black. As gallery co-director Heidi Nivling told me, Williams usually relies on painter’s tape for clean lines, but he will sometimes allow the paint to slip into the taped areas to create these subtle effects. Instances like these show the painter’s willingness to relinquish complete control of the canvas.
The majority of the paintings in the show measure ten-by-eight inches, but there are a few deviations. Where the smaller works invited me to lean in, the larger eighteen-by-fourteen inch canvas used for “b/w/g #12” (2016) encouraged me to step away. One of the great privileges of minimalist art is the centering of one’s attention. The act of looking involves more than the eyes; perhaps because of Williams’s minimalist aesthetic, I became more conscious of how my body kept changing its focus. In addition to the change in size, “b/w/g #12” offers new textures to the colors and shapes that characterize much of the exhibition. Williams’ pronounced and uneven brush strokes let the black underneath seep to the surface, while the light gray strip running down the right side is streaked with white.
Williams’s work doesn’t provide any narrative in the traditional sense. Instead the viewer is left with two things: their own thoughts and the dialogue that develops between the paintings. “b/w/g #14” (2016) adds another dimension. Deep black and dark gray, rather than white, are the dominant colors. The only white in the painting is a thin line running from left to right just below the middle of the work.
As I turned away from the darkness of “b/w/g#14,” the starkness of “b/w/g #15” (2016) pleasantly surprised me. Bright white dominates the surface in this work. The contrast of the black strip down the left side, as well as the thin, horizontal, and imperfect black line near the middle heighten the austerity of this particular work. By the time I experienced the juxtaposition of “b/w/g #14” and “b/w/g #15” I felt as if the show had centered my thoughts.
The unpainted wood in “b/w/g #24” (2016) brought yet another contrasting voice into the dialogue between the paintings. By making the wood visible, Williams increases the viewer’s awareness of the materiality of the painting. The exposed rectangles make the panel seem as if the sections of the painting have been glued together to make the whole.
The second room of the gallery contains seven paintings that Williams completed before his retirement from MOMA. These paintings, after the austere meditational quality of the first room, turn up the volume with their reds, muted yellows, and purplish-blacks. The red in “Untitled” (2011) exudes the polish of Japanese enameling. The sheen is so strong it’s possible to see your reflection.
“Proclaim/AF 1” (2007) is one of the standouts in the show. It shares the subtlety of the black, white, and gray works. The delicate application of muted yellow and pale blue gives the painting the feel of a whisper rather than a shout, making the title wonderfully ironic. Whispers are perhaps more revealing.
“The Chance (1075)” (2010) was the last painting I really looked at as I prepared to leave. It has a mysterious aura. I felt that I was recognizing something in the painting, but I couldn’t place it. Part of what fascinated me about the work was how the predominately cream surface camouflaged the smaller shapes and layers underneath it. But I couldn’t figure out why the surface gave me a sense of déjà vu.
Roughly an hour after leaving the gallery, I was visiting a friend who works in an old industrial space. Before he came out to greet me, I gazed up at the ceiling. Those old, painted boards immediately brought “The Chance (1075)” back to mind. This moment changed my perspective on Williams’s show. Initially, his work struck me as highly accomplished and very painterly. It still does. But on a personal level, the recognition of those boards moved Williams’ work beyond the confines of conventional art categories. For some viewers, paintings such as Williams’ feel as if they are removed from the real world. That’s simply not the case. The shapes and textures in his work are everywhere, as long as one is willing to look.
Mark Williams: Positive Echo continues at Larry Becker Contemporary Art (43 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through February 18.