Thornton Willis

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Thornton Willis
Thornton Willis in front of "The Ceremony" in studio NYC 2013.jpg
Thornton Willis in front of "The Ceremony" in studio NYC 2013
Born (1936-05-25) May 25, 1936 (age 84)
Pensacola, Florida, U.S.
Years active1967–present

Thornton Willis (born May 25, 1936) is an American abstract painter. He has contributed to the New York School of painting since the late 1960s. Viewed as a member of the Third Generation of American Abstract Expressionists, his work is associated with Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Process Art, Postminimalism, Bio-morphic Cubism (a term he coined) and Color Field painting.



Thornton Willis's father, Willard Willis, was an evangelical preacher in the Church of Christ. Willis spent formative years in Montgomery Alabama, returning to graduate from Tate High School in Pensacola, Florida. After three years in the United States Marine Corps, Thornton Willis studied, under the G.I. Bill, at Auburn University for one year transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi where he graduated with a B.A. in 1962. In the summer of 1964, he enrolled at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, for graduate studies and received a teaching assistantship, and his M.A. in 1966. While at the University of Alabama he was befriended by the American football quarterback Joe Namath, met visiting artist Theodoros Stamos, and primarily studied painting with Melville Price, a painter who had shown in New York City with Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning and had been a member of The Club at the Cedar Tavern. During these years, Willis also participated in the Civil Rights Movement including the march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout his painting studies, Thornton Willis became highly influenced by the tenets of Abstract Expressionism embodied in The New York School of painting, including second generation painters such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. His early work was equally informed by the more reductive paintings of Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella. These two polarities, Expressionism and Cubism were the early foundations of his paintings and continue to inform his work to this day.

In 1967 Thornton Willis accepted a teaching position at Wagner College in Staten Island, and moved to New York City. He established his first studio in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. In 1968, he had his first one-person show at the Henri Gallery in Washington, DC. In New York, Willis met fellow painters, Dan Christensen, Jules Olitski, Ken Showell as well as sculptors and installation artists Richard Serra, Alan Saret, and Gordon Matta-Clark, all working out of a process art orientation.

The Slat Paintings

Thornton Willis "Red Wall" 1969, Acrylic on Canvas, 103x108 inches. Thornton Willis "Red Wall" 1969, Acrylic on Canvas, 103x108 inches.jpg
Thornton Willis "Red Wall" 1969, Acrylic on Canvas, 103x108 inches.

From 1967 to 1973, Thornton Willis worked on a series of paintings now called his “Slat Series” involving a “wet on wet” process working on the floor on large wet unstretched canvas and using rollers with long extension handles to develop striped bands across the entire picture plane. In 1970, Willis was included in the exhibition entitled “Lyrical Abstraction [1] curated by Larry Aldrich, and the painting from this show, “Wall”, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 96 inches by 114 inches, was originally exhibited at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Some of the other artists connected with Lyrical Abstraction were Victoria Barr, Jake Berthot, Dan Christensen, Ronnie Landfield, Pat Lipsky, John Torreano, Phillip Wofford and Robert Zakanitch. When in 1971, Mr. Aldrich donated this collection to The Whitney Museum of American Art, [2] John Baur, the museum director, mounted a second Lyrical Abstraction exhibition and Willis's painting Wall became part of the Whitney Museum's permanent collection.

The “Slat” series also attracted Bykert Gallery director, Klaus Kertess, and in 1971 Willis joined the Paley and Lowe Gallery, New York City, as part of its original stable of eight artists including, Joan Snyder, Mary Heilmann, Peter Pinchbeck, Herbert Schiffrin, Fred Gudziet, Mike Bakaty, Peter Bradley, and Michael Goldberg who joined later. A “Slat” painting was purchased by William Paley, then Chairman of the Board of CBS, and is now in The Museum of Broadcasting, NYC.

From 1971-1972, Willis taught painting at Louisiana State University in New Orleans. He had a one-person show of his “Slat” paintings at the Simonne Stern Gallery, New Orleans in 1970, and at The New Orleans Museum of Fine Art (then The Delgado Museum,) in 1971 which also owns a large slat painting. He continued to show with Simonne Stern through 1974.

The Wedge Paintings

Thornton Willis "Red Warrior" 1980, Acrylic on Canvas, 84x100 inches. Thornton Willis "Red Warrior" 1980, Acrylic on Canvas 84 x 100 inches.jpg
Thornton Willis "Red Warrior" 1980, Acrylic on Canvas, 84x100 inches.

