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 Neil Williams  (1934 - 1988)

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Lived/Active: New York / Brazil      Known for: geometric abstraction, shaped canvas

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Neil Williams
An example of work by Neil Williams
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography was submitted by Kim Esteve, February 2005

In "Art In America" (May 1988), Ed Leffingwell wrote that Williams' late work 'corresponds to dominant concerns in the later history of Brasilian Modernism.  That correspondence is not so readily apparent in the paintings themselves... The earlier hard-edged abstractions of his output of the 60s included in the Lawrence Alloway exhibitions "The Shaped Canvas" (1964) and "Systemic Paintings", (1966) at the Guggenheim Museum N.Y., bear a certain formal relationship to the Concrete and Neo Concrete of Brazilian Artists.'

Williams had developed a technique of painting as a collage in the 70s, applying dried skins of paint directly to the support, while retaining the structural device of the shaped canvas.  He manufactured these skins independently from the paintings themselves, on sheets of glass.  These passages and strokes of paint were peeled from the glass, and incorporated to the overall composition of the painting through the adhesive of additional paint.

Neil Williams was an important part of the 60s art movement in New York.  A regular at Max's in New York, he was an 'artist's artist'. John Chamberlain, Frosty Meyers, Larry Bell, Roy Lichstenstein, the Poet Robert Creely, Bill Burroughs, Frank Stella, Mark de Suvero, Andre Emmerich and Henry Geldzeller all wrote eulogies in his glossy brochure for his final post mortem vernisage.

He graduated from The California School of Fine Arts B.F.A. 1959, and was on the faculty of The School of Visual Arts in New York City, and was a Guest Professor at Metro State College, Denver Colorado, 1975, and Guest Professor at Syracuse University in New York.

His work is recognized in the U.S. as well as abroad, where in 2005 two of his larger works sold to a collector in Brazil.

"ABC to Erotic." Art in America, Number 5, (September 1966).
"Art in New York." Time Magazine, (June 3, 1968).
Barnitz, Jacqueline. "Mid-Monthly Review of Arts Exhibitions in New York Galleries and Museums", Arts Magazine, (June 1968).
Battock, Gregor. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968
Burton, Scott. "Reviews and Previews", Art News, (September 1968).
Creeley, Robert. "A Way to Go, Frank Stella." The Lugano Review, Vol. 1: 3-4. (Summer, 1965).
Gruen, John. Art in New York. (June 10, 1968).
Hurch, Richard. "Private affinites and Public Uses: The Mitchner Collection." Arts, Vol. 40:7. (May, 1966)
Krauss, Rosalind. "Letters to the Editor." Artforum, Vol. 5:5. (December 1966).
Leffingwell, Edward. "Neil Williams: Herançia Valiosa." Galleria-Revista da Arte. Number 9. (1988).
Leffingwell, Edward. " Report from Brazil: Sao Paulo Diary." Art in America, January. 1989).
Lippard, Lucy. "Perverse Prospective, "Art International. Vol. 10:3. (March 1967)
Mellow, James R. "New York Letter." Art International, Vol.12:7. (September 1968).
"Obituaries." Art in America. (May, 1968).
"Obituaries." New York Times. (March. 1988).
Perreault, John. "A Minimal Falure." Arts, Vol.41:5. (1967).
Pincus Witten, Robert. "Systemic Paintings, A Well Chosen Few Is Chosen by Lawrence Alloway." Artforum, Vol. 5:3. (November, 1966).
Rose, Barbara. "How to Murder the Avant Guard," Artforum, Vol.4:3. (November, 1965).
Schneider, Pierre. "The Singular Present," Art News Annual, Vol.31. (1966)
Vassar College Catalogue, Concept, 1969.
Von Meier, Kurt. "Los Angeles Letter." Art International, Vol.10:5.

Biography from Spanierman Gallery:
An important exponent of Minimal and Systemic painting, Neil Williams was born in Bluff, Utah, in 1934.  He undertook his formal training at the California School of Fine Arts, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959.  One of the first American artists to investigate the aesthetic potential of the irregularly shaped canvas, he initially depicted hard-edged geometric forms, but eventually turned to a painterly abstract style.

Williams began exhibiting his work in New York City in 1960 and continued to do so throughout his career.  His first solo show was held at the Green Gallery in Manhattan in 1964.  During that same year, he participated in the exhibition, The Shaped Canvas, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where his work hung alongside that of artists such as Frank Stella and Paul Feeley.  In the ensuing years, Williams’s paintings appeared in a number of group shows devoted to advanced trends in American art, including Systemic Painting, curated by Lawrence Alloway and held at the Guggenheim in 1966.  He also had one-man exhibitions at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York and the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles.

Although Williams exhibited regularly in New York and could often be seen at the legendary Max’s Kansas City, he gradually distanced himself from the downtown art scene, spending the majority of his time in Sagaponack, New York, where he shared a studio with Stella.  It was there that a portion of his oeuvre––which had been stored in a damp basement––was damaged or destroyed by water and mildew.

By the early 1970s, Williams had evolved a “technique of sculptural collage whereby he applied the dried skin of acrylic paint directly to the canvas,” while continuing to emphasize the structural integrity of the support.[1]  He later created colorful abstractions in which he synthesized landscape and floral elements inspired by the ambiance he encountered on visits to Brazil; as one critic put it: “In Brazil Williams fused the tropical and the urban concrete.” [2]

In addition to his activity as a painter, Williams taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York and held guest professorships at Metro State College in Denver and at Syracuse University.  A filmmaker as well, he also developed several screenplays, including a script that dealt with the contemporary history of the Navaho tribe.

In 1986, a retrospective of Williams’s work was held at the Clocktower, a well-known alternative gallery in New York.  Unfortunately, his career was cut short by his untimely death in New York on March 25th 1988 at the age of fifty-three. Described as an “artist’s artist,” he was not well known to the general public, but was greatly admired by his peers.

Examples of Williams’s work can be found in public collections throughout the United States, including the Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania; the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin; the MIT-List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Denver Art Museum; the Guild Hall Museum of East Hampton, East Hampton, New York; the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. A posthumous exhibition of Williams’s work was held at the Galleria Luisa Strina in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1989.

Carol Lowrey

1. Edward Leffingwell, “Sao Paulo Diary,” Art in America 77 (January 1989): 55.
2. Leffingwell, 56.

Copyright* The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery and may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without written permission from Spanierman Gallery nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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