"There is an abstract in the evocation of emotion. In these evocations, I find an emotional truth; or at least I search for emotional content which is true to all at all times."

About Neil

An important exponent of Minimal and Systemic painting, Neil Williams was born in Bluff, Utah in 1934. He undertook his formal training at the California School of Fine Arts. One of the first American artists to investigate the asethetic potential of the irregularly shaped canvas, he 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 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 Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York and the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles. Although 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, NY where he shared a studio with Stella. By the early 1970's Williams had evolved a technique of sculptural collage whereby he applied the dried skin of acrylic paint directly to the canvas. These sculptural collage paintings require the viewer to pay attention. Quoting the artist Jose Roberto Aguilar, "a Neil painting from this period is like a constant even in space, into which the pictorial happening is inserted". He later created colorful abstractions in which he synthesized landscape and floral elements inspired by the ambiance he encountered while living in Brazil. Ed Leffingwell said "in Brazil, Williams fused the tropical and the urban concrete". His career was cut short by his untimely death in New York at the age of 53. Described as in the New York Times as 'an artist's artist', he was not well known by the general public, but admired and respected by his very well-known peers.
Born: Utah, U.S.A. 1934

California School of Fine Arts
B. F. A. 1959

The School of Visual Arts - New York City.
Faculty, Degree Committee

Metro State College - Denver, Colorado.
Guest Professor, 1975

University of Syracuse - Syracuse, New York.
Guest Professor, 1977

Larry Bell
  • Larry Bell
Lana Jokel Larry, when did you meet Neil?
Larry Bell: I believe that I first met Neil with Chamberlain. They drove to Los Angeles, I think it was in '61 or '62. 1 didn't know anything about Neil. He was just this guy that was very funny and we just hit it off. Neil told me that he hadn't sold a painting ever. That was when I realized that Neil was an artist also. He was doing some colored pencil drawings at the time.
Lana Jokel Do you know when he started to do the shaped canvas?
Larry Bell: The first shaped canvases, that I recall, Neil did were shaped like the state of California. They were kind of long. The painting on them was sort of lozenge shape. They look like a bunch of "chicklets" that were placed on the surface. So, there were these strange shapes painted on these canvases that looked like the state of California that were then very, very gestural.
Lana Jokel What was he like as a friend?
Larry Bell: He was still quite distant. I mean he was this guy who was very much socially interested in people and stuff. Neil was interested not so much in the art thing, but he liked interaction with other artists. He liked to talk about art, painting, philosophy and stuff like that. He read constantly, all kinds of philosophies and I was not into that at all. He used to get quite put out with me for being so stupid about everything.
Lana Jokel What did he say about art?
Larry Bell: Honesty was his key thing. He was an extremely honest person and out front about things. And only rude when he got drunk. He believed either you had integrity or had none. I think he wanted to be recognized as an artist but he absolutely did not want to have anything to do with anybody who would recognize other than what art is.
Lana Jokel I guess he was always considered a rebel.
Larry Bell: When he went to the San Francisco Art Institute, he was a legendary rabble-rouser and troublemaker and stuff like that. He had this reputation for being very tough. Of course, a lot of it had to do with just the way helooked. He was not a bad guy at all. But when he would get drunk he would get very hostile about things and very self-righteous about his austere lifestyle and his work, as compared to the whole scene, which had to do with making money and trying to get famous and all that kind of stuff. All the other artists were scrambling trying to make their scene. Neil sort of sat right there on everybody's shoulder as their conscience. There was no way that you could ignore this guy's presence nor not be affected by him. Part of your responsibility was to make sure that Neil could do his thing. It was just something that people did. Not out of anything other than love and generosity and, yeah, perhaps a little guilt and certainly respect for his integrity.
Lana Jokel What did these artists think of his work?
Larry Bell: I think that everybody thought that he was just as good as anyone else who was painting; I mean as good as Poons and Stella and all of them. But, he wasn't a participant. Everybody was a little pissed that he was taking this aloof kind of attitude about it, but impressed that he could carry on doing it without scrambling around in the market. He had a way of making you feel irresponsible unless you were in some way supportive of his independence.
Lana Jokel What effect did he have on his peers?
Larry Bell: He was very important to everybody's life. He was an incredible force that did not rate within the art system; somehow operated just outside it. Nobody ever really figured out quite how he did it. The truth was that he just did it with everybody's support.
John Chamberlain
  • John Chamberlain

Lana Jokel John, what do you remember of Neil?

