This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by Michael Preble.
“There is no particular system I follow when I begin a painting. Each painting has its own way of evolving. One may start with a few color areas, another with a myriad of lines… Each beginning suggests something. Once I sense the suggestion, I begin to paint intuitively. The suggestion then becomes a phantom that must be caught…”
Both evocative and visually striking, Phantasm is exemplary of William Baziotes’s mature output and is telling of his infatuation with biomorphic abstraction. Known for his eschewal of the more violent modes of Abstract Expressionism, Baziotes’s tendency toward poetic reference and surreal atmospherics set him apart from his contemporaries in the New York School. By combining an interest in European Surrealism with a penchant for organic forms, he worked to evoke more nuanced emotions in his viewers than his action-oriented colleagues.
Phantasm stands out as a prime example of Baziotes’s interest in dreams and the unconscious mind. Pulsing with ectoplasmic green, the central field is surrounded on all sides by quivering, amorphous shapes that at once recall both otherworldly spirits and murky oceanic foliage. In the upper right corner, a setting of concentric circles forms an almost ocular arrangement, briefly catching the viewer’s gaze from within the painting’s depths. A singular grouping of dangling lines, coupled with this eye-like form and the work’s color scheme, make visual reference to a languid peacock feather draped over the canvas, or to a slithering set of tentacles reaching from beyond the picture plane.
The billowing, cloudy structures present in Phantasm have frequently been described as marine. The blue lattice climbing the left side of the canvas draws an allusion to dense growths of cerulean coral, while the floating wisps of purple, green, and muted orange conjure beds of waving kelp and drifting aquatic invertebrates. Having eliminated the horizon line and dissolved the outer edges of each shape so that they bleed into the next, Baziotes furthers this deep sea reading. In actuality, these watery illusions are all in the mind of the viewer. Baziotes was outspoken about his lack of planning in his compositions, and espoused the ideals of the European Surrealists and the use of automatic writing. By employing automatism and letting his hand wander around the canvas, Baziotes sought to more fully embrace the urges of his subconscious. Speaking to this effect, he noted: “There is no particular system I follow when I begin a painting. Each painting has its own way of evolving. One may start with a few color areas, another with a myriad of lines… Each beginning suggests something. Once I sense the suggestion, I begin to paint intuitively. The suggestion then becomes a phantom that must be caught…” (W. Baziotes, quoted in P. Richard, “The Phantoms of Baziotes,” The Washington Post, September, 1978). The artist’s constant portrayal of his more intuitive impulses is readily apparent in Phantasm.
Frequent visits to the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s and 40s allowed Baziotes to view the work of Matisse, Picasso, and Miró in major exhibitions that had an immense influence on his formative practice. The major turning point came, however, with Baziotes’s introduction to Roberto Matta and the tenets of European Surrealism in 1940. Harnessing the principles of psychic automatism and reformulating them into his own practice, Baziotes spanned the gap between subconscious association and methodical application of paint. By building his compositions up from an initial automatic sketch, the artist was able to retain the allusions to surrealist thought while also exploring Picasso’s figurative abstraction and Miró’s fluid approach to space.
In 1935, along with Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and others, Baziotes became part of the artist group known as The Ten. Exhibiting together until 1940, this band of painters espoused the ideals of expressionism and abstraction. Baziotes had his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in 1944, and was subsequently linked with many of the artists attached to that gallery, including Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Robert Motherwell (who shared his interest in Surrealism). Despite this intimate membership within the high ranks of Abstract Expressionism, Baziotes continued his inquiry into psychological effects, surrealist tendencies, and myth (which artists like Pollock and Rothko had shown interest in early on before turning to non-objective painting). This marked disinterest in action painting in favor of more poetic compositions that had its roots in the works of Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets, which Baziotes had been introduced to in the early 1930s by his friend, the poet Byron Vazakas. The painter frequently referenced Baudelarian tropes like water, the color green, and dusky twilight in his compositions, even when not directly citing specific works. This knack for introspection shows itself in works like Phantasm, which invites the viewer to meander through its hazy climes in search of a deeper truth.
Moving beyond the mainstream Abstract Expressionist focus on grand scale and gesture, Baziotes chose instead to pursue more intimate compositions that delved into the darker reaches of the human psyche. Phantasm continues this trend in its reference to the supernatural and its visual links to the Surrealist movement. Speaking about the apex of the painter’s career on the occasion of a posthumous exhibition, Grace Glueck wrote for the New York Times: “Baziotes seems to have reached the height of his powers in work from the mid-1940’s to the late 1950’s. His paintings from the mid-1930’s [...] are more densely packed with colorful bits and pieces of monsters, animals, fish and arcane imaginings, tied together by webby lines. Their garrulous vivacity has its charms, but the later works, with sparer, more intense imagery, have a fluid, poetic eloquence that these busy early paintings lack” (G. Glueck, “Art in Review; William Baziotes,” The New York Times, October, 2001). By taking his compositions into more ethereal, murky territory, Baziotes approached the realm of dreams and half-recalled memories while remaining relevant to the developing abstract movements in the burgeoning New York arts scene in the middle of the 20th century.