After returning to New York City, Willis began his formalist compositions exploring Form and Field ambiguity that led to his “Wedge” series, 1974-1982. [3] During this time he co-founded “Review: Artists on Art [4] with his wife. He showed his work at the Holly Solomon Gallery, NYC, in 1976, and in 1979 Thornton Willis won [5] a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting. In the same year his work was included in the controversial exhibition “American Painting: The Eighties, a critical interpretation” organized and curated by Barbara Rose. [6] The exhibition opened at the Grey Art Gallery, NYC and traveled first to The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, then to the American Center, Paris, France before traveling around the world as a United States Ambassadorial show to over twenty other countries.

In 1979, Thornton Willis exhibited his “Wedge” Paintings at the 55 Mercer Street Gallery where the work attracted the attention of British collectors, Robin Symes, and Charles and Doris Saatchi. He showed the “Wedge” paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery, NYC, in 1980 is an exhibition entitled “Seven Young Americans” curated by Sam Hunter which included friend and fellow artist Sean Scully. [7] In 1980 he had a one-person show at the Oscarsson Hood Gallery who would represent the artist until 1986. In 1980 he met the European dealer, Claes Nordenhake, and exhibited his “Wedge” paintings in Malmo, Sweden, Gothenburg, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland and Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1982, Willis began a series of overlapping “wedges’ or “double wedges’ that allowed exploration of the vertical colored bands created where the edges met. “Striped Suit”, 1982, a large double wedge canvas was featured on the cover of Arts Magazine with an essay by Steven Henry Madoff, Looking for Thornton Willis: A Treatise. [8] With the re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, in 1984, Willis exhibited Red Warrior in An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. [9] By 1984 the work had changed again as Willis sought a more complex geometry. [10] By 1990 he had gone back to the triangle but this time in an overall grid for which he coined the term “biomorphic cubism”. The "Triangle" paintings would span a decade from 1990-2000.

The Triangle Paintings

Thornton Willis "Black Bear" 1993, Acrylic on Canvas, 108x117 inches. Thornton Willis "Black Bear" 1993, Acrylic on Canvas 114x108 inches.jpg
Thornton Willis "Black Bear" 1993, Acrylic on Canvas, 108x117 inches.

In 1991, Willis showed new work at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, NYC, in an exhibition entitled Abstract Painting: the 90’s where art critic Barbara Rose chose to revisit certain painters from the 80s show. A one-person exhibition of large scale Triangle paintings and oil stick on paper followed in 1993, at the Andre Zarre Gallery [11] where the artist employed a tight grid overridden by gesture and a plastic color palette. In the 2001 catalogue essay for Painted in New York City: The Presence of the Past, art critic Robert C. Morgan noted Willis's Abstract Expressionist roots and the newer element of restraint. [12]

In 2005, Willis teamed up with fellow painter, James Little [13] for a two-person show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the Sideshow Gallery working with owner-painter, Richard Timperio. [14] Since 2007, Willis has shown with the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York City, [15] with one-person exhibitions in 2007, 2009 and 2011. Willis has sustained a long-term relationship with art dealer Harris begun in 1980 when she co-founded Oscarsson Hood Gallery, on 57th street.

The Grid Paintings

Thornton Willis "Conversion" 2008, Oil on Canvas, 97x70 inches. Thornton Willis "Conversion" 2008, Oil on Canvas, 97x70 inches.jpg
Thornton Willis "Conversion" 2008, Oil on Canvas, 97x70 inches.

Shortly after the exhibition entitled Painting: 40 Years,” a retrospective at the Sideshow Gallery in 2007, [16] Willis returned to a rectilinear format. Combining the early "Slat" paintings, with exploration of form and field in his “Wedge” series, he created a body of work he entitled “Lattices” where lines appear to weave forward and back. Michael Feldman documented the transition to this new work in a film, in 2008-09, Portrait of an American Painter [17] In 2009, Willis had a one-person show at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, with catalog entitled The Lattice Paintings essay, by James Panero [18] of The New Criterion. [19] In his essay, Panero writes, “Ever since his wedge paintings in 1970s, Thornton has played with the density of volumes, the interaction of colors to come forward and recede, and the character of the line.” [20]

Thornton Willis "Juggernaut" 2010, Oil on Canvas, 79x61 inches. Thornton Willis "Juggernaut", 2010, Oil on Canvas, 79x61 inches.jpg
Thornton Willis "Juggernaut" 2010, Oil on Canvas, 79x61 inches.