John Chamberlain: I remember our trip across the country in an old Mercedes in 1962. 1 remember because my old lady was pregnant and I had to get away from her. Nothing much happened, we went to California. We almost made it to Los Angeles, but not in a car-it blew out in Victorville. We took a bus or something. I don't remember. All we ever did was go out and get drunk and bullshit about art.

Lana Jokel What was your relationship with Neil?

John Chamberlain: He was my best friend. Things were different when everyone lived within a couple blocks of Max's and you met there every night. It was the same thing every night: you eat too much, you drink too much, you don't move, and then you try to take a girl home at night and not know what to do with her.

Lana Jokel What was his family background?

John Chamberlain: His mother had a bar on an Indian reservation. He was brought up there and in Grand Junction. Working in an Indian bar is very difficult actually, you have to learn how to take the cap off a beer bottle. That is all they drink. The only thing I know about his dad is that Neil once said that his dad shot himself in the head with his .22 and the bullet kept going around and around in his head. Neil was also in the Marines and in the Korean war. He came back and started getting interested in art.

Lana Jokel What do you think of Neil's work?

John Chamberlain: I haven't seen any of his paintings since before he went to Brazil in the early '80s. So I don't know too much about what he was doing. I had his black painting from about ten years ago, and then he went to real cheerful paintings. I liked the black paintings because they were the blackest black I'd ever seen and it was sort of like "no hope black." It was the most hopeless black you'd ever seen, more hopeless than the shiny black on a black widow spider. After that he did some cheerful Indian pictures, and that's the last I saw of his stuff. I personally felt he had sort of a naive idea of what art was all about although I never said anything or argued. These guys, Larry Poons and Neil, had big ideas about what their stuff was worth it's worth nothing and it's worth everything.

Lana Jokel Would you say that Neil was a man of great integrity?

John Chamberlain: Part of the business of being an artist is to be that way. Maybe I don't understand. The idea of being an artist is to be something other people are not, you can afford the conditions that other people can't Each artist has private thoughts that he keeps to himself and it's that insanity that the artist puts out that might get him arrested otherwise. Usually, it's information or knowledge that can be added to human perception.

Lana Jokel Do you think he cared about success?

John Chamberlain: I always thought Neil was successful whether or not he did. It's not something you can convince someone of, I guess. Here you are offering something that nobody knows and you're mad it's not recognized, on the other hand, if it's too easily recognized it must be pretty close to what people already know anyway.
Mark Di Suervo
  • Mark Di Suvero & Forrest Myers
Lana Jokel: How did you meet Neil?

Mark di Suvero: I met Neil when he was painting in a basement in San Francisco. A beautiful Japanese girl showed up and gave him a flower that she had spent her last dollar on. He was so wrapped up in his painting that he completely ignored her for the hour that I was there. I didn't see Neil again until I came back to New York in the 50s-after Korea. He told me all these stories about Korea ... getting out of a landingcraft tank. It was sinking and the man behind him pulled his inflatable jacket too soon, blocking the exit for those behind him, and the men left inside all died. Neil's life was always like that. He wrecked more Porsches than any single human being I know!

Lana Jokel: He had good taste!

Mark di Suvero: He always had style! Eventually he lived in a loft with me and Bob Grosvenor in the early 60s before he knew Chamberlain. He painted with heavy impasto; black and white. He moved out, getting an apartment that cost him $12.00 per month! It was an improvement over the scummy place where all three of us shared one sink and Grosvenor used to piss in it. Well, Neil showed up back at our place two days later and said the wall at the new place was covered with silverfish-those little bugs-and he couldn't stand it. Neil definitely had style! We talked a lot about poetry too. He loved Haiku. He also loved Weyburn and the way Weyburn treated the human voice, it made a blackboard and fingernails sound sweet! That's the part Neil liked. He was freaked out by the music I would play-he couldn't handle Bach.

Lana Jokel: What was Neil's background?

