William Baziotes, a good but not great artist, was a painter who chased phantoms. He summoned them and served them, but they tricked him in the end.
Phantoms tend to vanish and his were no exception. Their hollow laughter mocks the pictures that he left us. More than 50 are on view now at the University of Maryland. The phantoms and the spirits, the wisps of the unknowable that Baziotes thought he had captured in his paintings are no longer there.
He might have been a master if the phantoms hadn't tricked him. He lived in the right place and at the right time. In the studios of Manhattan in the early 1940s Motherwell, Matta. Pollock and de Kooning were among his peers. Baziotes painted beautifully, but he is not of their rank.
William Baziotes (1912-1963) belived in the surreal. As a child he would wear a clove of garlic in a bag around his neck to ward off evil spirits. He grew up in Reading, Pa., among Greeks from the Near East. His parents, also Greek, ran the Crystal Restaurant, and the artist often thought of their dancing and their song. "In their music that had no beginning or end", he wrote in 1949, "there was a feeling of everyday things dropping away, of leaving you in a dream state, of being half-hypnotized, of time standing still, of life becoming magical."
Baziotes, even then, felt the presence of his phantoms. Sometimes they were sirens, soothing and seductive. They sometimes made him scream.
Once, at age 18, he went out with a friend on an August night to count the shooting stars. Losing interest in the count, "for the night was so beautiful that our chests began to burst with it," the two friends wandered on.
"Coming through some trees, we came on a plain . . . looking something like Stonehenge. For no apparent reason we both stopped still and observed this emptiness. Then I turned and looked and saw that my friend was as scared as I was, that the exaltation had ceased. For a moment we stood there petrified, and then suddenly he let out a blood-curdling scream that beat my own by a faction of a second. We turned and beat a terrfic retreat down the hill, and the fear did not leave us until we finally at the edge of the city."
Baziotes all his life went searching for the scary. He liked to speak of ESP, and to look at lizards, cripples, dinosaurs and dwarfs. Some affection for the morbid is apparent in his art. Yet his paintings show no panic. Their mood is oddly comforting. They are delicate and fine.
He was proud of Greek heritage. Even late in life he loved to go to draw the Greek statues at the Met. "If I love the classic so much, then I want to be classic. Is this possible?" he asked.
The abstract expressionist pictures we value most today seem peculiarly American, big and fierce and muscular. Those of Baziotes are in spirit European. One cannot imagine him striding Pollock-like upon a canvas on the floor, or flinging gobs of paint. He worked always at the easel. Though he was seeing phantoms in the act of painting, the pictures that he left us graceful and refined.
Baziotes did not plan them. He sought, with the surrealists, the secrets that surface through automatic writing. Improvising freely, he let his pictures grow. "There is no particular system I follow when I begin a painting. Each painting has its own way of evolving. One may start with a few color areas, another with a myriad of lines . . . Each beginning suggests something. Once I sense the suggestion, I begin to paint intuitvely. The suggestion then becomes a phantom that must be caught . . ."
But the "phantom" he was catching, or though that he was catching - those assorted creepy-crawlies, tentacles and blobs - seem wholly drained of power now. They do not look like spirits.They look like cliches.
The designers of the '50s loved the biomorphic. They believed it was the height of chic to place driftwood on the mantelpiece. Their swimming pools are kideny-shaped, their coffee tables to tend to look like giant lima beans. Willim Baziotes thought that he had captured the "Vampire," the "Dragon," the "Phantasm." "The Flesh Eaters" - these are titles of his paintings - but today his biomorphic forms look like hollow dated fragments of '50s Good Design.
Yet behind them one can see that William Baziotes had the eye and the technique, and particularly the color sense, of a first-rate painter. The slides we see in lecture halls do not do him justice. Baziotes would sometimes spend six months, a year, on a single canvas. The fields of fine color that fload behind his "phantoms" seem to breathe and glow.
The phantoms that he painted do not energize his art. Instead, like irksome goblins, they tend to nibble at his paintings. They do the least damage when their colors are most subtle. When they blend into the background, into those soft fields of color, there is not all that much mischief they can do.
"William Baziotes: A Retrospective Exhibition" was organized by Michael Preble for the Newport Harbort Art Museum. The show, which has already been to Texas, will visit Cornell University after closing on Oct. 7 at the University of Maryland Art Gallery, College Park.