WILLIAM KINGby Joyce Beckenstein
ALGUS GREENSPON GALLERY | JANUARY 14 - FEBRUARY 15, 2014
Quite a cast of characters are chatting things up at Algus Greenspon Gallery. We can imagine this motley crew of elegant, insolent, fetching, and feckless types—your typical gallery opening crowd—springing to life when lights dim. They’re here gathered in an exhibition that unfolds like a miniature, if incomplete, retrospective of works by the sculptor William King. This thoughtfully conceived homage to an 88–year-old American legend—less well known, perhaps, to a generation that teethed on conceptual art and postmodern “isms”—offers refreshing insights into America’s unrelenting love affair with the human figure. Specifically, it affirms King’s place in a long line of figurative artists, from anonymous limners to Edward Hopper, and Alex Katz, and from American folk art carvers to the sophisticated sculpture of Elie Nadelman and contemporary artists such as Thomas Houseago and Huma Bhabha.
King arrived in New York from Florida in the ’40s, when his contemporaries were expressionistically splattering, streaking, and staining enormous abstractions. Figurative painting and sculpture were much out of favor. Nevertheless, King—who studied at Cooper Union and in Rome as a Fulbright Scholar—had his work acquired early on by the Guggenheim, Hirshorn, Metropolitan, and Whitney museums. Clearly they recognized his unflinching, Daumier-like eye for the vagaries of human behavior and his rogue to romantic sensibilities.
Though his early wood sculptures are in collections, and thus absent from this exhibit, his “1919” (1980), recalls how King admired these qualities in the sculptures of Elie Nadelman (1882 – 1946). Like Nadelman’s pieces, which carve personality types using clean, classically elegant lines, King’s “1919” depiction of a mother tenderly stroking her child’s head relies on simple, curved geometric shapes. His consistent grasp of underlying structure as key to expressive form also animates “Tennis in Spain” (1979), a wafer thin carved figure of a player about to serve. His racket, extending upwards from his arm and rendered as a taut continuous line, suggests muscles stretched to their limits. “Fame” (1987) acknowledges King’s facility with the witty language inherent in cubist abstraction. Like a five-line drawing translated into sculpture, it depicts a mooch faking a pretentious bow to retrieve a discarded but still-smoldering cigar stub.
Known for his forgiving, non-judgmental humor, King often pokes fun at himself; his sculptures appear to walk on stilts, mimicking his own 6’2” frame. His best known pieces, made of fabric, wood, and vinyl covering metal armatures, portray tragicomic, often screwball types that tickle and jab at the foibles of human nature. King sires this hilarious mix of human psyches through the subtlest shifts in scale and texture. “Citrus”(2008), resembling a backwoods oaf dressed for town in Florida orange, contrasts with “Waif” (2010). Shorter and wider, the latter’s soft, deeply saturated red velvet suit and dark shirt lend a defensive air to this hatless chap in a misshapen tie. King chose slick black and white vinyl for two squat figures titled “Politics” (2008). These sinister, rat-headed critters baring outsized, gleaming teeth, converse with “Cupid” (2008), a pimp-type sporting a sleazy coral suit. Curators Mitchell Algus and Amy Greenspon, recognizing the impulse to read stories into these characters, have strategically placed them in conversational groups. They evoke the historical use of the figure in American art as a protagonist in visual narratives, from Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers to the subversive comic strips of R. Crumb.
One grouping in particular, “The Judgment of Paris,” (1988), riffs on the trope of the legendary myth-as-political-commentary. It recalls how Paris, commanded by Zeus to award a golden apple to the fairest of goddesses, chose Aphrodite, igniting the Trojan War. In King’s version, Paris has no such spark. He’s just a leggy guy at a cocktail party courting three cookie-cutter, svelte women named London, Rome, and New York. No golden apples here, just tippy wine glasses held in impotent wooden fingers. These metaphoric sophisticates, like their political constructs, are not very substantive, nor do they have much to say to one another.
There’s more to admire in this show, especially King’s deft mastery of other media. He continues to carve, cast, weld, model, draw, print, and sew. “Tom Boutis (at Cooper Union)” (1946) reveals him making sculpture from scrap. Long before anyone thought art made of junk was a good idea, he constructed this “portrait” of a school chum from hand-cut rusted steel tabs nailed to a wooden frame. Two ceramic figures again document King’s knack for extracting different personalities from similar forms: “Kid”(1973) is cute, cloaked in a warm, freckled ceramic glaze, his protruding tongue savoring something sweet. But the projectile tongue of “Etude” (1973) laps the rough, charred surface of cold stone, rendering as comatose an old man’s face.
Missing from this otherwise well-rounded exhibit are King’s monolithic metal sculptures: athletes, lovers, and dancers assembled like dovetailed cardboard cutouts, and his small bronze figures, Giacometti-like but happier. Their inclusion would underscore the broad sweep of modernism in King’s art, and his ability to indulge its formal elements without exacting a price from his iconic portrayals of an imperfect American psyche.But you can’t do it all. Bill King’s art, like the man, has very long legs. Let’s hope for a roomier show next time.
Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.