The Legacy of Neil Williams, a “Painter on Shaped Canvas”

The notable career of the American painter Neil Williams, the so-called “Painter on Shaped Canvas,” was cut short when the artist died suddenly of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 53. A selection of his work at Mark Borghi Fine Art serves as a vivid reminder of his creative legacy. 

Williams was in a moment of transition at the time of his death, in the process of leaving the United States to take up full-time residence in São Paulo. He was a quintessentially American artist: born in Utah, educated at the California School of Fine Arts, and exhibiting his work in New York by the time that he was in his mid-twenties. His aesthetic influenced a generation of American artists, but he slowly distanced himself from the New York scene, eventually retreating to the Sag Harbor area, and later to Brazil, inspired by the exotic natural landscape. 

In the U.S., Williams was among artists pioneering the idea that a painter’s canvas need not be square or rectangular. After holding his first solo show in New York in 1964, the artist was chosen alongside Frank Stella to participate in “The Shaped Canvas,” an important exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Like Stella—a modern icon who said of his own work, “What you see is what you see”—Williams worked in a minimalist style, depicting bold geometric forms, as in Pop (1966) and Untitled (Paris Series) (1965).

This particular combination—Minimalist painting on an irregularly shaped canvas—turned out to be Williams’s hallmark. He was back at the Guggenheim in 1966, showing his work in “Systemic Painting,” an influential group show, and the term “systemic painting” was, indeed, coined in the show’s catalogue. As curator Lawrence Alloway wrote of the show, “the end-state of the painting is known prior to completion (unlike the theory of Abstract Expressionism). This does not exclude empirical modifications of a work in progress, but it does focus them within a system. A system is a unified whole, the parts of which demonstrate some regularities.”

Although it’s impossible to know which direction Williams’s career might have taken after his move to Brazil, abstract paintings like Untitled (ca. 1961-62), hint at his wider creative potential. In 1989, a posthumous show of his work was held in São Paulo—but in New York, he’ll always be known for the geometric ’60s-era paintings that made him famous.

Bridget Gleeson

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