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Cage Dies Bird Flies
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2014 Fellowship in Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts from the New York Foundation for the Arts


Vanderbilt Republic's 9th Street Phenomenon at Gowanus Loft in Brooklyn


BOMB magazine interview


Narrative statement regarding twenty years of art-making.


Cage Dies Bird Flies on Youtube


Dale Williams Studio on Facebook

An incomplete account of my artistic development

As an undergraduate I studied art at the Cooper Union in New York City, and for a brief time at California Institute of the Arts. I received a BFA degree from Cooper Union in 1977. In my second year at Cooper Union I devoted an entire semester to writing poetry even though I was enrolled in painting and sculpture classes. At that time I was also doing autobiographical performance art that occasionally incorporated my writing. The performance pieces showed the influence of the "actions" of the German artist Joseph Beuys, and a group of artists at the University of California, Davis, that included William Wiley. In my last two years as an undergraduate I concentrated exclusively on painting and drawing. I also maintained more than a casual interest in writing.

The most important artistic experience for me in those years was the exhibitions of Philip Guston's work at the David McKee Gallery. Guston's late work is now legendary, but at the time many of my teachers and a fair number of my fellow students couldn't accept it. The McKee Gallery was located then in the Barbizon Hotel on 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. This off-beat location away from the mainstream galleries—which was an uncommon practice in the mid-1970s New York art world—gave the feeling that in visiting Guston’s shows one was embarking upon a special sort of adventure. Guston became a spiritual artistic mentor for me. Under influence of his late work I began keeping small sketchbooks in which I'd make drawings of stories with personal symbolism that I kept to myself and were very different from the work I showed in my classes.

I traveled through Europe for four months in the autumn after college, visiting as many of the greater and lesser works of western art that I could. I returned to Baltimore, Maryland (my hometown) where I lived for the next year and a half. Disenchanted and impatient with my abilities as a painter I decided to drop visual art and focus exclusively on writing poetry. I enrolled in a Master of Liberal Arts program at Johns Hopkins University in September 1978. I lasted three months. I was interested in the course of study, and felt I had unique ideas about Dante's Inferno and Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but little skill in constructing coherent arguments that effectively communicated my ideas.

I eventually went back to painting and drawing. I also kept writing, and did some work combining those two disciplines. I discovered the work of the American poet Kenneth Patchen who became very important for me. I was especially interested in his experiments incorporating visual elements into his poetry. His idiosyncratic populist-socialist surrealism and unhampered emotionalism had a strong appeal for me. Patchen's poems and drawings seemed like work William Blake would have made had he lived in the United States through the Great Depression and the period after WW II.

I made another extended visit to Europe in the autumn of 1979. During this trip I visited the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, France, home to Mathias Grunewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece." That work remains for me a touchstone of what it is possible to achieve in art: a complex and visionary work of great compassion. Goya's "Black Paintings," with which I was quite familiar but saw in person for the first time on this trip, provided another important model. The "Black Paintings" were, to me, the closest relation from the past to Guston's late work. Their dark humor, their feeling of mystery and tragedy, their painterly expressionism, their restrained palette, all contributed to a sense of their wielding great force and yet teetering on the brink of hopelessness.

I moved back to New York in 1980 and found employment in a succession of part-time jobs that gave me ample time for my art. The problem was that I wasn't any closer to understanding how to approach the work I felt I wanted to make. My exposure to the surrealist poets of Spain and South America at this time was most important, and presented a conceptual breakthrough in how I thought about my art. I came to these poets through the "70s Press" translations by the poet Robert Bly. His short introductory essays to their work were more influential for me as an artist than any art writing I read at that time. I wanted to paint pictures that were visual equivalents to the writing of César Vallejo, the Peruvian poet. His poetry seemed to be grounded in the facts of living: politics, personal disappointments and joys, strivings, fears, and the energy of it all manifested in powerful image-dense language.

In 1982 I spent three and a half months in India. I had always been interested in the mythological complexities of Hinduism and their depiction in Indian art. The mixing of human and animal form had always felt true to me. I also thought there was a kinship between the undulating profusion of imagery in Hindu temple sculpture and the humid jungle surrealism of some of the writing of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. But equally impressive to me as the great monuments of Indian art were the spontaneous expressions of devotion one would see along the roads and city streets throughout India. The improvised quality of these shrines gave a raw presence to the figures represented.

Delhi street shrine

I attended Hunter College graduate art program and received an MFA in 1989. In my last year of graduate school I began making books. The desire to make explicit the latent imagery in the semi-abstract paintings I was doing at that time fueled this venture. Books offered a way of developing the narrative content of my work. Although much of the subject matter was personal, the inclusion of writing gave me the opportunity to speak of social and political concerns.

In 1998 I began to address social and political subjects in my art more directly. The pitfall of making art with political themes has become amply apparent to me over the years since 9/11. I would find myself thinking of images that I felt confronted specific issues only to pick up the next day’s newspaper to find that the issue I wanted to address had morphed into something less clear, or something else had supplanted it in importance. There was also the ever-present problem of over-simplifying complex situations and one's reaction to them. Despite these and other problems I feel it is important that artists attempt to deal with such issues in their work. But I don't believe that art, even art that confonts political realities more directly than I have done in my work, is a subsitute for political engagement.

Over the past few years I have moved away from a collage/multi-media approach that has been a mainstay of my work for many years. The reasons for such moves can be complicated, more intuited than thought through. Briefly, I had become dissatisfied with my work after an exhibition in January of 2007, and went through a period of questioning. I wanted to focus more on the figures in my work, and have gradually come to strip away anything that obscures the intensity of their expression.

My professional career has been a little less lively than my internal development as an artist, although there has been some welcome acknowledgements over the past two years. In September of 1989 I was included in "Selections 46," one of the periodic survey exhibitions curated from slide submissions at the Drawing Center in New York. I've had work included in various group shows in New York before and since that time. In 1996 I had a solo show of drawings and books at the Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, New York. I have had two solo exhibitions of my work at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York in winter 2007 and autumn 2012. In April 2014, the writer Ben Miller and I debuted a performance of our collaborative project, "Cage Dies Bird Flies," at the {Re}HAPPENING held at the old Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. In 2014 I received a fellowship from the New York Foundation of the Arts in Printmaking/Book Arts/Drawing. I have had two solo exhibitions at Gowanus Loft in Brooklyn, organized by The Vanderbilt Republic: March 2015 featured all 81 paintings of "Cage Dies Bird Flies - part 1"; "Fear Not To Appear" in April-May 2016 showed works from 1980 through 1996, the period during which I transitioned from figurative to abstract and back to the figuration that I have been involved with ever since. My work has been publsihed in various literary and other magazines in print and online over the past few years: BOMB, Ecotone, Arcadia, the Bad Penny Review, and the Literal Latte. From 1999 until 2004 I worked with a few other artists in running an annual artists open studio tour in the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn where I currently have my studio.