I was not surprised to learn that the abstract artist Thornton Willis, who was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1936, the son of an evangelical minister, has never had a survey show in New York. He belongs to the group of largely unaffiliated artists living in downtown New York between the late 1960s and late ’70s, who worked to make a space for themselves in painting after Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop art, and the “death of painting,” when the art world was dominated by conceptual art and the anti-optical. Except for the eye-opening traveling exhibition, High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975 (2006), curated by Katy Siegel with David Reed’s input, the experimental abstraction of this decade has largely been overlooked. And even that show did not address the breadth of what was going on in abstraction during that period, as Thornton Willis’s Slat paintings were not included. 

The 21 abstract paintings in Thornton Willis: A Painting Survey, Six Decades: Works from 1967 – 2017, at David Richard Gallery’s uptown and new Chelsea location (uptown: April 4–May 13; Chelsea: March 30–May 13, 2022), convey a restless artist working within the domain of geometric abstraction who never developed a signature format. Rather, he found a way to be open and improvisational in his work, cultivating a flexible process that culminated in paintings that contained a record of their creation. Instead of trying to achieve the cool, flat, detached look that was valorized in the art world as the requisite response to Abstract Expressionism’s turbulent surfaces, Willis wanted everything to be out in the open. Both the brushstrokes and evidence of earlier paint layers are often visible in his paintings. 

Thornton Willis, “Hot Shot” (1983), acrylic on canvas, 108 x 120 inches

In 1967, when Minimalism, Pop Art, and stain painting were all the rage, Willis began a series titled Slats. In an interview with the painter Julie Karabenick that appeared in her magazine, Geoform (September 2013), Willis, who had just moved into a loft on Spring Street in Soho, discussed the source of these paintings: 

Most of the buildings had cast iron fronts with sides made from old, irregular, handmade bricks. There were vacant lots between the buildings, and the walls invited grafitti artists. I felt that looking at these old brick walls, you could see evidence of the history of the buildings. Wandering around this abandoned neighborhood at night was like going into a cave and reading its history on the walls. I was looking for something to get me going, and these rough old walls definitely influenced me. 

Willis made the Slat paintings on the floor, using rollers with long handles to apply the paint to the unstretched canvas, working wet into wet. He used the vantage point offered by a ladder to see the entire composition. Each painting was completed in a single session, which lasted between 10 and 14 hours. In their layering and rawness, the Slat paintings reject the prevailing modes of abstraction. In this regard, Willis belongs to a generation of painters who rejected the art world’s status quo, such as Jack Whitten, Mary Heilmann, Thomas Nozkowski, Gary Stephan, and Harriet Korman.  

Thornton Willis, “Brooklyn Bridge” (1993), acrylic on canvas, 96 x 84 inches

Spending time with the paintings in the two exhibitions, on different days, I was struck by how Willis kept reconfiguring his interest in structure and gesture into different series, while changing his palette into unpredictable combinations. Over the past six decades, he has used stripes (or bands), either at right angles or at a diagonal, and employed solid geometric forms — triangles and irregular rectangles — while remaining committed to keeping the painting open so that hints of earlier colors peer through. 

Willis’s use of opacity and transparency, his joining of structure and gesture, and layering of paint as he worked out his composition, along with his refusal to seal the painting’s surface into a single, unified skin of paint, have become the hallmarks of his work. These qualities connect him to both the gestural and the geometric branches of Abstract Expressionism, exemplified by Franz Kline and Barnett Newman.

In the early 1980s, during the height of Neo-Expressionism and the rise of figuration, Willis never tried to adjust his work to fit in, as evidenced by one of his Wedges works, the bluntly frontal “Full House” (1981), or the two Zig-Zags, “Brown Zinger” and “Hot Shot” (both 1983). Frontal abstractions with bold structural forms, they remain true to their roots in Abstract Expressionism, without becoming nostalgic for thick, wet brushstrokes. The paint is laid down in a straightforward manner that conveys an unhurried search. 

Thornton Willis, “Right Intentions” (2017), acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

Glimpses of red line both the left and right edges of “Full House,” contrasting its yellow ground, along with hints of earlier colors extending just beyond the edges of the blue wedge that occupies much of this figure-ground painting. What is clear is that Willis loves the physical act of paint, but does not fetishize it. 

In “Hot Shot” Willis began applying red and yellow on the silver gray zigzag that traverses the red ground, but then stopped, leaving diluted streaks and smears. The two vertical bands of the zigzag, which frame the diagonals, are gray and unmarked except for a few drips of red. I got the feeling that the painting was simultaneously finished and unfinished. 

This ambiguity is more obvious in the two series Triangles and Prismatics, from the 1990s. In these series, triangles of different sizes divide up the painting’s rectangular picture plane. While the Triangles paintings consist of one layer, in Prismatics, a second group of triangles overlays the first; these are composed of solid-colored planes and linear outlines that do not completely cover the previous layer. The two sets of divided planes establish a space that, paradoxically, seems entirely flat. While this tension is specific to “Brooklyn Bridge” (1993), as a general rule Willis’s paintings are animated by the stress between figure and ground, surface and depth, completeness and incompleteness.  

Thornton Willis, “Black Bear” (1998), acrylic on canvas, 114 x 108 inches

In “Black Bear” (1998), Willis uses black, red, green, and yellow — colors that share something with the tricolor flag (red, black, green) created by Marcus Garvey and the members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the flag of Saint Kitts and Nevis, which also includes yellow and white. (In 1966, while Willis was a student at the University of Alabama, he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery that was led by Martin Luther King Jr.) The painting contains pencil lines (some crossed out), raw canvas, and drips. It seems that Willis considered modifying the painting but changed his mind and left it as it was.

That openness suggests that he does not believe that painting needs to attain visual perfection; rather, painting is a process that does not search for closure. If we think about Willis’s work through the lens of philosophy, aesthetics, metaphysics, and social change, it is clear that he pursued a very different course than that of his contemporaries. And yet, I would consider him a quintessential New York abstract painter and part of an ongoing lineage that started in the 1930s and did not end in the 1960s, as so many critics and art historians have claimed. The lively diversity of abstract painting in New York has seldom been celebrated by this city’s institutions, because it is easier to single out a few stars. 

Thornton Willis, “Untitled Slat” (1967), acrylic on canvas, 77 x 59 inches

Thornton Willis: A Painting Survey, Six Decades: 1967-2017 continues at David Richard Gallery (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan; and 211 East 121st Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through May 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...