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Thornton Willis, Joan Thorne and Dean Fleming, It Happened In SoHo, 1960s to 80s at David Richard G



Thornton Willis, Joan Thorne and Dean Fleming, It Happened In SoHo, 1960s to 80s at David Richard Gallery

June 21, 2023




It Happened In SoHo, Paintings from Late 1960s through the 80s, 2023, David Richard Gallery, New York. © David Richard Gallery. Photograph by Yao Zu Lu.



New York, NY - SoHo (South of Houston Street) was home to a vibrant art scene in lower Manhattan beginning in the 1960s. Artists lived and worked in massive, light-filled lofts above the many important and pivotal galleries below at street level. Some of the early galleries included Park Place Gallery, 112 Greene Street, Paula Cooper Gallery, OK Harris, Artists Space and later in the 420 West Broadway building Leo Castelli, Andre Emmerich, and Ileana Sonnabend. Some of the many noteworthy artists who lived and worked in SoHo included: Adolph Gottlieb, Al Held, Ray Parker, Eva Hesse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Donald Judd, Nam June Paik, Chuck Close, Neal Jenny, Deborah Remington, and Fred Eversley, among many others.


Thornton Willis, Joan Thorne and Dean Fleming lived and worked in SoHo during that early and dynamic period from the mid-1960s and onward. Willis, who moved to SoHo in 1967, and Fleming knew each other. Thorne knew Willis and Vered Lieb (who is married to Willis). Willis and Thorne were early residents in SoHo and continue to create new paintings and live in their original lofts to this day.


Fleming, a founding member of the Park Place artist cooperative, moved to SoHo in 1965 when Park Place Gallery expanded and relocated to a large space at 542 West Broadway near Houston when the original location (the Washington vegetable market) became the site for the World Trade Center. Later in the 1960s, Fleming and his wife Linda founded Libre, an artist community in the Rocky Mountains. Fleming maintained studios in New York and continued to exhibit in SoHo well into the 1980s. New York and the rich experiences with the Park Place group of artists and the vibrancy and intensity of the community of artists in SoHo had a profound impact on Fleming and his work. Fleming’s processes and approaches to painting and imagery, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, were very much inspired by his many international trips and experiences in North Africa, the Mediterranean, Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Central America, Panama, and Western US.


The Exhibition:


The careers of Willis, Thorne, and Fleming overlapped each other in SoHo at varying times during the late 1960s and through the 1980s. Thus, that period is the focus of this exhibition, but more important are the artworks of these artists and their overlapping aesthetics, formal properties, and processes in creating their paintings. The paintings presented by Willis and Thorne were produced in their SoHo studios. Fleming, while not a permanent, long-term resident of SoHo nor New York per se, as noted above, he was an important and early figure in SoHo and remained tethered to SoHo until he moved permanently in the 1980s to Libre in Colorado. More than friendships and geographic co-location of their respective studios and residences, there are strong aesthetic parallels between the artworks of these artists that reflect the vibe of SoHo in what was an important time and specific location of artistic production in Lower Manhattan.


During this period Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism were dominant in the New York art scene following Abstract Expressionism and a time when everyone declared painting dead. Yet, Willis, Thorne and Fleming continued to paint and focused on abstraction. Their compositions were non-objective, but with references and influences unique to each artist that manifest themselves in subtle ways within the imagery. For instance, Willis’s use of geometry and structured compositions comes from his interest and early studies in Architecture. He was and remains rigorous in his compositions and geometric shapes, but not with his application of pigment where he was less concerned with perfection and preferred to have his process be fully revealed with edits, drips, residue, and painting outside the borders. Thorne’s international travels, memories, and dreams influence her work as well as synesthesia, her ability to experience color as sound and sound as color. Her paintings have clear figure and ground relationships that evoke landscape, architecture, and structures from her travels. They are full of energy, with dizzying brush strokes, bold colors, floating forms, and illusory depth suggesting surreal experiences. Fleming, best known in the 1960s as a hard-edge painter exploring the complexities of space and picturing the fourth dimension in a two-dimensional picture plane, had a major shift in his painting practice following a trip to Japan. He became inspired by calligraphy and during his later international travels where he lived and worked among diverse indigenous peoples, their cultures, beliefs, rituals and iconography forever influenced his medium, processes, and compositions.


