I have written about almost all my teachers from college: Al Held on on my blog and "Artdeal", Lester Johnson on “Berkshire Fine Arts”, Bernie Chaet in an essay to a show I curated and Erwin Hauer in my yet to be published book on drawing, but have neglected to write about the work of William Bailey. Odd since he had the most impact on my sense of what it means to be an artist. I still recall fondly his support of my work when he was my “Scholar of the House” advisor as a senior. Although I have quoted his insights throughout my blogging, his work presents itself to me as a conundrum and resists easy description. It is realist but does not partake of the history of realism from Caravaggio on, since it is not grounded in an exploration of the perceptual base of most realism. It therefore does not have the sort of optical impact of something freshly seen as in Lennart Anderson’s or Al Leslie’s work. It partakes of the figuration of the early Renaissance, that is typified by Perugino, which was still imbued with notions of metaphysics and correspondences between the earthly and the higher realms. where ideality dictated reality. There is a will to make the figures of his paintings real, but it is achieved through a meticulous working of the surface not through any analysis of how things are seen through the eye's optical structure. Like so much avant-garde American art of the last fifty years they jump out of the subject/object dichotomy and move into a neutral world of pragmatically made things following simple rules. There is neither a trope toward endless reduction in a search for underpinnings nor a move into the optical ambiguity of figure/ground that Held explores in his “Big N”. It is as though the object is already reduced in the way that cubes in a Judd installation are, not subject to further questioning as to what stands under them. Both Midwesterners they share a workmanlike practicality, which posits pragmatically things as made and space as just the opportunity for placement.
This interpretation flies in the face of Bailey as a Romantic, who has turned his back on Modernity to flee into a world of numinous objects. He is closer to Malevich, the father of Minimalism, whose abstraction is created ex nihilo than to Mondrian, whose search for essences involved a painstaking reduction of the visual world. Although, I do recall his admiration for Mondrian’s surfaces, where the remnants of physicality still survived. Maybe it could be said about Bailey’s surfaces that they are the sole event in his work where the optical remains.
His followers have latched onto the myth of the anti-modern Bailey with his philo-Italian lifestyle and love of the pre-modern. When I knew him early on, his somewhat revisionist opinions did give me permission to look at whatever art period interested and inspired me without feeling compelled to follow the style du jour. But I now see Bailey as very modern, more modern than Held who presented himself as more cutting edge than everyone else at Yale. Bailey and Judd represent the rejection of the optical tradition of the West from Caravaggio's chiaroscuro to Cubism, a rejection that has defined the last 40 years of art more than any other idea. Culturally, it puts him in the anti-representational domain of Samuel Beckett whose characters in “Endgame” are reduced to a bare minimum and resist further reduction. The perspectival approach in the end always atomizes and relativizes what it sees: Bailey, Beckett and Judd put a stop to this endless dissolution with a harsh notion of a pragmatic reality beyond which one cannot go.
Judd presents the irreducibility of the human/made with his boxes. Bailey is doing the same with his eggs, bottles and figures. Bailey’s message is that the world of the human is self-constructed, yet once constructed it envelopes us; we surround and are surrounded by the human. We are always arranging our objects on the table or putting them away in the cupboard. Inevitably, the human presence stands out there beyond us without the ambiguity of being subjected to our gaze as in Giacometti. It is an eternal realm that will outlive the abstract constructs of engineering and science. In the end Bailey’s is a rhetorical painting, which insists adamantly on an idealized notion of being in the world.
Although putting him in the Minimalist camp probably creates some confusion in the reader’s mind when you consider the multiple objects and “realism” of his work(Judd didn't like the term as it applied to him), I think the confusion is obviated if you see Judd et alia as the “Irreducibles”. Then, Bailey fits right in with this notion of the artist’s vision that puts a stop to endless analysis. Notions of autonomy and authority of High Modernism have come up recently via comments by Carl Belz on my writing about Provisional Painting and Zombie Formalism. Intentionally or otherwise, the practitioners of Provisionalism (often called Casualism)deconstruct the authoritative stance of artists like Stella, Judd or Kelly by abandoning Minimalism’s self -referential autonomy. In a post-modern way everything is couched in irony and incompleteness. Their approach is seen as the necessary abandonment of the self-sufficient world of scientific certainty. Bailey is clearly on the other side of the divide. There is neither irony nor incompleteness. He is an autonomous modernist side by side with Stella, Kelley and Judd.