Forrest Myers: Well, I had heard about Neil before I ever even. saw him. He had quite a myth in San Francisco for never having done much while he was there. He was an enigma, he'd been in the Marines and was. tough, as tough as Jackson Pollock! He boxed in the Marines--didn't do too well,.but boxed all the same. He'd gone to Japan and read Japanese poetry and was also a bartender. I don't think he was even in art school very long.
Mark di Suvero: He grew up on an Indian reservation and he once told me that they gave him an Indian name but I can't remember what it was. He grew up with one parent who ran a trading post on the Navajo Reservation. Running a trading post selling liquor, it becomes pretty complicated! Neil had a real relationship with the Indian people.
Forrest Myers: He really loved the land, you wouldn't believe how beautiful it is in Bluff, Utah. They call it the Valley of the Gods. Neil used to climb the cliffs and he was just a little speck up there. He was a real explorer. He made you feel more alive because he was so dangerous. When he got older he settled down to a point, but boy, when I used to hang around him, I had to keep my wits about me because things would happen really fast! He was in very poor health at the last.
Kim Esteve: But, he never refused martinis! He was always going for it. I remember on New Year's Eve 1987, Neil and Babinski went to Hector Babenco's house on the beach at Camburi. After a late lunch and several bottles of 'Poire' brandy, the three of them were all drinking heavily. I had to leave, but later I heard that Neil got pretty loaded and decided to go into the ocean and give an offering to the goddess lemanjd (Goddess of the Sea), which is a custom in Brazil on New Year's. Neil decided at that moment that he was going to offer himself as the sacrifice. He disappeared for many hours. Later we found out from Bal3inski, who pulled him from the ocean, that he had been rejected by the Goddess of the Sea: his time had not come yet.

Lana Jokel: Would you say he was self-destructive?

Mark di Suvero: It wasn't purely self-destruction. When he set fire to the building I was living in, it was typical of him-this strong man, really strong man, had left an infrared light on for his kittens. He'd left it too close to something flammable and the kittens knocked it over, which started the fire. I found myself with firemen in the building breaking skylights because Neil was trying to keep his kittens warm! An ex-Marine painter who took care of kittens!

Lana Jokel: Can you talk about his shaped canvas?

Forrest Myers: His shaped paintings were great, but other artists were inspired by them and more successful with them. Neil sort of held back and didn't go into the limelight. He had terrible difficulties in reaching success for many reasons. One of the problems was that he could never be trusted by a dealer or collector; you never knew what kind of mood he was in. He had so many different sides. He was a Renaissance man, so charming and poetic, yet he was always getting into fights.
Kim Esteve: He had a complex about wanting to be successful. He had this attitude that it was all there in the picture and if you couldn't see it, then to hell with you, and he wasn't going to bother to explain it.

Lana Jokel: How many shows did you give him?

Richard Bellamy: I showed him first at the Green Gallery before he went to Emmerich, and much later at the Clocktower-the show was co-curated by Ed Leffingwell.
Mark di Suvero: I think the most interesting thing about Neil was that he was a total artist. He never thought of selling out and becoming a university professor or an advertising agent. He went through terrible periods of poverty because of this and when he did have money, he partied it away.
Forrest Myers: Neil loved to drive. He and Larry Poons would test their cars up and down Park Avenue. Once Neil went through the windshield when John Chamberlain was driving up Park Avenue. Apparently, they were speeding, and it's a dangerous street with the median and the trees. Anyway, Chamberlain got t-boned by a cab and sent Neil through the windshield.
Mark di Suvero: It trashed Neil. Was Neil's nose his own? It'd been broken so many times!
Forrest Myers: Neil said it was-he said it stopped growing when he was twelve. And that 'scar, anyone else would be horrified, but Neil was proud of it. Neil came from the hospital with his head bandaged and this red scar across his face. It looked like he'd been in a chain-saw fight. He was just grinning, he loved that scar. He didn't even remember all that happening.

Lana Jokel: When was his first show?

