Excerpt from Guy Williams by Julie Joyce
To understand these paintings is understanding, that when all is understood, there is nothing to understand.
Outside their association with the major galleries in Los Angeles—Ferus, Nicholas Wilder, Dwan, Ceeje, Riko Mizuno, and others—in the 1960s and 1970s artists in Los Angeles were (and often still are) identified by where they taught. As Peter Plagens once wrote in his characteristically wry vernacular:
“Oh, him…where's he teach?” was the Southern California equivalent of "Does he still have that loft on Broome Street?" UCLA, Occidental (“Oxy”), Orange Coast, Pasadena City College (“Pee Cee Cee”), Pomona, Santa Monica City College, or, ninety miles into the boondocks, “Yew Cee” at Santa Barbara: that’s where the artists hung out.
Indeed, while New York had its neighborhood watering holes and studio buildings, Los Angeles had its wide-open spaces and its art schools. The schools were some of the primary places where artists came together, and where some of the most groundbreaking events occurred in the formative days of the region's contemporary art scene. At the time of his 1971 exhibition at Pomona College, Guy Williams was also making his mark in the school's art department, as its only faculty member in painting.3 The opportunity to look back at Williams's exhibition and tenure at Pomona also provides an occasion to focus on the legacy of an artist whose career was challenged by a devastating setback in 1990, and cut short by his untimely death in 2004, at the age of seventy-two.
Williams's exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art featured a group of large paintings, "each occupying one wall of the main gallery,"4 from what became known as the artist's Color Mark series. The large, rectangular canvases in the exhibition were distributed with thousands of concise dashes of color that moved diagonally, from the upper left to the lower right corners of the canvas.
The paradox of these works exists as much in their making as in their reception. Beginning with a single field of color on canvas, the artist methodically hand-painted an average of 16,000 hash marks in a select color scheme through a specially devised template. The arrays of colored marks on the surface interact with each other, as well as with the background color, creating the effect of two paintings (or more) in one.
Recalling the process by which Williams hand-rendered this seemingly infinite number of identically shaped marks, Marcy Goodwin elaborated on the artist's "screen of specially made, die cut masking tape, that was applied to the canvas over every inch of the surface”:
Guy’s masking tape came from a special high tech firm that could take extra wide tape and then cut it with these special metal dies. So each strip of, let’s say, 3-inch wide tape had a row of maybe 12–14 hash marks, each perfectly repeated (Guy called it "step and repeat") throughout the full length of the masking tape roll. It's important to consider that such technology had never been used. The visual source was punch cards—Hollerith-style computer punch cards. This was well before the personal computer era. Guy liked the idea of using the latest technology to create a “reproducible” image that was actually hand-wrought. Once the paintings were complete, they always appeared to have been made instantaneously in a single stroke."
The visual effect of these works is quite remarkable, even mesmerizing. Up close, the focus lies on each individual mark and its distinctive color. A little farther away, the paintings are "a vibrant, moving field of colors, so optically balanced that each one reads equally strongly." Viewed from a distance, they "fuse into a modulated field...The mutating quality of each painting suggests that on subsequent viewings the effect will be different."
The critical response to works from this series was positive, gaining Williams entry into, among many other venues, the 1972 Whitney Annual. In his review of the Whitney exhibition, Carter Ratcliff described Williams's paintings as "a geometric depiction of texture." Though brief, Ratcliff’s account is an indication of the distinction these works held in the larger realm of painting, especially considering the divisions that had occurred in the previous decade between various forms of Post-Abstract Expressionist painting, namely Color Field and Hard-Edge. Williams’s work was equally distinct in the sphere of Southern California Minimalist painters (i.e. the Dot paintings of Robert Irwin) and Hard-Edge (such as John McLaughlin).
Williams produced the Color Mark paintings from 1970 to 1975, representing just a fraction of time in his long-term pursuit of art and knowledge. But this work also represents his quest for something higher, and more (or perhaps less) specific.