’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know~John Keats (Ode on a Grecian Urn)
I first met William Conger around ten years ago when I was curating That 70s Show for a gallery in the suburbs of the greater Chicago region. I found him to be a quiet unassuming man although his paintings with broad areas of color and bold linear statements might suggest otherwise. I always admired how he could capture the busyness of life in Chicago, yet maintain a quality of stillness and calmness in his work.
In December, I visited William in his studio in Chicago. I went there to photograph a painting that was going to a museum. The five minute interruption into his day turned into a two hour conversation about art, painting, the art world, the art market and history. I could have stayed two more hours. William gave me a couple of catalogs with essays about his art because he could tell I needed to know more. I read reviews of his work that were written by both critics and scholars.
I still had unanswered questions about why his work resonated so deeply with me. And it’s not just me. His work has sold for more than fifty years and is in every major public collection in Chicago. His paintings move people. I knew after that day in the studio with Conger, I wanted to better understand his work. I needed to contextualize it. I wanted to know what he knows. I wanted to unlock the secrets that lie behind the colorful plains, grids and seemingly flat patterning. I wanted more.
I didn’t realize at the time of our visit that he was going to have a show at Zolla-Lieberman Gallery in Chicago. I had to see the show. I drove 500 miles to get there from Nashville. I wasn’t leaving the gallery until I came out with some idea about why his work resonates with me. True, it is good painting. Yes, the compositions are intriguing. Okay, I understand that they represent Chicago street scenes, architecture, neighborhoods, and the lake. But I feel something when I stand in front of Conger’s paintings. So the day I visited the exhibit, I stood in the small gallery with several of Conger’s paintings and I studied them quietly. I waited.
I was looking for the truth was he telling us about life. I knew there had to be truth in the paintings because without truth there could be no beauty. What is it that this intelligent and wise sage brings to us? Then it hit me. They are about letting go. At least, that was what I felt that day in the gallery. Isn’t all of life is about letting go? Letting go of people, letting go dreams, letting go of self, letting go of places, letting go of things. Everything and everyone is going somewhere. We have to learn to separate ourselves from our world. In doing so, we can choose to be part of everything, let it become part of us and live inside us, and then let it go; or we can choose to be separate from everything by watching from a safe distance. William Conger’s paintings invited me to be part of them and in doing so, let them become part of me. I feel peace when I look at them. I want to be part of the painting.
I don’t know if this is what William Conger would tell you they are about. I would be willing to bet that he would agree that all of life is about letting go and in letting go, you find peace. Maybe I am too philosophical in my approach. It doesn’t change the fact that William Conger is a very good artists. To me, he has many facets as William Conger the artists, the teacher, the sage, the seeker of truth and beauty. He generously lays out his inner world for all of us to see. I am grateful for my time in the studio with him and the time I spent alone with his work. I want more.
For more information on this exhibit, visit Zolla-Lieberman Gallery http://www.zollaliebermangallery.com/