William Bailey could conjure a universe on a tabletop, an enigmatic realm where candlesticks, chafing dishes, pitchers, and eggs gathered as though members of a secret society, or inhabitants of an unfathomable realm known only to them. Bailey, who died on April 13 at 89, might have enjoyed such cosmic significance assigned to his portrayal of everyday things. “Realism," the obvious category he might fall into, he once said, “is about interpreting daily life in the world around us. I’m trying to paint a world that’s not around us.”
In January, I was lucky enough to see Bailey’s “Looking Through Time” exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, where an unearthly richness seemed to emanate from every one of his paintings. The exhibition was in its final days, which made for an even luckier collision of things: Bailey himself was there that day with his daughter, contentedly surveying what was, remarkably, the only institutional survey exhibition of his work, ever. Amid the eerily precise still lifes and nudes that had filled his career, one visitor in the gallery recognized him, stopping him to offer thanks — for his work, and for his devotion to his very singular vision.
Bailey, surely, went against the grain. Born on the cusp of the Great Depression, he would have come of age in an era when abstraction dominated American painting and representational work like his was seen as nostalgic or passé. It’s easy to cut those two worlds neatly in two — and for decades, most did. But for me, Bailey’s work occupies its own space, somewhere in between.
His crisp renderings are intensely formal, so much about compositional elements, proportion, and color; it’s as though the objects he employed — “my repertory company,” he once called them, positioning them as though on stage in his domestic mise-en-scène — are less objects than avatars for a set of precisely ordered compositional concerns. Bailey’s colors — muted but menacing, like a graveyard at dusk — evoke responses that transcend the simple objects that carry them.
Setting the tone are the deep blood-red wall sliced by crimson shadow at one razor-sharp corner in “Plateau,” from 1993, or the chilling gray-blue walls of “Monterchi,” from 1981; in front of them, crisp, angular forms cluster, as though against a rising chill. They’re transcendently mundane — not so much realism as hyper-realism. You might be tempted to conclude that Bailey was assigning high value to the everyday, honoring it with his extravagant attentions and abundant skill. To do that, you’d be looking only with your eyes. Bailey’s works evoke a sense of order so alien, so remote, as to be not of this earth — a formal transformation of emotion pursued most fervently by his abstract painting peers. They’re like nothing so much as vivid dreams, loath to reveal their mysteries to the dreamer. Bailey’s realism was not one of things on a table, but of the more elusive realm of the soul.