Over the years, William Bailey has been called lots of things, including "one of the most accomplished painters of his day" and "one of the best" in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New Criterion. Robert Hughes, the unchallenged, if senescent, titan of American criticism, once singled out his encyclopedic history, American Visions, as among the chief representatives of a conservative reaction to developments in American art since the rise of Abstract Expressionism.
Yet this steady stream of traditionalist praise has, as one would expect, failed to penetrate the vanguardism of an art world whose province used to be a geographically and philosophically located "downtown." An "uptown" painter if ever there was one, Bailey exemplifies the type of artist who, after deciding that the world has taken a wicked course, turns his back on modernity. From William Blake to Thomas Hart Benton, every generation has produced one. Yet few such artists have managed Bailey’s contributions, however backhanded, to a visual culture he despises.
As one critic put it more than a decade ago, William Bailey is the sort of an artist who would be a commanding figure today were it not for the inconvenient historical episodes of late modernism and postmodernism. Prim, carefully argued repudiations of the fetish for the new launched by modernist abstraction, Bailey’s precisely ordered still lifes and nudes are intended as moral levies against fifty years of visual stimuli produced within and without the art world. Protests against what he has termed "disco art," "art that has to do with graffiti, popular images and nostalgia for other periods" and the visual excesses as well as the excitements of our times, Bailey’s pictures inhabit a space that is profoundly metaphysical yet deeply antagonistic toward our own time.
Explorations of painting’s essential qualities–light, space and color–through subjects that have remained constant along a forty-year career, Bailey’s recycled tabletop arrangements and expressionless nudes present distorted, idealized versions of painterly triumphs of the past. Painted not from life but from memory (though a few of his purportedly imaginary nudes appear to have some source in real life), Bailey’s figurative arrangements present a "form-world" that is remarkably close in balance and symmetry to pure abstraction. Once a student of Josef Albers and an abstract painter himself, Bailey’s trademark repetition and brushless surfaces recall the radical reductiveness of Minimalism and the serial quality of Pop.
In the past, critics have also linked his still lifes to the quietly contemplative work of the Italian Giorgio Morandi, and his nudes with the paintings of Balthus. Yet the difference between Bailey’s work and that of these painters is absolute when it comes to the treatment of their subjects. With Morandi, the difference between Bailey’s puritanically consistent pitchers, cups and vases and the Italian’s variegated objects is akin to that found between rustic Tuscan furniture and Shaker chairs. With Balthus, the variance is even more extreme, involving the comparison of genuine perversity and its notion in the mind of this singularly important academic dean of painting.
So we come to Bailey’s role as the eminence grise behind the formation of several of America’s most important contemporary painters. A teacher at Yale University since 1969, his influence as a craftsman and purveyor of a recently revived painting tradition has engendered what can safely be called a legacy. Today the accomplishments of several of his students precede reactions to his own work in many quarters. It has, in fact, become impossible to consider Bailey’s restrained, mysteriously limpid work today without thinking of the ur-contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin and, to a lesser degree, the work of an artist like Alexi Worth. The older painter’s classical emphasis on light, the exquisite precision of his technique, the place he accords to imagination over that of primary observation, all of these qualities find echoes in the work of painters who were once his students. These qualities and his absolute refusal to turn his talent to face the culture that spawned him makes Bailey both an influential model and a force to react against in an American scene devoid of stern authoritative father figures–save one.
In his current exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery, Bailey displays his infuriating gift for a certain kind of controlled perfection in more than a dozen paintings and as many drawings. Flat as a board and as uninflected as humanly possible, Bailey’s repetitive collections of old-fashioned crockery set frontally toward the viewer (Wilde’s quote that "consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative" comes to mind) draw wows from their modeling and their perfectly suffused, directionless light, but never manage to shake the look of moral rectitude (which, as we Americans know full well, is the handmaiden of moral turpitude). Divorced from nature and the trompe l’oeil tradition (that looks to mimic its shapely, tactile and luminous solicitations) and utterly uniform in representation from one painting to the next, Bailey’s still lifes exist in a Platonic ether that often could double for an intellectual vacuum. Monumental in their spinsterish solemnity, his fictive figurations come on, as his friend, poet Mark Strand, once put it, as "realizations of an idea." Which, of course, raises the question: What if the idea, though brilliantly executed, is dull and essentially uninteresting?
Nowhere is this question more urgent than in observing Bailey’s nudes. Nearly as redundant as the still lifes, they are presented three-quarters length, with sphinx-like eyes and mouths, torsos as blocky as milk jugs and the apple breasts of barely pubescent girlhood (this, in fact, turns out to be the most lifelike detail in all of the paintings, which makes it, conversely, the most notable and bizarre). One group of works on the theme of "The Imaginary Studio" has two such hieratic figures, both of which possess all the flinty deadness of Bailey’s tin cups and porcelain vases. The bespectacled, smiling face of Bailey looks down on them, avuncular, from a small self-portrait hung on the studio wall. It’s tough trying to make out Bailey’s intention in painting himself into a picture that is otherwise so emotionally empty, but his motivation may have something to do with his self-inclusion among the company of masters from whom this tradition is handed down. As for the observed ideal of womanhood he offers up, cut off from all referents except the much- vaunted "timeless calm" attached to his still lifes–including culture, psychology and verisimilitude–its deadly perfectible order manages only an ennui that is dreadfully, terribly contagious.