Richard Bellamy: Around Christmas 1961, 1 had a group show that Neil showed in. Tom Hess asked who the artist was. Tom noticed the painting and thought it was good. It was very big and horizontal.
Kim Esteve: I brought his black painting and the one with holes down to Brazil and everyone got all excited. The one with the holes sort of looked like the Concorde's windows: a jigsaw edge. It was aqua and yellow.
Mark di Suvero: Yes, this was when everyone was doing serial art, which tended to be cold. Neil's art was never that way, he still loved color.

Lana Jokel: How much of an influence do you think Brazil had on him?

Kim Esteve: A whole lot. I had him down there visiting at one point and flew him up to the jungle. I had to leave, so he hung out by himself for several days and had a fine time.
Forrest Myers: He was telling me he discovered this wonderful type of rum there made from sugar cane: cachaga. We drank a half bottle of that one weekend and he kept telling me how much he loved Brazil.
Kim Esteve: Yeah, he said he had his three "p's" in Brazil: Portuguese, piano, and painting. He would do all three all day.
Mark di Suvero: When I saw him before he left, I had never seen Neil so full of joy. What happened to him in Brazil was fulfillment. His work was being accepted, exhibited and collected.
Forrest Myers: I remember being told by Mark that sometimes an artist is out of sync with his surroundings and he can try and try, but it's like throwing yourself against a brick wall. Then you can step over a border and all of a sudden you're understood. I think that's what happened to Neil in Brazil.
Frank Stella
  • Frank Stella

Lana Jokel: What was your relationship with Neil? When did you first know him?

Frank Stella: It seems as if I always knew him as long as I was in New York. I remember meeting him with John Chamberlain. He was also friends with Dick Bellamy. This crowd that hung around with Ivan Karp and Dick, we used to call the Central Park Crowd because they used to have the gallery on Central Park South in the early 60s.

Lana Jokel: How would you characterize Neil's works?

Frank Stella: Neil was pretty much of a free spirit in those days. There was a big contrast in his personality, however. He would be quite patient and be with the work whereas when he got out of the studio he was a wild man. He had a very nice touch; a real sense of the overall design of things. He seemed to really put paintings together. When I first knew him, he made a lot of drawings and a lot of plans for working the pictures up. I still own a piece which was basically a blue and yellow piece where he was using fluorescent colors, and where they overlapped it made a fluorescent green the fluorescent colors were transparent. He had a nice idea with fluorescent colors early on.

Lana Jokel: Did you all start on the shaped canvas around the same time, simultaneously independent of each other?

Frank Stella: I think we were fairly independent of each other. We were all working on basically the same idea around the same time.

Lana Jokel: What was Neil like as a person?

Frank Stella: As a friend he was a lot of fun. What I remember most was when Neil and John would build these race cars and have these little circuits running around. They were like kids playing with toy trains: big and childish at the same time. I mean they worked hard at having fun and they seemed to be quite good at it.

Lana Jokel: Tell me about that reclusive period when he went to live in Sagaponnack, Long Island?

Frank Stella: I think he was having trouble with his ears and he was a little sick by then. It was a kind of semi-retirement, but he seemed to work awfully hard on the paintings. They are quite worked over and worked on. They have a passionate worked through quality.

Lana Jokel: Why do you think he seemed to shun the gallery scene and the art world?

Frank Stella: I don't know. It is not that interesting. I wouldn't call anyone staying away from it shunning it. After you have been doing it for 20 or 30 years, a little of it goes a long way. So, I wouldn't say he shunned it all that much. We all saw his painting, and he was still selling paintings.

Lana Jokel: What impact do you think Brazil had on him? Do you know that he was just about to move there to live kind of like Gauguin?

Frank Stella: We never talked about it. But, it seemed as if it represented a kind of opening up away to get untrapped so that he wouldn't be so bogged down. There is a kind of openness. A kind of exotic quality to us who don't live in Brazil.

Lana Jokel: Do you have any anecdotes that you can specifically remember about Neil?

Frank Stella: We used to see a lot of each other in the '60s, but I can hardly remember anything from the '60s. When he moved to Sagaponnack in the '70s, we had spaces side by side in the same building. I was always going to set up my studio out there, but I never got around to it. I would go out there to visit him, but I never worked there. I miss him. I wish he were still here.


For more information about the Neil Williams estate, please call Kaye at 619-667-5171.

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