Richard Williams, Three Sisters, 1940. oil on canvas, framed 67.5 x 76.2 cm. Collection of Gallery One One One; gift of the artist. Photo: Bob Talbot
Richard Williams, born 1921, is still drawing. He has always believed life drawing to be the structural support for other kinds of drawing. Ideas we have about proportion come from the figure. He told me (in my interview from which I paraphrase) that he believes changes in art school curricula that have eliminated life drawing are a mistake, his conviction being that whether or not an art form has as its subject the human figure, life drawing still provides a reference and a kind of discipline for aesthetic thinking. He has made abstract works, and these, too have a basis in figure drawing, a practice that is consistent with twentieth-century masters such as Picasso and Matisse whom Williams has revered.
Williams deeply-held beliefs about drawing are at least partly responsible for drawings flourishing in Winnipeg when more experimental art school programs were de-emphasizing it in the 1960s and 1970s: after all, Williams was the Director of the University of Manitobas School of Art from 1954 to 1973, a period in which art schools became academic institutions, experimented with curricula, flirted with revolution, and finally -- after a great contest --consolidated themselves into the international art school system we know today.
Art schools have since adapted their programs to near universal contemporary academic standards. The word academic in art used to be associated with the French academies which, like Williams, put drawing at the centre of an artists life, but after World War II the academic in art increasingly came to refer to an intellectualization that made of artists modern professionals. Winnipegs School of Art was only the second institution after Mount Allison to introduce the Bachelor of Fine Arts to Canada, and for years after Williams tenure drawing traditions were followed and radical trends avoided at the Winnipeg school. Unlike, for example, the Ontario College of Art 1 and the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, which were at least temporarily turned upside down in the late 1960s, the University of Manitoba School of Art honed to traditional drawing tuition. To be sure, Winnipegs school (and the wider community) embraced abstract art early on, but it never went through a turbulent conceptual art period, and so Winnipeg was well-positioned to greet its late-1990s anointment as a world centre of abject drawing (most conspicuously represented by The Royal Art Lodge) with aplomb. Amusingly, Winnipeg is now seen as a kind of enchanted village of inward-turning souls who are guided by personal fantasies down isolated and marvelous paths.
Undoubtedly, Williams art was bolstered by Winnipegs storied -- and much exaggerated -- isolation from the main currents of the art world. Williams, like his younger Winnipeg colleagues Ivan Eyre, Wanda Koop, William Eakin, The Royal Art Lodge, Diana Thorneycroft, Esther Warkov, Sharon Alward, Eleanor Bond and Bev Pike, was happy, and had the luxury, of working in isolation.
But "isolation" is a complicated concept. Witness the article on Winnipeg artist Marcel Dzama in the September 2005 edition of Vanity Fair magazine: "'Being so isolated gives you a kind of innocence,' explains Dzama, who reluctantly decamped for New York's East Village last year after suffering through an especially savage winter." 2 The myth is that Winnipeg artists either live -- or grew up in -- basements. However untrue, in conversation with Williams it became apparent to me that even if you were a person of some experience like him, with an education at the Carnegie Institute and a graduate program, and that even if you were Director of an art school with the opportunity to travel, and even if, like Williams, you took on the occasional commission which would have forced an accommodation with clients,3 the temptations that a place like Winnipeg in the 1950s offered to construct ones own private world were overwhelming. Winnipeg may be today a drawing centre, but not so long ago it was the town that conceptual art forgot, and before all that one can easily imagine how isolated it would have been: Williams, we must never forget, moved to Winnipeg in 1954, not 2004.
Williams helped to organize the 1950s and 1960s Winnipeg Shows at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, group exhibitions which were national in scope and emphasized abstract art (modes of which Williams briefly took up) typical of the eras cosmopolitan art. One could argue that Williams encouragement of Winnipeg abstract painters like Tony Tascona, Don Reichert, Bruce Head and Winston Leathers put him at the centre of a successful 1950s and 60s project to educate Winnipegs middle classes about modernist painting and architecture.
However, as fights between abstract and representational artists faded in the 1970s in favour of debates about new media like performance and video art, the School was slow to pick up the pace. Marxist and feminist analyses of power were promulgated through Winnipeg organizations like Mentoring Artists for Womens Art beginning in the 1980s, and artist-run centres like Plug In participated in the rise of the contemporary popular culture industry that has since subsumed formal and even sociological debates in the art world, but it was only in the late-1990s that Winnipeg came into its own as a supplier to an art industry that now required sure supplies of unique, eccentric artists -- a local specialty that had its roots in the days of Williams 1950s School of Art.
Williams art is not conservative in any straightforward sense, but his work certainly has provoked discussion (see the Dale Amundson and George Swinton essays included on this web site) of what a conservative art might be. The proper term for Williams best art I think would be radically anachronistic. As one looks at Williams 1997 Naked Block Party drawings, the most recent works in this show, or Person to Person, one of is many paintings that depict the Annunciation, or at the brilliant early drawings in which he demonstrates his great talents as a draughtsman, one should be mindful that Williams visionary isolation is wholly voluntary and not imposed by fashion or ambition.
Williams art addresses sex and religion in a unique and personal way. Younger Winnipeggers and School of Art alumni Diana Thorneycroft and Sharon Alward also address sex and religion in their art in their own unique ways: all three artists have recast personal religious and sexual ideas into contemporary art, Williams in his Mary paintings, Alward in many works including her Christian Woman of Virtue performances, and Thorneycroft in her well-known St. Norbert Arts Centre installation of reliquary or "monstrance" works.
Much of Williams' art, except for the commissions, is deliberately provocative. It is no surprise that his religious paintings of Mary have never been permanently installed, as once intended, in any church, and that his erotic drawings in The Naked Block Party, a series that mixes up explicit sex and cheerful suburban characters, elicit whispers from the very sorts of people he depicts. Any survey of Winnipeg art over the last forty years would have to account both for Richard Williams' influence and Winnipeg's formation of him.
1) Two books give good overviews of art school debates in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s: OCA 1967-1972 Five Turbulent Years by Morris Wolfe [Toronto: Grub Street Books, 2001]; and Conceptual Art: The NSCAD Connection by Bruce Barber [Halifax: Anna Leonowens Gallery, 2001].
2) "Innocence and Experience, Marcel Dzama comes in from the Cold," Aaron Gell. Vanity Fair magazine, No. 541, September 2005, 224.
3) Williams has rarely sought commissioned works that would demand the favour of clients. His few commissions include an official provincial portrait of ex-Premier Howard Pauley. Interestingly, both Williams' 1959 stainless steel wall relief (now destroyed) for the Investor's Syndicate Building and his 1959 Concrete Sculpture (like Birds on a Bluff also for Polo Park and also destroyed) were completely abstract works.
The Richard Williams
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