William Beckman: Contours in Columbus

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William Beckman, Self-Portrait in Studio, ca. 1984; charcoal.  Milwaukee Art Museum.
William Beckman, Self-Portrait in Studio, ca. 1984; charcoal.
Milwaukee Art Museum.

Painter William Beckman is often cited as a key figure in American realism. His highly polished, non-narrative figurative paintings present us with life studies fascinating in their detail and verisimilitude. It is the nature of paint to cover, and Beckman as a painter uses this coverage to build and amplify the various visual phenomena that buzz and jostle against each other within what we call the “real.” A current exhibition at the Columbus Museum challenges us with a different look at the artist’s oeuvre by presenting an exhibition that excludes his paintings. Instead, “William Beckman: Drawings, 1967- 2013” presents us with works on paper only, most of which are large scale charcoal drawings.

William Beckman, Man-Woman I, 1986; charcoal.
William Beckman, Man-Woman I, 1986; charcoal.

With just under 50 pieces, the exhibition presents a considerable breadth of work. Beckman is celebrated for a spare and unwavering realism, and his drawings are no exception. In the past Beckman has been praised for his virtuosity, and has generated discussion about figurative expression. One wonders, however, if figurative expression is something he is trying to suppress.  He paints individuals who are available to him, mostly family, in his New York studio. There are no grand narratives here. The light always comes from the ceiling and the figures are always in the middle of the page.

Perennial Properties

One surprise in Beckman’s drawings is the immediate and unworked quality of the charcoal. Many realists take advantage of charcoal’s variability, removing, blending, and manipulating it on the paper’s surface. This is not the case with Beckman. His marks are surprisingly direct and unaltered across the many decades represented in the show. The full-figure drawings display these marks on sheets of paper six feet or more in height, often running as long or longer horizontally. The works that fall below this size are almost exclusively portrait heads. A number of these portraits are executed on extremely rough hand-made paper, of the sort that does not forgive an errant mark or allow any gesture to pass without a trace.

Beckman lends special emphasis to the edges of things in these works. In realist painting, the edge between one form and another is often delineated strictly through a difference in color. No line exists, or rather it exists only as an infinitesimally small, psychically charged boundary. This tense relationship between painted forms is revealed more nakedly in Beckman’s charcoals as wide black contour lines describing his figures. Three drawings from his Classical Woman series (1989-90) exhibit these contours dramatically: a seated woman is outlined by dense furrowed lines of black carbon in three similar poses. These heavier lines do not appear consistently across the time span captured in the exhibition.  At times they are more quiet, at other times they disappear. In Self-Portrait in Studio, 1984, Beckman depicts himself behind a work table with distended hands and shadowed eyes, using these heavy contour lines with an almost German Expressionist fervor.

William Beckman, Overcoats III, 1998-2002; charcoal.
William Beckman, Overcoats III, 1998-2002; charcoal.

Diana, 1980 contrasts Self-Portrait in Studio with its restraint and accuracy. Here the dramatic contours are quelled and the human body emerges through precise mastery of illusion. Diana’s closed posture and appraising stare compel us to read her, or to project our own emotions onto her. Three works from the Overcoats series (1998-2002) merge Beckman’s intense contour line with his stunning verisimilitude, combining the stylistic shifts that can be observed throughout the exhibition. The contour line, a fiction that does not appear in nature, integrates with naturalistic renderings of light and shadow. Each work presents renderings of Beckman and his wife, one or both of them wearing a dark coat. In charcoal, the coats become monumental, almost structural. The artist’s affection for charcoal is apparent here, as is the pleasure he takes in moving it across a surface.

“William Beckman: Drawings, 1967-2013” provides an interesting vantage point for the consideration of American realism. The artist’s background is Midwestern but in many respects he is all New York. Models are placed like furniture before white studio walls. There is an intensity to his observation that seems to make place and subject irrelevant. We see the work and we are asked to think about seeing. Beckman’s contour lines are not divisive. Rather, they connect the viewer and the artist in the shared act of seeing.

East Tennessee State University MFA Program

“William Beckman: Drawings, 1967-2013” is on view at the Columbus Museum through September 7. It travels to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock in late 2014.

Orion Wertz is a painter and graphic novelist living in Columbus, Georgia. He is a professor at Columbus State University, where he teaches drawing and painting.


William Beckman, Classical Woman 6, 1989-1990; charcoal.
William Beckman, Classical Woman 6, 1989-1990; charcoal.