Curved Lines: Paintings by William Mittler

Jeanie Tengelsen Gallery
July 18-August 2
Art/Write by Peter Pitzele


“Late style” is a term that refers to the work an artist produces in his or her later years. This body of work—not so usual in the history of art where many painters die young—is seen to have distinctive qualities such as simplicity, lyricism, and even a sense of transcendence. Where time has been kind and talent persistent, late style flowers like an artist’s Indian summer.Bill Mittler photo


Those who know well the work of Titian recognize a late style in this Venetian master. I think also of Monet, dissolving farther and farther into liquid surfaces. Closer to our own time there is Matisse, who at the end of his life created his cut-outs, color forms of deceptive simplicity that evoked a world of reverie and delight. Similarly, de Kooning in his late years dazzled or dismayed his admirers with the radical reduction of gestural brushwork in favor of smooth surfaces and representational innuendo.


In most cases I believe that artists able to work into their 70‘s and 80‘s are aware of the gift life has given them. Late style is a kind of dance with mortality in which there is nothing left to prove.


These thoughts are in my mind as I look back on my recent encounter with William Mittler and his work as he and the ALLI curator, Susan Peragallo, were making final preparations for the show.


What struck me then— and I think will strike viewers almost immediately on encountering Bill’s work— is the exuberance and vitality in these large acrylic abstractions. Bill’s title for the show, “Curved Lines,” is to be taken literally, for most of these paintings contain sweeping, and swooping shapes in brilliant colors, wave and floral forms, bands that overpass and underpass one another in ways that suggest landscapes and roadways. The works are weaves, and often the shapes swing past the edges of the canvass, going on in their undulations to unimaginable distances. But “curves” has a figurative sense as well, and as I listened to Bill unspool a candid story, I had the sense that he has made art from a life that has thrown him a lot of curves.


Bill was an artist as a child and later hoped to make a living as an artist. But art could not support a family. He last showed his work thirty years ago. Now at the age of 74, he has put together a selection of paintings from the last two years. In speaking of this period of return to his first love, he speaks openly of his gratitude for the unmerited gifts of time, health and heart with which to celebrate the joy of making paintings. He seems a man who takes nothing for granted.


What infuses Bill’s work and results in his choice of color and form is hinted at in the titles of his pieces. Though these titles in no way make his paintings narrative, they do suggest a kind of philosophical and spiritual orientation that speaks to us through his colors and forms. Here are some titles from the current show: “A Profound Bow,” “A World Worth Enduring,” Grace comes to the Wave,” Pain of Becoming”, “The Friction of Being Visible,” “Sharing the Same River.” These titles hint at some distillation of insights, even wisdom that generate freedom and joy.


I’d like to talk about one painting: “A World Worth Enduring.”

Mittler_A World Worth Enduring_3x6

William Mittler, A World Worth Enduring, acrylic on canvas


There are a number of feelings this painting evokes in me, but the initial one is a disarmed pleasure, disarmed because the painting in its directness, in its open and fluid brio, communicates the painter’s own pleasure in his intense colors, flowing forms, and the weave of planes. There is spaciousness here that feels like it has no end. This painting and others invite my eye to swing—or is it swim?— over and under the curved space he creates. This feeling of artistic freedom is generated by the simple and satisfying strength of the composition, uncluttered and asymmetrical, with opaque color shapes strongly outlined in black, softened here and there by a thinner application of paint that shows softer, brushy textures.


”A World Worth Enduring” as a phrase, evokes its opposite as well: that the world, our suffering, can be unendurable. To claim that the world has become endurable has the impact of an affirmation: The world is worth enduring and you may never know where it can lead you. Somehow the title allows me to add a sense of meaning to what is otherwise an enjoyment of pure abstraction.


I think Bill wants us to sense in his paintings an invitation not just to see but to reflect, and that intention is captured in the wonderful quotation he puts on his show’s publicity card:


 It is only because of our not knowing that we can feel a purpose in life. This is precisely the charm of the
curved line.”
                             Beop Jeong, a Korean Zen Master. 


How wonderful to be invited to ride Bill’s curved lines and to reflect on their buxom, boisterous exuberance, their recursive rhythms like breaking waves or sharp-edged flora-forms. The visual charm of curves is a kind of child’s play where all paths seem to lead wonderfully everywhere, and there is more here than meets the eye. Bill Mittler’s body of work attests to some of the qualities of late style as found in those artists who endure the world, keep faith with their gifts, and discover again and again the creative necessity of not knowing.