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Studio visit: Thornton Willis


Welcome visitors from Painters' Table!

James writes: 

I recently visited the Soho studio of Thornton Willis as he prepares for his upcoming exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, opening on March 14, 2013.  (All photographs by James Panero.)


Thornton's abstractions are a blend of geometry and intuition. For his latest series, he pares down his forms and used strong color contrasts to energize the tension between figure and ground. 


Thornton begins with a base layer of acrylic and often finishes his paintings in oil. Sometimes he leaves the acrylic layer exposed, as in the example above.


Thornton is one of Soho's artist pioneers. He and his family moved into the loft where he lives and works in the 1970s. Over the past decade, his work has attracted a new range of interest. In Art & Antiques, I described him as "The Comeback Kid." 


Over many paintings, Thornton develops different geometric themes. When I wrote the catalogue essay for his 2009 show at Elizabeth Harris, Thornton was using a lattice. For a decade before that, the triangle dominated his compositions


A profile of the abstract painter Thornton Willis from James Panero on Vimeo.


Thornton uses tape to mask off his edges, then often works paint back in to obscure the hard lines. 


Decades of paint on the floor of his live-in studio. 


Thornton's painting table, with his palette kept wet under aluminum foil.


Thornton looks for the essense of abstraction, Here he distills his shape and color choice to a minimum, with two orange power chords vibrating on a red ground. 


His color of choice is called "bright red."


Thornton blends his own medium out of linseed oil, stand oil, turpenoid, and other substances in old whiskey bottles.


Added to the oils from the tube, the medium gives his paint a creamy finish.



As a side project, Thornton brings his figure-ground dynamic to full relief with these wall sculptures constructed of found wood. 


Thornton works in both large and small scaled canvases but rarely in between.


These two colors, tracing out recurring shapes, have an op-art resonance. 


The same goes for these color contrasts. Seemingly simple forms and color choices resonate due to Thornton's studied placement and paint-handling.  


Thornton Willis's next exhibition will be on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery from March 14 through April 13, 2013.    



Very insightful, Sam! You practically took the words right out of my mouth! Thornton displays a production of incredible artwork that will truly stand the test of time and remain relatable to various art lovers of all generations for years to come.
I particularly love the pink and green color scheme used in a piece of his above featured paintings.

Sam Fryer

In an art atmosphere largely infected with popular, bombastic imagery, Thornton’s work inadvertently shows the sensationalists for the normopaths they truly are! While in all aspects masterfully executed, I am always struck by the honesty of the work; Thornton gives us real life – his and ours – in all it’s gritty, fighting beauty. Even if stylistically abstract, this is as real as it gets. When finally all the plastic is recycled and the taxidermy decayed, Thornton’s paintings will stand – bright and strong as they do today, and our generation will have reason for pride!

Sarajo Frieden

Lovely post on this painter, thank you!

Dee Shapiro

Great overview of Willis and his work place. I love the negative space in his work and how he uses color and space to get the ambiguity. Nice video. Like the filming and how you get him to talk and move. His tapes look like an interesting sculpture.


Nice doc. I especially liked your sections where you look into his work with a deeper eye than most people would give time to.


beautiful, vibrant colors.

Paul Behnke

Thanks for the post James. Just got to meet Thornton @ EH at Brett Baker's exhibit.
One of my favorite painters.

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