William Baziotes at Blum Helman Gallery

William Baziotes, The Flesh Eaters (1952), oil and charcoal on canvas, 60″ x 72-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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To mention the name William Baziotes (1912–1963) is to conjure up images of indeterminate spaces populated by enigmatic forms. If it can be said that a purposeful ambiguity informs Baziotes’s work, “ambiguous” might also suffice as a description of the artist’s reputation. While his paintings are usually associated with those of the Abstract Expressionists, a group of artists with whom he exhibited and fraternized, they don’t quite fit the label. His work isn’t “action painting”: the patient scumbling of oils hardly constitutes the stuff of gestural bravado. And while he took an interest in the spiritual side of Abstract Expressionism (epitomized by painters like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still) Baziotes’s affiliation with it is, at best, tenuous.

Most significant, Baziotes was never really an abstract artist. His signature paintings deal with the figure, or, rather, the figurative. The biomorphic gremlins populating Baziotes’s work stubbornly refuse to become mere signs; they have character and their animism is genuine. Consequently, Baziotes’s brand of homegrown Surrealism remains too elusive for snug categorization, and his work is little seen nowadays in New York museums—perhaps curators consider him too much of an anomaly. Yet, one of the welcome ironies of historical hindsight is that he may prove to be a better painter than is currently acknowledged. But given the undeserved distinction bestowed upon painters like Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman—artists who have been all but canonized in our museums—will anyone take notice?

Maybe. Such thoughts come to mind while viewing William Baziotes: 32 Years Later at the Blum Helman Gallery. Admittedly, such conjecture may be foolhardy in light of the attenuated nature of the exhibition. Can anyone judge an artist’s work—let alone historical standing—from nineteen pieces, of which only five are mature paintings? Divided into three sections—early paintings, works-on-paper, and mature paintings—32 Years Later is a succinct retrospective. Maybe too succinct—it’s practically over once one steps into the gallery. Those wanting a comprehensive overview of Baziotes’s work would do better digging up old exhibition catalogues or magazine articles at their local library. 32 Years Later does, however, invite the thought that such an overview may be warranted and even necessary.

Not that one would necessarily want to see more of the early work. Like almost every other modernist painter of note, Baziotes had to deal with Picasso, and his paintings that do so are, to be generous, unremarkable. The Parachutist (1944), for instance, may be of historical interest—having been exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery—but its Cubist-derived compartmentalization is ungainly. Equally awkward are Portrait of Ethel Baziotes (1940) and Girl with Snake (1940), two works that take off from Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror. Similarly, a group of watercolor and gouache works-on-paper, dated between 1934 and 1939, are shaky in quality, reading like cartoon parodies of Picasso, although one piece of what could best be described as psychedelic fish has its goofy charms.

Still, these works have the power to engage us, if only because they give us glimpses of Baziotes’s work to come. The swollen, fleshy figures in Harlequin with Nude (c. 1938–40) hint at biomorphism, as does the charcoal and conté-crayon drawing Untitled (Flagellation) (c. 1932–33), an image of a man whipping a woman amidst much scribbling. The drawing of the latter image is serviceable, as far as it goes, but it is only in the rendering of the whip that Baziotes’s line goes beyond description. Anchoring the work by its verve, the whip lives as a presence (and, not coincidentally, as drawing) independent of its gestural moorings. One can readily imagine a variation of it inhabiting Baziotes’s mature work. Indeed, it may well have.

It is Baziotes’s mature paintings that are the cornerstone of 32 Years Later. While none can be considered a masterpiece—although it’s easy to understand why MOMA thought Pompeii (1955) might be—together these five works make for one of the most satisfying exhibits seen in New York this season.

Deeply interested in Surrealism and its emphasis on the unconscious, Baziotes never strayed far from its roots. Revealing itself through an intuitive process not unrelated to automatism, his imagery bears the influence of Surrealism’s painterly faction, especially the paintings of Joan Miró, an artist whose presence permeates Baziotes’s work. The scrabbled elegance of Baziotes’s line, in particular, is indebted to Miró, with the spidery blip seen in The Flesh Eaters (1952) serving as a veritable homage.

Baziotes’s signature paintings are shifting fields of nocturnal light, shallow and dense. Inhabiting these spaces are organic forms, usually two or three per canvas, that recall insects, plant forms, microscopic organisms, glyphs, and calligraphy. Drawn to the universalism inherent in symbol and myth, Baziotes rarely lets particulars bog down his stock of characters. They are quirky and unpredictable, riddled with a weird lyricism that can be surprisingly moving. They can be endearing as well. The fetus-like blob of The Toys (1952), with its dumbly staring eye, is almost lovable. If Baziotes’s forms don’t have Miró’s sense of play, they do have something of the Catalan’s caprice, manifested here in an imperturbable whimsy: the cyclopic creature with a halo of pink light, in the upper-right-hand corner of The Flesh Eaters, enters the painting like someone crashing a party. It’s not every Abstract Expressionist that has a sense of humor.

For the most part, Baziotes’s paintings are the sum of their parts. His figures rarely communicate with one another or with the painting’s support. There’s an arbitrariness to the work. One’s eye tends to bounce from form to form trying to deduce some overriding nexus that isn’t forthcoming; the paintings never click. This sense of distraction may have been intentional—it does give Baziotes’s imagery its dream-like quality— but it doesn’t make for whole paintings. Baziotes may have realized this. In both The Toys and Untitled (1962), he divides the painting’s field with a horizon line, creating a unified stage for his actors to dwell in. But the literalness of this device is clunky.

Nevertheless, Baziotes’s environments are felt by insinuation, so that while his forms have little in common, they do connect, individually, with the spaces they inhabit. This is achieved primarily through contour, where the negative space of the painting subtly turns in on form, “biting” it into definition: the worm-like creature that dominates Untitled, for instance, is a study in the sinuousness of line. And it is this “bite” that makes the paintings cohere as repositories of imagery, if not as complete compositions.

Ultimately, it is Baziotes’s gift for shape and color that make us take in the paintings. The scumbled layers of closely valued color bring to mind the work of Milton Avery, Rothko, and even Bonnard. Odd and off-center, Baziotes’s pinks, grays, and purples create fields of atmospheric density, nuanced and not without electricity. While the aqueous nature of his imagery would seem to lend itself ideally to watercolor, he seems to have felt more at ease with the physical medium of oil paints. (Indeed, Baziotes had little gift for watercolor; the few on view here are halting, the fluidity of the medium rendered soggy and illustrative.) Baziotes’s discordant color harmonies and feathery paint handling risk an over-finessed stylishness, but here they hit the mark, imbuing his paintings with a coloristic charge that reproduction is incapable of capturing. The way in which Baziotes balances the areas of fuzzed gray, rust, and purple with the centralized linear form of Pompeii may qualify it as a masterpiece after all.

Was Baziotes a great painter? Probably not, but he was a good one. Blum Helman Gallery, of course, would like us to think of him as something more. As a sidebar to 32 Years Later, a vitrine holds personal objects once belonging to the artist: a photo of General Sherman by Man Ray with a definition of “true courage”; a family photo; and a pair of “good luck” shoes worn by Baziotes in the studio. This collection of artifacts, reminiscent of nothing so much as a postmodernist shrine, lets us know that we are in the presence of a significant—nay, a major—artist. (Why, his shoes are imbued with magic!) Museological puffery, however, doesn’t help anyone see the work, and one can do without the business of legend-making.

Fortunately, one can summarily take in these objects and concentrate on the paintings. And they are worth the concentration. The key to Baziotes’s beguiling imagery may be that it is, despite its reliance on the fantastic, down to earth. “My work,” the artist wrote, “is like the Caribbean—above the Blue Sky and below the Blue Water— beneath the Sharks.” This statement gives an indication that Baziotes’s otherworldly images found their allusive power in the commonplace. And his best paintings— ethereal, haunting, and, yes, significant—are anything but. 32 Years Later is one of those rare exhibitions that leave the viewer wanting more.

© 1995 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 1995 edition of The New Criterion.

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