Henry Villierme: a living link

April 2, 2002 § Leave a comment

Henry Villierme | Self Portrait

Henry Villierme | Self Portrait

IN THE EYES of the art world, Henry Villierme’s story looks like this: It’s 1957. A talented young artist comes onto the scene in the San Francisco Bay Area and gains attention as part of an important invitational show at the Oakland Art Museum. At about the same time he takes first prize in painting at an exhibition in Richmond, California — with honorable mentions going to future greats Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and David Park. Diebenkorn speaks glowingly of Villierme’s “instinctual understanding” of the craft of painting. The young artist is seen as one of the key players in what is known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement — which, in reintegrating elements of realism into painting, represents an important transitional step beyond abstract expressionism.

After being widely praised and taking part in several more exhibitions, Villierme moves to Southern California in 1960. To support his young family, he finds work in fields outside the art world. He completely disappears from the art scene for almost 40 years.

Then in the 1990s, a Northern California art dealer decides to locate the artist after seeing Villierme’s work in a book on the Bay Area Figurative painters. He finds Villierme in central California, on the verge of retiring, ready to start painting full time again. Villierme is reintroduced to the art world, a living link to an influential period in the history of American art. Best of all, the rediscovered artist’s current work, while maintaining continuity with his earlier efforts, displays strength and vitality that lift it well beyond the realm of curiosity or art historical artifact.

That’s the Rip Van Winkle tale from the outside. From the perspective of the “lost and found” artist himself, the story reveals a full life in which family, the richness of daily experience, and adherence to an honorable, inherited work ethic has more than made up for any forfeited glory and fame in the past 40 years. Now 77, Villierme has time to paint all he wants. Acknowledging the rediscovered appreciation of his art, he happily refers to this period in his life as the “whipped cream” on top.

— From Henry Villierme: Bay Area Figurative

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