William Anzalone’s Perceptual Symbolism
With their declarative surfaces, their bountiful celebration of paint as a quasi-magical material, and their understanding of the stretched canvas as a plane of infinite possibility, William Anzalone’s recent paintings first strike us as brilliant exercises in line and color, complex visual rhythms, and chromatic exuberance. And so they are all these things: his clusters of color—the rich glare of golden yellows, the vibrant jittery interweavings of orange and green, the fragrant clouds of proliferating violet—rush directly to our eyes. Diaphanous veils made of slender lines are disrupted by flurries of marks suggesting flowers or blossoms or leaves caught in the momentary brightness of sunlight.
As our gaze lingers, other properties begin to emerge. This effect is gradual: for all the immediate pleasure they offer, these are slow paintings. As we engage this durational looking, another kind of space, and a different kind of mood, makes itself felt beyond the surface excitement. Announcing this other space in several paintings are dark, narrow verticals. As these shapes reveal themselves to be recognizable objects in the world—fence posts, tree trunks—the paintings become more explicitly landscapes. We identify tall grass, bushes, vines, some wire fencing. What was, at least for a moment, a nearly abstract composition, organizes itself into a perspectival picture of a corner in some country field or a seriously overgrown backyard. Our eyes strain to identify what’s there in the background. Maybe an old barn draped in shadow or a shed or just a clearing in the woods where a gap in tree cover allows sunlight to pour down.
But as soon as we think we know what we’re looking at, as soon as we imagine ourselves pushing through the undergrowth into the heart of the scene, the reality of the surface snaps us out of our reverie, or at least that particular kind of reverie. It’s a bit like when a breeze ruffles the surface of a pond or lake and dissolves whatever image it had been reflecting: trees, clouds, a drifting boat. Except in this case, both versions of the world remain simultaneously accessible. The artist uses his long experience as a landscape painter and his mastery of pure paint to allow us to shuttle constantly between different ways of seeing, different ways of organizing the world. Are those incised lines meant to depict a wavering modernist grid or a stretch of chicken wire? Is that a veil of rain interposing itself or a painterly trope the artist finds impossible to resist?
In every one of these paintings, Anzalone collapses successive stages of modern art. They assimilate and reconfigure nearly two centuries of patient vision, from Corot’s smudged trees and shimmering vistas to Monet’s floating bouquets and upside down mirages, Riopelle’s encrusted striations of the 1950s, Brice Marden’s Card Drawings of the early 1980s, Pat Steir’s Waterfalls, and much more. His arrays of glittering shards can also recall Klimt’s opulent textiles, and aspects of Twombly’s late work.
Yet within this dense play of art history, Anzalone achieves paintings that are always intensely personal. His subject, his seemingly inexhaustible inspiration, is the garden that his late wife Louise tended to and loved over many years at their home in the rural Texas community of Roundtop. Month by month, day by day, hour by hour, the painter observes the changing light and the revolving seasons. Because, for him, each glance, each effect his eyes register, is a sign of absence, his paintings must engage in a constant dialogue between the visible and the invisible. Like so many before him, Anzalone seeks to reconcile personal loss, the weight of mourning and grief, with the apparent indifference of nature to human suffering. And so his art must be at once perceptual and symbolic. It is a testament to Anzalone’s artistic strength, and perhaps also to his emotional resilience, that the paintings which emerge from this confrontation are so rich in visual pleasure, so generous to the viewer, that their quotient of sorrow is only felt as a whisper, like a small lone bird calling out in the twilight.