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William King

By David Cohen

Bill King would have had no trouble with the task with which I’ve been honored this evening: a eulogy in six minutes. Disarmingly—almost self-destructively—modest as he was, he might have thought that plenty of time for a speech. Besides, he was a natural born maker who could spin whatever was needed out of very little and with seemingly little effort.

Years before I met Bill, Alex Katz told me about this prowess. King himself recounted a childhood instance of improvisatory genius to Ada Katz in her interview collection, Eight Begin. One time his mother had accidentally grabbed the car keys when he was supposed to drive himself to band practice. Finding an old worn-down key, working entirely from memory, he filed it down and “started the car with the damn key.”

I had the opportunity to review a remarkable show of his early sculptures at Alexandre Gallery in 2007 for the New York Sun. “From the outset there has been a satirical bent in Mr. King’s aesthetic,” I wrote, “and an acute social observation in the handling of body language. But he seems constitutionally incapable of cruelty. While alive to the self as social construct, he portrays real people—invariable close friends, family, lovers—rather than mere types. There is a lot of love in these sculptures, both for the people depicted and the surfaces worked.”

As Hilton Kramer wisely observed, King’s humor is much like that of Charlie Chaplin: “a mockery that remains sweet to the taste, a satirical vision that does not exempt the artist himself from the reach of its criticism.”

Artists in general, and sculptors in particular, aren’t renowned for pocket-sized egos, but Bill could take self-deprecation to alarming depths. (Shy and retiring as he was, he could preside over an academy—one that perhaps in parliamentary tradition we could refer to as “the other place.”) Bill’s modesty helps us love the man, but for those of us aware of his importance to sculpture it is disturbing to think that anyone would take too literally his self-effacing remarks.

Take, for example, his comment about his own early woodcarvings, that they were “watered-down Nadelman.” It is certainly true that seeing the 1948 Elie Nadelman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was a formative experience. But as Sanford Schwartz has persuasively argued, King’s figurative sculpture surpassed the earlier artist in terms of fusing generalized form and psychological depth: “they are relations of Nadelman’s people but with innards.”

It is remarkable how so soon after graduating Cooper Union in 1948 and taking up his Fulbright in Rome the following year, Bill forged a fluent, fully formed personal language in sculpture. But what’s equally astonishing, in my view, is the way traits that are evident in the early carvings in wood, or his glazed terracottas—their warmth and whimsy—carry across to later work in metal, constructed at a monumental scale with sometimes drastic-seeming simplifications. His public sculpture recalls the way cinema or TV can retain and extend the expressive intimacies of the stage.

The key to Bill’s aesthetic, I think, is the way he combines elasticity and resistance. He has such a pitch-perfect control of materials that he can get them to convey whatever he wants. His line is extraordinary: simple, unaffected, yet with the tiniest inflection able to get across subtleties of gesture, individuality, posture, inner feeling. And one of the things he managed to get across, whether he was conscious of this or not, is a kind of energizing awkwardness. Yes, he could get materials to do what he wanted but he was also humble in relation to them, as interested in exploiting their resistance as overcoming it.

His sense of humor—sometimes tender, sometimes a little more cutting, even Rabelasian at times—can trick people into missing formal and technical innovations in his work. But no one, I think, will fail to savor the mix of form and content in what to me are some of the most memorable works of his oeuvre, the steel plate figures of the 1960s. My favorite, titled—as the whole series could have been—Magic, consists simply of two gorgeous, perfectly cut flat steel elements, one describing a woman’s leg, the other her torso and outstretched arm. Placed at 90 degrees to one another, they interlock to form a buttock at the apex of a triangle holding the figure in place.

This voluptuous construction had much in it to recall Matisse. As a feat of engineering it was worthy of the company of Calder, whose successor in many respects King was as a modernist with one foot in American folk art. It holds its own to contemporaneous works in steel by followers of David Smith. But equally interesting, I think, is how Bill King anticipates in different ways, many younger artists: the consonance of narrative and formal method recalls Martin Puryear; the humanized machine aesthetic, Jonathan Borofsky; the exploration of silhouette, Kara Walker; the meeting of political probity and sheer fun, Tom Otterness.

In a key respect King is an exemplar of a way in which public sculpture can combine warmth, social satire, and accessibility without compromising the sculptural values from which the individual artist’s language has grown. This ought not to be a controversial statement, but for one reason or another, warmth, humor, and accessibility are not words that automatically belong in an encomium to a modern sculptor. For daring to be fun and actually to be serious about being fun, William King made public sculpture worthy of the name.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 5, 2016.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters