William King was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2007. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.
Now 82, William King has been showing figurative sculpture on a regular basis in New York for over 50 years. His familiar, often long-legged figures, embodying a unique blend of social satire, fantast, and an affectionate eye for everyday life, have long been recognized as a distinctive contribution to American art. King was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and grew up in Coconut Grove, Miami. After attending the University of Florida, he moved to New York in 1945 and graduated from Cooper Union in 1948. The following year, he went to Rome on a Fulbright scholarship. He has taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, the University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was president of the National Academy of Design between 1994 and 1998.
King’s work has been the subject of over 60 solo exhibitions. Writings about the artist include reviews by Fairfield Porter (ArtNews, 1954 and The Nation, 1960), numerous essays by Hilton Kramer, and a recent review by Holland Cotter (New York Times, 2007). The Alexandre Gallery recently featured “The Early Work of William King,” and a four-part 2004 survey of his wood, bronze, terra-cotta, and other works at the Alexandre Gallery and Marilyn Pearl Gallery marked the most comprehensive show of his work to date. King recently completed three public sculptures, Sunrise, Circus, and Interstate, for the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, as part of an innovative public art program sponsored by the Iowa West Foundation. The artist lives and works in East Hampton.
“Your opinion on these sculptures is of mathematically equal value to any other person’s opinion. Why? Because that’s where the art is: inside, personal, non-transferable, and absolutely unequivocal…If they make you feel good, that’s where the art is: not the sculptures themselves…If they make you feel bad, go find something else to look at until you find something that makes you feel good. Even better – make your won.” – William King, “Opinion,” in William King Sculpture (New York: Terry Dintenfass Gallery, 1970).
“A choice few [artists] have always ‘done what they want to,’ pre-Postmodernism, with critics and viewers neatly dubbing them ‘idiosyncratic,’ if they’re of a negative cast of min, or ‘true originals,’ if they get what’s going on. Such a one is William King…The sculptures are larger-than-life, a little monolithic, even, but definitely persons. The human animal is the thorn in Bill King’s flesh, and the gleam in his bespectacled eye. – Gerrit Henry, “Sculpture King Scores!” catalogue essay in William King (New York: Terry Dintenfass Gallery, 1987).
“In classic examples of William King’s sculptures, the figures have arms like I-beams, legs like stilts, and heads that are barely there. Sometimes they stride or sit with a kind of stiff American nonchalance, like Giacomettis conceived by John Cheever. Just as often they gesticulate emphatically. They’re frustrated, furious, ecstatic, having some kind of fit. Children probably think these figures in particular, with their long, goofy clodhopper shoes, are emotionally, to be in those shoes…I will now filter not only King’s half-century career, but also many other under-examined aspects of late 20th-century American art through [his early work].” – Holland Cotter, “Toy-Size Sculptures that Play with Adult-Size Emotions,” New York Times, January 22, 2007.
Henry Richardson: Where did you grow up?
William King: Miami, Coconut Grove. My father was a civil engineer. He would dredge the sea bottom and make real estate. And then the whole thing went bust, and he went to work for Pan American Airways. The main base was in Coconut Grove, for the famous seaplanes. I was supposed to be an engineer. My father would lean over my brother’s crib and tell him, “You’re going to be an engineer, you’re going to be an engineer.” So, my brother was a mechanical engineer.
I skipped last year of high school and went to college. After a year, I knew that I wasn’t going to be an engineer. I went to work for Pan Am, in the metal shop, patching the seaplanes. A woman who worked in the shop was in Florida getting a divorce; she told me all about New York City. My brother said that I would be smart to go to UCLA to study architecture. So, I’m going to go to California. And this woman says, “I got my divorce, and I’m going back to New York. Why don’t you come and see it?”
“By the early ‘70s [King] is not primarily a public artist… [He] is a chronic three-dimensional art-maker. He carves and models in a broader assortment of materials and has done so over a longer period and in a greater range of scale than perhaps any of his peers.” – Gerald Nordland, “William King,” catalogue essay in Forty Years of Work in Wood (New York: Terry Distenfass Gallery, 1994).
“At age 82, King is one of the eminences of the sculpture world. He is best known for his long-legged, whimsical personages pieced together from aluminum or vinyl sheets, but his last show at Alexandre… reveals King’s broad range – his willingness to experiment in many mediums and styles with an almost promiscuous abandon. All the works here are figurative, but within that tradition they display a remarkable diversity of expression… Some seem very much in keeping with Modernist developments of the early and mid-20th century, while others hark back to humbler or more esoteric sources. One sees echoes in King’s sculptures of Modernists such as Calder, Brancusi, Giacometti, Marisol, and Picasso, but also folk art, Cycladia and Egyptian sculpture, and African totems. A particularly strong influence was American sculptor Elie Nadelman himself an aficionado of folk art.” – Eleanor Heartney, “William King at Alexandre,” Art in America, April 2007.
I told my mother, “I’m going to California, but I’m going to stop in New York and look it over.” She said, “That here’s $100, get out of this state and don’t come back until you’re 65, there’s nothing for you to do.” A very smart woman. I never got to California. I got to New York, and I thought I’ll go to cooper Union. And that was the luckiest thing for me. It was fantastic. I asked my brother what did he think about my decision to be a sculptor, not an architect. I thought he’d have a fit. He wrote back, “Great. This country needs more sculptors, can I help?”
HR: Have you found it difficult to keep faith with your own work, to believe that what you’re doing has value and that your choice in pursuing this career was the right one?
