‘Probably a six-pack’

December 14, 2021 § Leave a comment

Manuel Neri (left) and Henry Villierme during their student days.

ONE DAY IN THE mid-90s, not long after I opened my gallery, in the door one afternoon walked the great sculptor Manuel Neri — quite a thrill for a new gallery owner interested in California art.

“Is this where my old roommate Hank Villierme is showing?” he asked.

We’d recently opened a major exhibition of Henry Villierme’s paintings, his first in ages. Villierme had been a rising star, one of a dozen artists included in the seminal 1957 Bay Area figurative exhibition at the Oakland Museum, before he disappeared from the art scene and went to work for a living. Villierme and Neri were roommates while they both attended what was then the California College of Arts and Crafts, a major site of artistic ferment in that era.

I was too star-struck to remember much of the conversation with Neri. But later I showed Villierme a picture I’d run across of him and Neri back when they were roommates. Henry took a look and smiled. “Probably a six-pack under my arm,” he said.

— Thomas Reynolds

MORE: “Neri first exhibited on Fillmore

Success — half a century later

April 30, 2005 § Leave a comment

Henry Villierme: becoming a hot commodity

San Francisco Chronicle

Henry Villierme was on the fast track to becoming one of the new painting stars emerging from the Bay Area Figurative Group in the late 1950s. He was so promising that he took a first prize at a 1957 art exhibition in Richmond while future famed artists Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and David Park received just honorable mentions.

But unlike his contemporaries, Villierme never made that leap to worldwide recognition. Instead, he moved to Southern California to be closer to his wife’s family and raised his four children while earning money in different odd jobs.

“I never really left painting,” Villierme said by phone from his home in Ojai. “I just didn’t show. I was painting to paint.”

Villierme is no longer a no-show. During the last few years, his career has taken off, thanks in part to his agent son Paul and gallery owner Thomas Reynolds.

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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


A refreshing blast of inspiration

June 26, 1997 § Leave a comment

Henry Villierme | Spillway

A TWINGE OF instant recognition greets the visitor. The eye grazes over the artist’s small, vibrantly colored and consistently stylized views of landscapes and townscapes, transformed into visual patchwork. The mind instinctively thinks Richard Diebenkorn, before he followed the muse into abstraction.

A closer look, though, reveals something deeper than a mere imitation of Diebenkorn’s signature reductive approach, something more personally expressive. In fact, Villierme studied with Diebenkorn and played a role in the Bay Area Figurative Movement decades back, but slipped out of the public art scene for years. Now his paintings arrive on the scene as a refreshing blast of inspiration.

Villierme’s paintings, mostly of fields and buildings, are structured as seductive sequences of forms, rather than seamless interpretations of real space. Cityscapes present the city from a rooftop perspective, high above the thrum of human activity. Translating the lines and angles into meshes of geometry, Villierme reshapes the observable world into images that are both vivid to behold and thoughtful in conception.

— JOSEF WOODARD, Los Angeles Times

Diebenkorn on Villierme

January 22, 1992 § Leave a comment

Henry Villierme | Lakeview (1957)

Henry Villierme | Lakeview (1957)

WHEN HENRY VILLIERME told me in 1959 that he was leaving the Bay Area for Southern California — to take a job in a bank? — I was stunned and desperately disappointed. Of all the painting students at the California College of Arts and Crafts who might have abandoned his direction, Henry was the one whose defection could hit me the hardest.

In the studio it was always a pleasure to confront him and his painting. He was a hard and intense worker. He was anxious for words from me and I would usually come up with some nonsense which I would interrupt by saying, “Look Henry — just keep painting.” But he usually had some questions and you could feel their extreme need for answers. There were never evasions, apologies or excuses as with some students.

I enjoyed my critiques with Henry. His work was always wet and difficult to handle, would have been through hell but would not be tortured. It would be rich and very solid and just faintly bruised and slightly bloodied — ineffaceable evidence of a desperate fight. Henry would respond, “What fight?”

Beyond this Henry’s painting had, and still has, instinctual understanding of that universal human activity in which colors are applied to a surface.

Henry’s capacity to bring a work to a final state of open, nonintrospective resolution is impressive. There is no one whom I would feel better about describing as “a real painter.”

Anyone who can bring to realization a canvas on a hilltop in a high wind as I once observed is to be profoundly respected.

January 1992

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