William Bailey
Studio Fictions
at Robert Miller Gallery

What goes wrong in William Bailey’s 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, Bailey’s figures—always a female nude—appeared 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 Fry’s 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 determines—and is, in turn, shaped by—the character of the space forms occupy. Bailey’s 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.

Bailey’s listless nudes suffer for want of joints. They are fitted with surface anatomical details—breasts, navels, crotch hair—but 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, Bailey’s 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 work—particularly Balthus’ young girls—that provided Bailey with his precedents.

I had to walk through the exhibition twice before I could see it without imaging Magritte’s 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, Bailey’s fellow painter and colleague at Yale. Beneath the silky purring an essential unease is apparent . Listen to Forge: "The fact is that you can’t 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 Bailey’s intention to have them look as if they may have been. . . . They are projections of an ideal that lives in Bailey’s 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 Tintoretto’s 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 figure—and which Bailey brings to still life—is a matter of profound sympathy. He fails to compel assent to his figures because he has not loved them enough to know them better.


April 1999

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