There is a staggering wealth of work in what is William Conger’s first major career retrospective presently on view at the Cultural Center. With over sixty large-scale paintings, and a small suite of preparatory drawings on paper, the exhibition tracks his shifting and evolving styles over the course of his fifty year-long (and running) career.
While Conger is recognized as a colossus of abstraction on the Chicago scene, there are referential figurative, architectural and landscape elements which emerge and diffuse themselves throughout his work.
His earliest work on display, from the late fifties to early sixties, are represented by a small grouping of Abstract Expressionist echoes, complete with loud colors and mottled surfaces and all entitled Untitled.
The majority of Conger’s work from the seventies feature interior spaces of forms that, when left without an outline, are more opaque. The outlined forms glow with blended bits of hues to create subtle, pulsating ripples of color, save a small cache of paintings, such as the oil on canvas Gemini of 1974, which is lighter, brighter and with less of a black outline. It’s interesting to note that Eagle City, an oil on canvas from 1972, has, if the surface of the canvas is viewed up close and in person, visible penciled lines underneath the existing central diagonal shapes. These pencil lines reveal that the shapes were previously oriented towards the other side of the canvas in an earlier iteration of the painting, exposing the residue of the experimentation Conger might have done within each canvas.
By the 1980’s, streaks of paint are layered on top of blended background colors, and geometric shapes mingle with non-linear, dimensional lines and organic abstractions. Later works, like Lake Defense, an oil on canvas from 1994, bear realistic elements in them, such as water and rocks, suggestive of a landscape.
William Conger. V-Day, 2005-6. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of William Conger.
A view into his current production shows that Conger’s most recent work is the most solidly rooted in space. A large grouping of paintings made in the 21st century are bisected, like stained glass, with black lines which function as armature that segments each piece into units of form. The overlapping shapes also create a feeling of deep space, with chiefly squares and rectangles populating the background and circles and double-lined, curvilinear forms ambulating over top of them. Also, interestingly, Conger permits colors to bifurcate the geometric shapes that contain them, instead of just making dark black lines do all the work.
--Thea Liberty Nichols
(top image: William Conger, Chinatown. 2007. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.)