The ‘made up’ world of artist William Bailey

The Whitney Humanities Center is currently hosting an exhibition by renowned American artist William Bailey, who also happens to be the Kingman Brewster Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale.

Bailey, who turned 80 in November, is a widely exhibited figurative painter whose work appears in major collections nationwide, including those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

He studied under artist and educator Josef Albers at Yale, where he earned B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees, and later served as a professor of art here from 1969 to 1995. The painter owns a home in the Umbrian hills of Italy, where he lives four months of the year. The rest of the time he lives at his home in Branford and works at his studio in New Haven.

The Yale Daily Bulletin recently visited with Bailey at his studio to talk about his art. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Can you tell me about your experience as a part-time resident of Italy?

I've been going to Italy regularly for 38 years in the summer. I go in May and come back in September. It's an important part of my life and work, although I don't want to spend more time than I spend there. I think something happens when you're an expatriate. I need the resistance of this country as part of my life — a sense of engagement. ... It's one of the rhythms of life to be there in May and be here in September.


You're often described as a "figurative painter." Are you satisfied with that description?

I don't like categories. I have been variously described as a realist and as a classicist. The paintings I do are not from life — they're made up, but they're made up from real situations. Real objects. You can see some objects over there on the other side of the room. I don't paint from those things, but they're actors in my repertory company. The figures as well are not from life nor is the landscape. Although about two weeks into that painting I was looking at the landscape and I realized that it's almost exactly the landscape I see driving up and down from my house to the town below ... So all these things come from my memory really.

Above left, some of the objects that Bailey often depicts in his signature still lifes. Above right, detail from the artist’s “Pianello.” He refers to the objects in his paintings as “actors in a repertory company.



Can you say something about your process, which is unusual, if not unique?

Quite often when I'm starting a painting, I'll set up a situation in my mind and explore it in drawings with different poses and different situations but always the same subject matter. After I do this imagining the situation on paper, I start the painting without the use of any of these drawings. Literally. I don't do any of these as studies to be transferred to the painting. It's just a way of thinking about the place.

In the beginning I try to establish the largest areas, loosely painted, and the situation becomes clearer to me as I go. The final image really arrives during the actual painting of the painting. It doesn't precede it.

What about the paintings you do on the side, which are related to a larger painting?

More often than not I would say they develop independently. They don't necessarily refer to the larger oil painting. With the still lifes especially, I often do drawings after I've started a painting and I make notes on the colors so that I can remember what I've mixed when I have to go back. I started just keeping these notes simply because they were a record of the process.

When did you start the still lifes that are most recognizably "William Bailey"?

I would say about 1970, before I started going to Italy. They changed when I went to Italy. I did a large number of paintings in the late 1960s and up to 1970 of very simple things, mostly eggs — sometimes with no other objects at all.

Do you think of any of your objects symbolically?

No, not symbolically. They become characters in whatever I am manipulating, but not symbols. There is nothing ideological in the work. I would say that the relationships between the objects are more important than their individual identities, and those relationships change in the process — often radically.

Bailey started to keep notes as he painted, mainly to keep track of the colors he was mixing, but he keeps them as a record of the processes of each work.

In the beginning do you assign those relationships?

Yes, but they change in the course of time. I don't want a viewer to try and read into it, although I think we all tell ourselves stories when we see a picture. And that's fine. It's what a picture should do. But it just shouldn't necessarily be mine. If it's not mine, I certainly don't mind.

The objects we see so often in your paintings must be like your old friends.

Yes, they're like old friends and presences I can count on in certain situations. I have an equal number in Italy and some of the ones in Italy I don't have here so I paint them out of my head. Some of them I use a lot and some of them I use only once and never again.

A lot of the objects are vessels, and you often show them at eye level so you can't see the interior. Is the perspective accurate?

It's my intention to be more or less ... "accuracy" isn't the word I'd use, it's "credibility."

Most of your canvases are rather large, so it was surprising to come across a smaller-scale painting that was unmistakably yours.

There's a Piero Della Frencesca in Urbino called "The Flagellation." I had known that picture for years and years in reproduction and expected it to be big like one of the frescos. It's actually quite small and I was shocked when I finally saw it.

Is Piero Della Frencesca a big influence?

More in a spiritual way than in a direct stylistic way. To me he's one of the gods of painting. He's been important my whole life.

People describe your work as "serene." Are you in a transcendent or mystical state when you work?

I don't think it's mystical. When my work changed around 1960, I was thinking, "There's so much noise in contemporary art. So much gesture." I realized it wasn't my natural bent to make a lot of noise and I'm not very good at rhetorical gesture. So this came on a little gradually. With the egg paintings, I started thinking about time and slowing the paintings down and allowing relationships to develop in time and somehow the time I spent in developing those relationships was reflected in the way the image was read. It wasn't read quickly because it wasn't painted quickly, and the relationships didn't reveal themselves easily because they weren't arrived at easily. And it's that complication I think that got into the work. The paintings that I know, that I admire like Piero, have that quality, that silence. I'm sure that's gotten into the work, but I don't have a formula for it.

As a painter, do you think of yourself as quintessentially American?

Yes. But I don't think we have any purely American painting. The closest we have to purely American painting is probably New York School painting of the 1950s — abstract expressionist paintings. Certainly that was the effort and I was very sympathetic to it because a lot of the expressionists were my friends and mentors. For a figurative painter I think it's almost impossible to imagine that your great grandparents, who were Europeans, aren't constantly with you. You can't escape it. Not that I would want to. I think most American painting — almost all figurative painting — has a debt to Europe and to the masters of European painting.

Quite often Bailey will “fiddle” with the subjects of the paintings he’s working on. He describes the drawings he does as part of this process as “dreaming about the situation on paper.”

Growing up was there ever a time you didn't think that you wanted to be an artist?

No, it's always what I thought I wanted to be but I didn't know quite what that meant. When I was a kid I did quite a lot of drawing, because we moved around all the time and I didn't have any friends. My father worked in radio broadcasting in its early days, and we moved from one radio station to another. We lived in Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City and Omaha. I don't have any real hometown. I just drew things that I made up ... from movies or books. People told me I was "an artist," but I didn't know what that meant in terms of being a painter. My father was supportive in the sense that he thought it would be good if I were a commercial artist.

I entered the University of Kansas a few years after my father died, and I took these courses in commercial art. It was incredibly boring. ... And I had to take a drawing course, which was only offered in the drawing and painting department. There were two or three young painters there who were very passionate about their work and art, and they were very encouraging. That was really the beginning of serious work. They were the ones who introduced me to the history of art in a meaningful — non-historical — way. They introduced me to the paintings of Titian and Bellini and Piero and everyone, and it was like joining the club.

Aside from the show at the Whitney Humanities Center, is anyone working on a larger retrospective of your work?

No. I have had many exhibitions covering certain periods but not a complete retrospective. There was an attempt several years ago by the St. Louis Museum to put together a venue for a retrospective. But there was no corporate money or backing. There's not much museum interest in straight figurative painting. The climate has never been less favorable for the kind of work that I do. So I don't expect to see it in my lifetime. However, for the past 50 years I have worked with little regard for contemporary fashion, yet my work continues to be exhibited in major galleries both here and abroad. I consider myself fortunate.

The exhibition of temperas, drawings and prints by William Bailey is on public view through Jan. 28 at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St. The display is open to the public free of charge Mondays and Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m., or by appointment. Call 203-432-0670.

— By Dorie Baker