An important exponent of Minimal and Systemic painting, Neil Williams (1934-1988) was born in Bluff, Utah, in 1934. He undertook his formal training at the California School of Fine Arts, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1959. One of the first American artists to investigate the aesthetic potential of the irregularly shaped canvas, Neil Williams initially depicted hard-edged geometric forms, but eventually turned to a painterly abstract style.
Williams began exhibiting his work in New York City in 1960 and continued to do so throughout his career. His first solo show was held at the Green Gallery in Manhattan in 1964. During that same year, he participated in the exhibition, The Shaped Canvas, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where his work hung alongside that of artists such as Frank Stella and Paul Feeley. In the ensuing years, Williams’s paintings appeared in a number of group shows devoted to advanced trends in American art, including Systemic Painting, curated by Lawrence Alloway and held at the Guggenheim in 1966. He also had one-man exhibitions at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York and the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles.
Although Neil Williams exhibited regularly in New York and could often be seen at the legendary Max’s Kansas City, he gradually distanced himself from the downtown art scene, spending the majority of his time in Sagaponack, New York, where he shared a studio with Frank Stella. It was there that a portion of his oeuvre–which had been stored in a damp basement–was damaged or destroyed by water and mildew.
By the early 1970s, Neil Williams had evolved a “technique of sculptural collage whereby he applied the canvas,” while continuing to emphasize the structural integrity of the support. He later created colorful abstractions in which he synthesized landscape and floral elements inspired by the ambiance he encountered on visits to Brazil; as one critic put it: “In Brazil Williams fused the tropical and the urban concrete.”
In addition to his activity as a painter, Williams taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York and held guest professorships at Metro State College in Denver and at Syracuse University. A filmmaker as well, he also developed several screenplays, including a script that dealt with the contemporary history of the Navaho tribe.
In 1986, a retrospective of Neil Williams’s work was held at the Clocktower, a well-known alternative gallery in New York. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by his untimely death in New York on March 25th 1988 at the age of fifty-three. Described as an “artist’s artist,” he was not well known to the general public, but was greatly admired by his peers.
Examples of Williams’s work can be found in public collections throughout the United States, including the Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania; the MIT-List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Denver Art Museum; the Guild Hall Museum of East Hampton, East Hampton, New York; the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. A posthumous exhibition of Williams’s work was held at the Galleria Luisa Strina in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1989.