“William Bailey: Selected Works, 1964–1994” at the André Emmerich Gallery, New York.
March 3–April 9, 1994

One of the most satisfying exhibitions in New York this season is the selection of eighteen paintings and drawings by William Bailey at the André Emmerich Gallery on East Fifty-seventh Street. Now in his mid-sixties, Mr. Bailey has been a quiet but nourishing presence on the art scene since the late 1960s, when he began exhibiting in New York. It is unfortunate that, even today, more than twenty years later, his presence must still be accounted “quiet.” Over the years, Mr. Bailey has acquired a number of admirers and his work hangs in public and private collections around the country. But it tells us a lot about the priorities of the art world that he has never had a major museum exhibition. Look around at the contemporary art that it suits the Whitney, the Guggenheim, or the Museum of Modern Art to exhibit: the Mike Kelleys and Robert Morrises and Bruce Naumans of the world always seem to take precedence over what—after seeing work of the caliber Mr. Bailey produces—one is tempted to call “real art.”

Mr. Bailey makes two sorts of pictures: still lifes depicting a small assortment of old-fashioned kitchen paraphernalia—crockery, vases, candlesticks, often a few eggs—set centered on a shelf or wooden table, and portraits of one or more women, generally nude or semi-nude. They are, however, all of a piece. Sometimes it seems that his most successful nudes are really still lifes in disguise, sometimes that his still lifes are instinct with the personality of an individual sitter. Because he renders every object with painstaking exactitude, Mr. Bailey is usually denominated a “realist.” The term is accurate—as far as it goes, which turns out not to be very far at all. You will never encounter a milk jug or salt shaker or a woman such as those you find in Mr. Bailey’s work. This is not because he lacks the technical skill to delineate the objects correctly. On the contrary, the first thing one notices about his pictures is their extraordinary technical facility. Mr. Bailey is a draftsman of prodigious accomplishment; the old story about some birds swooping down to peck at a bunch of grapes that the Greek artist Zeuxis painted does not seem so far-fetched when one considers the uncanny skill that Mr. Bailey commands.

The emphasis, however, is on “uncanny.” Mr. Bailey’s pictures are realistic, even super-realistic; one is sometimes tempted to reach out and test the shadows seemingly cast by his two-dimensional figures. But there hovers about them an aura of ideality that transfigures their realism. This is the deeper source of their power. However accurately delineated are the objects he paints, there is nothing photographic or “transcriptional” about them. Or perhaps one should say that accuracy, even if it is the means to an end, is not itself the end or “point” of his pictures. For one thing, these pictures inhabit a world that has transcended superfluousness. There is never so much as a stray brushstroke to compromise their profound and demanding economy. And not only is everything in its place, but also everything seems to have become place. One is coaxed into paradox: The objects and figures in these pictures do not so much occupy given space as they seem to constitute a given space. The accidental has been made over in the idiom of the necessary.

In this context, it is worth noting how often the word “poetic” is used to describe the effect of Mr. Bailey’s pictures. The tea cup and mixing bowl and eggs are as ordinary as a tea cup and mixing bowl and eggs can be, and yet … The real genius of Mr. Bailey’s art is not its verisimilitude but its ability to hold us in ellipses of wonder: Standing in front of his pictures, one often feels “It’s only an ordinary still life, but …” His best works seem haunted with an element of longing or pathos, as if behind the prim meticulousness of exactitude there were glimpsed some primal lack or absence. I am not sure there is a name for that lack or absence; perhaps it is the vacancy that inhabits contingency itself, that renders every visible thing incomplete because subject to the ravages of time. This all sounds terribly portentous. Which is a pity. For there is nothing at all portentous about William Bailey’s art—unless, that is, the realization of beauty counts as a benign form of portentousness.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 8, on page 41
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