The Gentle Giant: William King, 1925-2015
In this tribute to the sculptor William King, who passed away peacefully Tuesday night at his Springs, New York home under hospice care, David Cohen draws on an essay he wrote in 2011 on King’s work for Iowa State University, Ames, where a number of his works are on permanent loan. King, a former president of the National Academy of Design, was a much loved figure in the Hamptons artistic community, along with his wife, the painter Connie Fox. A memorial to the artist will take place at the Guild Hall Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, 158 Main St, East Hampton, NY 11937 on Saturday, May 23 at 10AM.
Bill King was the gentle giant of postwar American sculpture. So gentle, indeed, that his name and achievement remain chronically under-acknowledged, considering the power, virtuosity and humanity of his work. He was a self-effacing man whose work tapped a light, comic vein, but given the proper attention it deserves, his work could change the way sculpture is thought about and made.
William King was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1925, and grew up in Coconut Grove, Miami. He was a near contemporary, at the Cooper Union, of Alex Katz and Lois Dodd, his first wife, and remained close in many ways to their common aesthetic grounding, shared also with younger sculptors such as Red Grooms and Marisol Escobar.
The hallmark of King’s early work was radical experiment keeping company with social connection and hedonism. The mix of big, important, innovative ideas and immediate, sensory, in-the-moment experience was a kind of visual jazz. For this was not just the time of Franz Kline’s big open defiant brushstrokes and Jackson Pollock’s all-over mists of intricately drooling line, but of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. If we look at the works that King made in the early 1950s when he got back from his Fulbright to Italy we see free, experimental, open forms that take their cue from jazz as much as art in their fusion of virtuosity and cool. King had a reputation from the get go for being able to make anything, a magical touch with materials. This comes across in an exquisite ten inch high by seven by three and a half inch sculpture in metal and wood, Sonny Greer and Jimmy Archie, 1953. It almost looks like one piece of flimsy, slightly rusty, found metal has been twisted and bent this way and that to describe – in a quick, effortless, yet somehow accurate sketch – one guy on drums, another crouched over his trumpet. There is a naïve, childish quality to the piece until you look closely, and feel your way into the piece, and you realize how astoundingly astute every line and dent is to conveying the sense of movement and sound.
As befits a man whose handling of materials is so effortless and whose aesthetic is cool, casual, in the moment, King was disarmingly dismissive about his early efforts, especially when he moved on to something new. He was, clearly, deeply appreciative of the work of Elie Nadelman with his highly stylized, folk-inspired, doll-like figures. Seeing Nadelman’s memorial retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, the year King finished Cooper, was instrumental in shaping his outlook. But when he called his own early works in wood “watered-down Nadelman” he was being overly self-deprecatory. As Sanford Schwartz has written, King’s wooden sculptures are “relations of Nadelman’s people, but with innards.” But Nadelman was liberating for King because he showed that satire and streamlining could go together. King’s sculpture managed to really expose an individual’s flaws while also bringing us close to his or her humanity. As Hilton Kramer wisely observed, King’s humor is essentially Chaplinesque: “a mockery that remains sweet to the taste, a satirical vision that does not exempt the artist himself from the reach of its criticism.”
His social portraits were at their most acute in the ceramic medium. Bob and Terry, 1954, is a tour de force of economy: it seems the more he leaves out the more he gets across. In such simply shaped forms he captures the togetherness of the couple, the support relationship between them, their social aspirations. You feel you know all about these people.
The ambition to test the limits of what can be left out while getting across real sensations of movement and feeling led King, in the 1960s, into radical new territory. Magic, 1970 is aptly named because it is a sculpture in which so little conveys so much. It is simply two sheets of shaped aluminum that slot into each other with the planes at a 90 degree angle, in which one half denotes a leg, from thigh to foot, the other upper body, from torso via head to outstretched arm. There is no color, no joinery, no facial feature or expressive excrescence of any sort. But where you would expect this little information to at best be like a traffic sign or scarecrow of a figure, a mere schemata or signifier of a figure, this, on the contrary, is a portrait of a very knowable figure—one that certain lusty viewers, indeed, would want to know better! Magic conveys the sensual, curvaceous form of a young woman absorbed in some activity of her own – yoga stretching, perhaps, or tending a flower. The shape of the metal gets across lithe limbs without resorting to erotic stereotypes. The simple angling of one plane to another creates enough shadow to give the figure voluptuous volume.
King’s genius has been to fuse formal innovation and humorous observation. The outstanding American sculptor in both these camps, of course, was Alexander Calder, with his circus of wire figures and his joyous, purely abstract stabiles and mobiles. But in his interlocking metal pieces King made a sculptural move as bold as Calder’s mobiles with an earthy wit comparable to Calder’s Circus: a marriage of modes.
In his work of the last decades, King found a synthesis of the satirical explorations of his early period and the formal freedoms of his interlocking pieces in often monumentally scaled stick figures in multi-figured narrative compositions. As was his wont, these mature works have it both ways: they embody all the virtues of speed of execution and lack of preciousness – perfunctory, streamlined, economical, sketchy, unpretentious – while resolutely standing their ground as effective figurative sculpture, simultaneously conveying individuality and type.
One of King’s earliest champions, the painter and critic Fairfield Porter, marveled in 1960 at the young sculptor’s ability to fashion single sculptures of multiple figures, to “create a three dimensional whole out of more than one figure in the round,” a feat he compared to playing three-dimensional chess. In Power Tennis, 1990, he bonds players and their equipment, literally and metaphorically, as arms and rackets are rendered in much the same way in flat shapes of aluminum such that sportsmen and women become like machines as surely as their equipment becomes quasi organic extensions of the limbs to which they are attached. King’s use of reductive and technological language escapes the literalism of traditional figuration in order to enhance the humorous and universal aspects of people’s foibles rather than to convey any notion of standardization.
In a career that ran in tandem with the hegemony of formal abstraction in sculpture, Bill King inevitably struggled with the prejudice that sculpture full of humanity and humor can’t be quite as serious as sculpture devoid of them. But the tide has clearly turned in ways that ought to work in King’s favor, with an increasing number of sculptors, fêted internationally, who are producing work that looks remarkably close in spirit, if not quite as regal in sheer mastery of form, as his own. When art historians of the future connect the dots of modern sculpture then artists like Franz West, Stephan Balkenhol, Huma Bhabha, Thomas Houseago, Julian Opie and Rebecca Warren will force recognition of the achievement of King the way King in turn has had us rethink Nadelman and Calder.