at Robert Miller Gallery
What goes wrong in William Baileys figure paintings?
Bailey is widely known for his elegant, hieratic still lives.
He has produced a truly beautiful, patrician body of work
that achieves a contemplative vision of form deserving every
bit of critical acclaim accorded it. I have enormous regard
for these paintings and have sought them out for a full twenty
years. I love the tonal austerity, architectonic perfection
and order, the sheer magic of the world he creates out of
commonplace objects across a table top.
By providing evidence that a classical sensibility, its rationality
and reticence, can exalt the things of contemporary life,
Bailey is our benefactor. His courage in turning away from
modernist orthodoxies in the sixties in order to interpret
the meaning of modernity in his own way earns our deep respect.
Indeed, If I admired him less I might not have been so disappointed
in Studio Fictions.
Something is seriously off-kilter in these nudes.
This exhibition is devoted exclusively to figures. Prior
to the current show, Baileys figuresalways a female
nudeappeared sporadically, in ones and twos, isolated
adjuncts to his signature still lives. Here, for the first
time, Bailey is presented as a figure painter. It is, as Andrew
Forge states in his catalogue essay, "an occasion."
But what kind of an occasion? I left the gallery thinking
I had just attended a study in brand extension, a marketing
event more than an aesthetic one. The most culturally significant
item on display here is the academic posture that pretends
there can be no such thing as bad art by a good painter.
On view are paintings, eight large canvases and five gouaches,
that methodically and precisely render the human figure inert.
You have only to look carefully at the roomful of accompanying
pencil drawings, each graceful and appealing but largely emptied
of form, to see where the problem originates. His figure drawings
work as flat designs, relying on contour and silhouette to
convey a sense of volume and plasticity. What is sufficient
in pencil is inadequate for translation into paint. Bailey
is not Ingres.
Viewing the drawings and paintings together brings to mind
Roger Frys criticism on the British painter Reynolds:
"With a very feeble sense of form, Reynolds often seems
to insist that the empty drawing of an arm and hand is the
simplification of a great draughtsman. His very scarce drawings
are there to show how little of a draughtsman he was . . .
Bailey brings the same intelligence and measured control
of color and touch to these nudes as to the still lives. But
intelligence and taste are not enough to produce a convincing
figure. Even talent is insufficient. Gifted as he is, Bailey
appears exquisitely sensitive to everything except the singular
demands the human figure makes upon his attention and craft.
Empathy is required to breathe life into form. The nature
of that empathy determinesand is, in turn, shaped bythe
character of the space forms occupy. Baileys figures
pose in the same illusionistic, shallow but still three-dimensional
space that surrounds the fixed stars of his still life universe.
It is a convention that requires solidity in order to be credible.
The human figure, even an idealized one, is not the same kind
of solid as an expresso pot or a soup tureen. Its scaffolding
is internal, largely concealed except at those points, particularly
the joints, where flesh is drawn more tightly over the skeleton.
It cannot tenant a three-dimensional space without intuitions
of muscle and bone.
Baileys listless nudes suffer for want of joints. They
are fitted with surface anatomical detailsbreasts, navels,
crotch hairbut short of structural anatomy. Lacking
the weight and mass their surroundings suggest, they tend
to absent themselves from the pull of gravity. The result
is a naive quality out of sync with the sophistication of
the overall tonal bias.
Largely devoid of architectural beams, these girl-shapes
could be made out of kneaded erasers and seem to absorb light
the same way. They are not archetypes or ideals but mannered
exercises in picture-making. Bailey substitutes art historical
borrowings for sympathy with the more complex claims of his
subject. Obvious references to other painters are not problems
in themselves. These are elements of a common language, permitting
conversation between past and present, between one artist
and another. What matters here is the seeming absence of any
felt reflection upon that language, any visceral need for
the devices or stylizations imitated.
Look, for example, at Memory of a Woman Posing, 1994.
Light enters a window in the upper right corner of the canvas.
It bleaches the wall with the oblique parallelogram we expect
in such interiors only to stop short before it can fall on
anything else in the composition. It avoids the seated figure,
shunning any obligation to play across it in search of planes
and subtleties. It is not there to illuminate. It is a convention,
a stage direction more pedantic than needed.
On the whole, Baileys figures are vacant, uninhabited,
their contours unable to evoke the volumes they define. Look
well at Sisters, 1991, Two Women, 1999 or Model
in Studio, 1999. Their pubic hair has more expression
than their faces. Uninflected irises are affixed like masks,
a curiosity that results in soft-core vacuity. The overall
effect tilts toward the pornographic: well-bred, Episcopalian
pornography packaged with consummate taste. While the underlying
vulgarity might be lost on the vestry, it is clear to anyone
who loves the workparticularly Balthus young girlsthat
provided Bailey with his precedents.
I had to walk through the exhibition twice before I could
see it without imaging Magrittes Rape, a 1934
bit of opéra bouffe which transforms the female
torso into a face with breasts for eyes, a navel-nose, and
the pubic triangle serving nicely as a Clara Bow mouth. Magritte
intended to amuse but Bailey is in dead earnest. You can tell
by the titles: Hotel Europa, Night by the Grand Canal,
Pensione, Letter to Venice.
There is a telling defensiveness to the catalogue essays
by critic Mark Strand and Andrew Forge, Baileys fellow
painter and colleague at Yale. Beneath the silky purring an
essential unease is apparent . Listen to Forge: "The
fact is that you cant get far with his painting unless
you come to terms with them as inventions, as achievements
of the imagination." Anticipating objections, Strand
offers a pre-emptive deflection: "None of them is painted
from life, nor is it Baileys intention to have them
look as if they may have been. . . . They are projections
of an ideal that lives in Baileys imagination."
Essays make a virtue of necessity. In reality, talk of invention
explains nothing here at all. The entire history of art is
the history of invention and imaginative achievement. Everywhere
we look we find artists relying on memory and understanding
to take the place of living models. Centuries of crucifixions,
beheadings, flights into Egypt, battle scenes and Rebeccas
at the Well were conceived and executed without relying on
sitting models. Think of Tintorettos fluttering angels
and falling bodies or the variety of spontaneous poses in
Rubens Martyrdom of St. Ursula. These were created
out of the artists visual imaginations and their comprehensive
knowledge of human form.
Bailey is simply not that engaged by the figure itself.
He prefers manufactured forms. The only biological one he
admits to the closed world of his still lives is the egg.
And an egg is the single organic form that is wholly predictable,
its surface anticipating and echoing the mechanically perfect
volumes of manufactured objects. As a painter, he seems averse
to the unruliness of contact with life.
The splendor of intelligibility that others have brought to
the human figureand which Bailey brings to still lifeis
a matter of profound sympathy. He fails to compel assent to
his figures because he has not loved them enough to know them