In the introduction to 1991’s Kent Williams: Drawings & Monotypes John Ney Reiber tells a fantastic story about Williams’ sharing a telegram written by French painter Balthus in response to a request by an exhibition organizer for biographical information. Balthus responded, per Williams:
“NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES.”
According to Reiber, Williams shared the text and then silently walked away. And beyond being just a fantastic story, it’s an illuminating one that feels extraordinarily telling about Williams’ approach to his work. Art lovers may know him from his painted work, which has appeared in exhibitions across the globe, as well as coffee table collections such as 2001’s Koan: Paintings by Jon J. Muth & Kent Williams, or Kent Williams, Amalgam: Paintings & Drawings from 2007, in addition to a number of astonishing comic projects, including the titles such as Tell Me, Dark, and The Fountain, and the comic book series Fight for Tomorrow, Blood: A Tale, and even providing inks for Dwayne McDuffie’s Prince: Alter Ego.
Such work is beautifully rendered with bold brushstrokes and colors, creating something that is at once “lifelike” and full without being slavishly photorealistic, and surreal without being overworked. To look at Williams’ paintings is an experience where every other sense is engaged, at least in implication — everything from texture to smell to taste is somehow present in the image, purely though the amount of information Williams has included visually. They’re astonishing works in terms of how complete they are.
They are not, however, works that feel overly busy; there’s a clarity of purpose, and of image, to them. It’s been one of Williams’ strengths from his earliest work in the 1980s — no matter how much information is on the canvas, or the page, no matter the brushwork or the vibrancy and variety of the colors, there’s a clear and immediately recognizable focus to what the viewer is looking at, with all extraneous clutter parsed back with precision and intent. The directness and speed with which Williams is able to communicate the central idea inside each image is impressive, especially given how much information the artist puts into each image.
(A brief aside here; Williams is clearly someone who finds influence from Egon Schiele — you just have to look at his figures and portraits to recognize that he’s taken no small amount of inspiration from the early Expressionist painter. What might be less immediately obvious is that Schiele’s mentor — the late great Gustav Klimt — may have played some role in creating Williams’ visual language. His color sense, the level of detail he places in textiles and backgrounds, all feel indebted in some way to the Austrian master.)
The point, however, is this: Williams is an artist whose ability to self-edit, to pare back extraneous details without stripping his work of necessary information, is honed to a degree that is at times shocking. That speaks to both a confidence in his own capabilities — to communicate, to edit, to understand the purpose and message of his own work; that last one shouldn’t be ignored — and also a laser-like focus on what actually matters, in his eyes. Or, to use the example provided in Reiber’s story from almost three decades earlier, to “look at the pictures,” instead of getting bogged down in extraneous biographical detail.
For those curious about said detail, however, here’s what may be needed: Williams was born in North Carolina in 1962, and studied at the Pratt Institute in New York City in the early 1980s, graduating in ’84. He was, however, a professional artist even before graduating, working in comics since 1981 for a number of independent publishers — including a back-up story in Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers in 1983 — before landing work at Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint, with early work appearing in Epic Illustrated and a fill-in issue of the acclaimed fantasy series Moonshadow with writer J.M. DeMatteis, which led to the two collaborating on Blood: A Tale in 1987, one of two projects that year — the other being Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown, a collaboration with artist Jon J. Muth — that arguably made his reputation in the industry.
Parallel to this, Williams was building a reputation in the fine art world. He has exhibited around the world, in group and solo exhibitions, and has also taught in the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, amongst other institutions.
But really…how much of this information is necessary to understand Williams’ artwork? I suppose there are some elements of his life that could illuminate his art — the identities of recurring models from his portraits, or the origins of his continued interest with bold textile as a backdrop to paintings — but otherwise, it feels almost entirely extraneous. Everything the viewer needs to know is right there in front of them, staring back at them with swift lines and vibrant color.
It’s possible that the most clear demonstration of Williams’ ability to pare everything down to its core comes not in his paintings, but his life drawings. In these drawings, there is almost no visual clutter at all; everything is found in the confident, bold line work that delineates the figure on the page. The lack of guidelines, or initial sketch marks to explore the space before making a final decision on the page, demonstrate just how clearly Williams can see the finished result even before putting pencil (or charcoal, or brush, or whatever tool he happens to be using) to use, and how successfully he’s able to translate that intent into finished work.
With each image he creates, for whatever purpose it may have, Williams is able to tell the story he wants with the least distraction possible. Anything else is beside the point.
Now. Let us look at the pictures.