JK: Bill, I’ve been reviewing some records of your work since about 1948 and have been struck by the remarkable consistency in your approach to painting. I’m curious to learn how you first conceived yourself as an artist.
WB: When I look back, I realize that the idea of the way an artist might live was known to me fairly early. I first worked with a painter named Henry Botkin in New York – I was then fourteen – and later lived with Henry and his family for a year; so that by eighteen I had a realistic view of how an artist lived; how he worked, what his devotion to work was, what his exhibition activity was, and how his family related to it all. It’s a picture that has stayed pretty true.

Sea Rocks, 1947, Oil on canvas, 7 x 16 in. Collection of the artist.

JK: True in what sense?
WB: I can remember that when I was sixteen or seventeen, I thought, well, this is something that I am going to do, and if there’s some confirmation of what I do that will be good. But if there isn’t I’m going to do it anyway. My artistic consciousness began in the late thirties. I can remember seeing in the galleries Matisses, Picassos, Braques shown in the same year in which they had been painted, and that had enormous impact. And one could also read – certainly by then they were very well-known artists – one could read their statements, which confirmed the idea one had of painting as a way of life.

Two Roses in a White Place, 1951, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.
Collection of the artist.

JK: You said very early on, about 1947, or perhaps I’m recalling a remark by a reviewer, that your interest lay in texture, in the restrained palette, and draftsmanship. Reproductions of your early work show you to have been concentrating on basic elements. And your later works show the consistency with which you pursued them. How did those interests form: Was it temperamental, was it a response to what you were looking at in the Thirties and Forties?

WB: Well I can remember that I went around to the galleries a great deal. I recall going to exhibitions of surrealists and Neo-Romantics, Dali, Berman, Bérard, Tanguy. I was usually in Botkin’s company. His interests lay in a different direction. He had strong reservations about Surrealism, and his affinity was for the French tradition.

JK: Let me ask it another way. In 1949, when you were about a decade away from Botkin, you said in an interview in Los Angeles: “If one is simply truthful he will be forced to project his ideas in a manner personal to him, not through a conscious effort to be unique, to seek acclaim or to shock, but solely to be truthful to himself, his vision and his relationship to the world.” At that time you were working on what you called forms and voids seen directly from nature, which is to say you weren’t painting from nature but painting out of nature. Was this partly a reaction against Surrealism?

Two Figures, 1966, Oil on canvas, 80 X 96 in.
Collection Mr. and Mrs. Jennings Lang. 1954–55

WB: These things are now seen in retrospect. I’ve never been a programmatic painter. I don’t think I undertook work essentially as problem-solving. Not that I wasn’t always involved in certain formal issues. In 1947 I painted a number of small paintings based on an arrangement of sea rocks. I was living at the beach part of the time, and I would collect the sea rocks. I think that what fascinated me was that the color of a rock and its substance were inseparable. I remember breaking them open. I was thinking about the difference between applied color as opposed to this color inseparable from substance in the rock. I remember (though it seems a curious distance from what I was actually doing) that Piero della Francesca was of particular interest to me. I think what I found in rock coloration and form, the subtle nuance of color, ochre, olive green, slate-gray, gray-violet and black, was to the sculptural relief in a Piero. I found a similar restraint of color; ochre, olive green, slate-gray, gray-violet and black were to be found in those sea rocks and that there was the possibility of establishing a formal order of relationship. They were in my first New York exhibition at the Downtown Gallery. Although I felt a satisfaction in the realization of those paintings, I was unsettled: their containment, the careful quality of their ordering no longer reflected my sense of day-to-day experience. I didn’t know where next I’d go. When I returned to the Coast and the studio where I’d painted the paintings of sea rocks, there was a rose garden outside. And it had always been there! Though I’d been going through it for a number of years, the garden had not absorbed me. Suddenly I discovered that garden, and, because it was artificial, that is, planted there, it burst into bloom as though overnight. I found myself making watercolors in the garden because I felt those flowers were there so briefly. I had no idea what my eventual involvement would be. As I worked I saw that on one bush there would be a bud and a flower in bloom, and also a dying or dead flower. The idea of the cycle came to me. Now in retrospect, though even at that time, after about five years of working with those flowers, I realized that I had moved from one kind of implication of alteration of form in nature, the sea rocks that turn slowly beneath the water, to this fleeting cycle of life in flowers. I also had in the studio tables with flowers, and some of the flowers had been on them for three or four years, while others had been brought in fresh that morning.

Untitled, 1976, Oil on canvas, 56 X 68 in.
All illustrations by courtesy of the artist
and the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles.