The lattice patterns in Thornton Willis’s recent paintings (all 2008) are a departure from his faceted triangular forms of the past few years, which in turn varied from his signature wedge-shaped abstractions recalling the Suprematist configurations of Kazimir Malevich and Ivan Kliun. A riff on the grid, the intercut bands in these large and small canvases seem overly familiar at first—the Madonna and Child of modernism, endlessly recycled. Willis, however, makes the grid his own, using it as the armature for a personalized brand of geometric painting that emphasizes the artist’s hand.
At 73, Willis is widely admired for his painterly intelligence and intuition as well as the transparency of his process. His approach is straightforward, spontaneous and intense, the brushwork yielding wobbles and drips served straight up, no chaser. He never fails to let you know that these are paintings, some still redolent of oil’s distinctive, artisanal smell. Idiosyncratic hue trumps more neutral structure in works quirkily designed to produce emotive effects. Two other artists who make geometry equally expressive, equally personal are Mary Heilmann and Chris Martin.
Willis’s highly diverse palette is more urban than pastoral, as in gotham’s rhythm, with its browns and industrial greens and grays in combination with crimson and pink. Midnight blue is his black, and pink—a color present in nearly all the paintings—serves as his white. As a challenge, Willis puts together some risky color schemes in paintings such as flash black, replete with muddy, bile-colored rectangles—a kind of ground except it doesn’t recede—slashed by bands of orange, red, pink, yellow and gray that often work against each other. His canny addition of a vertical, midnight-blue median snaps it all thrillingly together.
Willis’s wavered bands, painted freehand, are fuzzy at the edges, and other colors show through or outline them, evidence of what’s beneath. Curiously, the bands tend to shift slightly in color as they emerge from crossing other strips. There is no real attempt to make them appear interwoven, although we read them that way at first, despite the inconsistent tones. Then they break down into the separate entities they are, a quick back and forth between illusion and reality. Willis begins with what seems a simple premise and makes it hold all he knows and loves about painting—a formal feat that is deeply gratifying to see.