WK: After school one day, I was in the sculpture studio making something for a girl. The teacher comes in, and asks, “What are you doing?” “Well, I’m making a sculpture.” So he comes over to look at it and says, “That’s pretty good, I bet you could get $50 for that.”
That’s a lot of money in 1945-46. Does that answer your question, to make a living doing something you want to do? Intoxicating!
“King’s ability to suggest simultaneously the human warmth and the posturing artificiality of people in social situations is, actually, a feat – although the charm, power, and presence of his pieces comes as much from their lean, stripped-to-the-bone forms and King’s rapport with his materials. Yet the deeper distinction of this artist may lie in the kaleidoscopic variety of his sculptures – in the way he gets into the skins of so many different people…King is a naturalistic observer and a satirist, an expressionist and a social critic, and, amazingly, he makes all his phases cohere as the workings of one man’s mind…His many sculptures in burlap or Mylar of preening businessmen…have generally been taken as just one more element in his world of partygoers and hipsters. Like some of his terra-cotta heads, though, they strike a grotesque and ominous note that is rarely present in American art. Working in aluminum plate, on the other hand…his native concision makes him seem like a blood relation to earlier Purists, even to Minimalists…he is almost as close to the pared-down world of his contemporary Ellsworth Kelly as he is to that of Calder and Arp. But then in wood carvings and terra-cottas of friends and family. King’s work can have a nuanced feeling for character and a ruminative beauty that go in an entirely different direction.” – Sanford Schwartz, “Beginnings,” catalogue essay in The Early Work of William King (New York: Alexandre Gallery, 2007).
“The sculpture of William King is a sculpture of comic gesture. It…choreographs a scenario of sociability, of conscious affections and unavowed pretensions, transforming the world of observed manners and unacknowledged motive into mime-like structures of comic revelation. Often very funny, sometimes acerbic, frequently satiric and touching at the same time, it is sculpture that draws from the vast repertory of socialized human gesture a very personal vocabulary of contemporary sculptural forms. This preoccupation with gesture is the locus of King’s sculptural imagination. Everything else that one admires in his work – the virtuoso carving, the deft handling of a wide variety of materials, the shrewd observation and resourceful invention – all this is secondary to the concentration on gesture.” – Hilton Kramer, “The Sculpture of William King.” catalogue essay in William King Sculpture (New York: Terry Dintenfass Gallery, 1970).
HR: You continued to pursue figurative work at a time when most other sculptors had abandoned that form. Was there a particular reason for your path?
WK: It’s the only thing that looked right. I got razzed for my imagery out at the University of California, in 1962, ’63, ’64. They didn’t’ take kindly to what I was doing.
HR: Who do you make the work for? Do you make it for the process, for yourself, or for potential viewers?
WK: You make it for it, so that it fits into history. It has to be done. Somebody can buy it, but it’s mine.
HR: When you were starting out, were there dealers who helped you?
WK: Basically, it’s kind of a cat and dog thing. I had a dealer for a long time, Terry Dintenfass. She viewed artists as petty criminals, with good reason.
We’re not very nice people, dealers or artists. Maybe it’s more open now, because most artists have gone through the academy, graduate school. Very few of them are “free range.”
“King’s not so simple joint issue seems to be the culture’s need for heroes and the easiness of becoming self-important, a situation he sees as creating monsters. Yet he also appears to say, much as Bruce Nauman implies with his ranting, jumping clowns or as Cindy Sherman implies with her gallery of toxic victims, ‘I am such a monster myself.’ Ultimately, one can believe there is an ethical dimension to the teeming variousness of King’s work, its sense of being on long, rule-free improvisation…At once a keen student of certain sculptors whose work held untapped possibilities for him and a rash beginner who seems not to have been unduly bothered by how much his art was unlike that of nearly every sculptor (and most painters) then working in a burgeoning New York art world mesmerized by abstraction, King injected the age old tradition of figurative sculpture with a humor, a feeling for character, and a tenderness that, while acknowledged at the time, may be a revelation for viewers now.” –Sanford Schwartz, “Beginnings,” catalogue essay in The Early Work of William King (New York: Alexandre Gallery, 2007).
“In wood, King had a special touch that brings out the nuance of every surface. Like his subjects, King’s materials emerge naturally from his life. His most recent experiments are with twigs and branches, the results of cutting down some trees that blocked a view to the water in East Hampton…’I was going to burn them up and I thought, wait a minute. For New Yorkers, it’s criminal to cut down a tree and burn it –that’s vandalism. So I thought, why don’t I try to make some spooks and sprites, and I couldn’t stop…Then I’s go to other places looking for trees. There’s no end to it,’ he says.” –Harriet Senie, “King’s Kingdom,” Artnews, June 1986.
“This fascination with materials can be traced back to King’s childhood in Florida, where, he recalls, ‘I would sit out in the backyard using a screwdriver for a chisel and a hammer for a mallet on some soft coral rocks. As a little tiny kid, I remember doing that. Hour after hour, day after day. Making things.’”—Harriet Senie, “King’s Kingdom,” Artnews, June 1986.
HR: What advice do you have for young artists today, about how much of a struggle it’s going to be?
WK: I wish I had an answer, but anything I would say is 50 years out of date. It’s all different now. In 1959, money became a big part of the art world. It suddenly became possible to get rich by being an artist. It had been unheard of, in America. It wasn’t in the equation. You did what you wanted to do and tried to stay alive.
HR: Do you do to New York City much now?
WK: Not much. But I get down on my knees and thank my lucky stars for New York City. I shudder to think what would happen without New York. That’s where I found out what I was. I didn’t know there was any such thing until I was in New York. I saw artists, I saw sculpture. I said, “I can do that.”
– Henry Richardson