The Importance of Place

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat down with William Salit in his brand-new studio at ARC, the gallery/studios complex that my partners and I recently started in SOMA.  We talked about setting up his new space – his first studio since the tragic demise of Belcher Studios two years ago.  Belcher Studios was, in many ways, the template that we used when we started ARC.  We all loved the energy and spirit of community at Belcher. In fact, when I first found out that the building that used to house New Langton Arts was available, I actually approached some of the former Belcher artists about the possibility of resurrecting that community in the building.  Ultimately that did not work out.  We formed our own partnership and started ARC.  However, I was really thrilled when William, one of the Belcher artists that I really admired, decided to join the studios.

At Belcher, the first studio that you encountered when you entered was William Salit’s studio.  When William saw the studio at the top of the stairs with its window open to the staircase, it was like coming home.  He immediately took the space.  In February, he started moving in.  By last week’s grand opening, it was beautifully laid out.  All of which led to a conversation about the importance of place.

Over the past two years, he has largely taken a hiatus from drawing.  As you can tell from his beautifully organized studio, William has a love affair with order.  Everything has a place and everything is in its space.  This is true in his home, his office and his studio.  However, strangely enough, he found that this need for order in most of his life was stifling his art.  He was not able to “let go” in his ordered spaces.  At Belcher, he had given himself the freedom to allow chaos into his studio.  He is not quite there yet at ARC.  But, he envisions very shortly carving out an island of chaos where he can have the freedom to let his art take him wherever it wants to go. 

There is an echo of Greek mythology in this discussion.  Chaos was the primordial ether from which the gods created the universe.  It was not the opposite of order.  Rather it was the raw material from which order was drawn.  For William, the physical connection between chaos and order is his crayon.  He talks about his hand and the graphite in that hand as if it was somehow disconnected from his body:  “My hand loves a piece of the Conté crayon in it.”  He draws aggressively.  It is not a delicate process.  This is no gentle foxtrot.  It is a wild tango.  And, the Conté crayon is a very hard kaolin/graphite/pigment mixture that accommodates his dance. 

The range of William’s work is astonishing.  I asked him to pull out some of his work , so we could talk a little bit about some of the different things that he had done and that he was doing.  We actually started with a recent series of photographs.  When he was without a dedicated studio, his drawing almost completely stopped.  No island of chaos was available.  His design work benefited, as his art sought an outlet.  He also began photographing more seriously.  I was particularly drawn to a large series of works of “found objects” photographed in the streets of San Francisco.  They are unstaged objects found lying on the street that do not belong.  I was particularly fascinated with the Band-Aid meticulously affixed along side a crack in the sidewalk.

There are the “Old Master” drawings – studies of the head and the figure reminiscent of Italian Renaissance drawings.  He opened his flat file and pulled out study after study of Val, his continuous muse for over 20 years – going back to his college days in New York.  They moved to San Francisco together.  He has drawn her literally thousands of times. I, in fact, met her leaving William’s studio when I arrived.  These are masterful, traditional drawings.  They are beautiful in their own right.  But, they are also like a musician playing his scales.  As William gears up, the drawings are his way of stretching his artistic muscles.

And, last but not least, we talked about the organic abstractions.  The foundation here is also the figure.  However, it is a sub-conscious foundation.  He begins with a line and starts drawing without purpose.  As it takes shape, he might turn it sideways or upside-down to make sense out of it.  He adds oil washes to the waxy charcoal.  He collages on the drawing.  He colors on the drawing.  In some cases, he makes a series of prints utilizing techniques similar to monoprinting.  I asked him how he knew he was done.  He described a process of “half lives”.  The frenzy simply winds down.  It is never really done.  But, much like a calculation in calculus, the drawing simply approaches being finished to the point where there was no meaningful difference between being finished and being almost finished.  Then he stops.

William Salit is one of the featured artists on this month’s Tour des Artistes studio tours.  You can also see his work at the SOMA Spring Open Studios.  There will be a preview exhibition at ARC Gallery on April 9-10.  And, his studio will be open for Open Studios on April 16-18.  Or, you can contact William through his website to arrange to for a studio visit by appointment.