Two years later, in 2011, Willis took on form over field where form or volume appear to dominate the line. The resulting images harken to the dense mass of city buildings and maps. In an essay for this new series, Lance Esplund writes: “Those who have followed Willis’s work over the years may see his current series of paintings as a departure from “Slats” of the 1960s, the “Wedges,” or “Fins,” of the 1970s and early ’80s, the triangular facets of recent years, and the “Lattice” paintings from his last show, in 2009, at Elizabeth Harris. But all of these pictures have in common the allover surface plane held in tension, between figure and ground, as an interwoven field. They also share the subject of the urban landscape” [21]

Willis continued to show with Elizabeth Harris, and in April 2013, had a one-person show of new “Step” paintings. The artist included in the show, consisting predominantly of his paintings, several three dimensional painted wall pieces or assemblages. The wall sculptures, starting with a painted canvas base, are built up with layers of found objects and painted wood. Also in April and May 2013, two large paintings by Willis were exhibited at Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison, New York, in the exhibition entitled, “Works of the Jenney Archive.”

Selected museum and public collections


Selected Books and Catalogues

Selected Sources

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  1. Noel Frackman, The Paintings of Thornton Willis, Arts Magazine, Vol. 55, no. 3, November 1980, p. 158
  2. John I.H. Baur,
  3. David Boyce, An Interview with Thornton Willis, “Arts Magazine”, Vol. 54, no. 3, November 1979, p. 116
  4. RE-VIEW: Artists on Art Magazine, Vol. II and III, no. 1, June 1979 ISSN   0161-5114, repros. pp. 46-51
  5. The John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship
  6. Barbara Rose, American Painting: The Eighties, a critical interpretation, copyright 1979 Barbara Rose, Color separation and printing: Thorner-Sidney Press, Inc., Buffalo, NY, essay, and repro. unpaginated
  7. Hilton Kramer, Seven Young Americans, "The New York Times", April 18, 1980, Section C, p. 18
  8. Steven Henry Madoff, Looking for Thornton Willis: A Treatise, Arts Magazine, Vol. 57, no. 7, March 1983, pp. 116-118, repros. cover and p. 118
  9. Kynaston McShine, An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, copyright 1984 by Museum of Modern Art, New York, Library of Congress Catalog, ISBN   0-87070-391-9, repros. pp. 322-323
  10. Sue Scott, Thornton Willis, “Art News”, Vol. 93, No. 2, February 1994
  11. Andre Zarre Gallery, NYC
  12. Morgan, Robert C., “Painted in New York City: The Presence of the Past”, catalog essay published by Hofstra University for “Painted In New York City”, Jan. 2001
  13. Nathan Kernan, Thornton Willis, and James Little at Sideshow, “Art in America”, October 2005, p.178, also see, Mario Naves, A Shared Aesthetic and Goal, Raising the Bar at the Sideshow, "New York Observer", April 18, 2005, p.18
  14. Sideshow Gallery
  15. Elizabeth Harris Gallery
  16. Painting: 40 Years on YouTube
  17. Portrait of an American Painter.
  18. James Panero,
  19. The Lattice Paintings
  20. Exhibition Catalogue, Thornton Willis: The Lattice Paintings, copyright 2009, Elizabeth Harris Gallery, essay copyright 2009, James Panero, “Pilgrim’s Process,” March 2009
  21. Lance Esplund, Exhibition Catalogue, Thornton Willis, copyright 2011, Elizabeth Harris Gallery, essay copyright 2011 Lance Esplund

Online References

Thornton Willis website:

James Kalm, YouTube, October 2007, “ Thornton Willis Opening at Sideshow”

Brian Sherwin,, contributing editor:

Jed Perl, The New Republic, Feb 5, 2007:

Michael Feldman, “Portrait of an American Painter" film, 2008-09:

Joanne Mattera, “Joanne Mattera Art Blog” 2009 review “Color-Time-Space”

Joanne Mattera, “Joanne Mattera Art Blog” 2009 review Thornton Willis at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Steven Alexander, “Seven Alexander Journal” 2009 review “Color-Time-Space”

Steven Alexander, “Steven Alexander Journal” 2009 review Thornton Wilis at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Leaves of Glass, 2009 “Needing some Color-Time-Space”

Thomas B. Harrison, ‘Southern Abstraction’ is a compelling view of a provocative art form (gallery),, June 1, 2012

Structural Abstraction: Paintings by Thornton Willis,, June 11, 2012

New York Artist, UA alum to show at Sarah Moody gallery,, September 24, 2012

New York Artist to Show Work at UA Gallery, University of Alabama News, September 24, 2012

Thornton Willis show card by UA Dept. of Art & Art History, September 27, 2012

Thornton Willis @ The Sarah Moody Gallery by Paul Behnke, Structure and Imagery September 30, 2012

Accolades for Oct. 1, 2012, The University of Alabama, October 1, 2012

More about Thornton Willis, The University of Alabama, October 9, 2012

James Panero, "Studio Visit: Thornton Supreme Fiction", January 8, 2013

James Panero, "Studio Visit: Thornton Willis", The New Criterion, January 9, 2013

Geoform interview