There are several formal and aesthetic qualities that are common among these three painters. The first and most striking is color. Each has an intuitive sense of color and tend to use the highest contrasting hues possible. The colors are often layered leveraging transparency and opacity to provide a range of hues and values.


The second remarkable quality is the artists love of the act of painting, the literal movement of pigment and medium with gestural, sweeping strokes that direct the viewer’s eye throughout the compositions. Their gestures can create or fill the interior of intentional geometric shapes or swaths of color coincident with the building and excavating of color within a single stroke or shapes that emerge organically from the coalescence of repeated strokes. The gestural brush strokes and bold marks are palpable, the result of physical, direct, and authentic approaches by each artist. This is in stark contrast to other methods of painting at the time (Hard Edge painting, Optical Art, Minimalist painting) that was flat, pristine, and mostly void of the artist’s hand.


The third common feature among the paintings of these three artists is the use of geometry. The sources of the inspiration and specific shapes varied among the artists. Both Willis and Thorne had references to architecture. However, Willis’s sources included: the exposed bare brick side of buildings from which he would derive his process oriented Slat series; garden trellises for his classical grid paintings; and high-rise buildings popping up everywhere in New York as inspiration for his Cityscapes and Step series. Thorne’s sources noted above included her travels and dreams. Fleming’s sources of geometric shapes also came from his extensive travels, but more specifically the symbols and signs of different indigenous peoples that referenced their spiritual beliefs about life and the afterlife, the natural world, and connections between people and the earth. This last point emphasizes a common link to Fleming’s sources and Thorne’s thoughts about the kinetic energy of atoms and molecules and their morphing between shapes and forms, creating a flow of energy and a balance in the universe, while each of the three artist’s work contemplates metaphysical underpinnings and something spiritual. These sources also imply a more emotional and common approach to these artist’s processes and resulting artworks.


Thornton Willis:


“ The best painting is always “open-ended”. Paintings that aim for resolution lack a dynamic. Open-ended work asks questions, and partners with the viewer to bring the experience to closure. Or it might excite another painter to respond, either for or against. This requires a deep understanding of the nature of ambiguity as a reflection of life and what imparts to all art its energy. This is what I aim for in my work.”


Thornton Willis was born in Pensacola, Florida on May 25, 1936. His father, a founding minister in the Church of Christ, envisioned that his son would follow in his footsteps. Instead, Thornton decided, after the Marine Corps, to go to Auburn University and pursue a degree in architecture. It was at Auburn that Thornton became convinced that his true calling lay in the realm of pictorial image making. He transferred to and graduated in 1962 from the University of Southern Mississippi. In l966, he completed his Masters work at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There he found a mentor in expatriate New York School painter, Mel Price who was a close friend of painters Franz Kline and Willem deKooning. Price encouraged Thornton to pursue his career in New York City. They both were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in the Selma to Montgomery March in l965.


Thornton moved to New York in 1967 and taught at Wagner College in Staten Island. Tom Young, then Chairman of the Department of Fine Art (and later at Louisiana State University in New Orleans) became a lifelong friend and ally. Thornton began showing his work with the Henri Gallery in Washington, D.C. (the first gallery to show abstract art in that city) and later with the Bykert Gallery, The Paley and Lowe Gallery in New York, and Simmone Stern Gallery in New Orleans. In the l980’s Willis was represented in the US by the Oscarsson Hood Gallery and in Europe by Claus Nordenhake, in Sweden. The Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York began representing him in 2001.


Thornton Willis is the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Painting, The Pollock Krasner Award, The Gottlieb Award as well the National Endowment for the Arts. He has participated in gallery and museum exhibitions around the world. His artworks are represented in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and most major public and private collections.


Thornton Willis has gone on record in various articles, interviews, and documentaries over the years that his work derives much of its strength from the work of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. Twelve generations of American pioneers, farmers, and evangelists have also informed the work with a stark integrity, directness and singular pragmatic moral urgency.


Joan Thorne:


Joan Thorne received a B.S. degree from New York University with a major in painting in 1965. Then earned an M.A. degree in 1968 from Hunter College, completing her thesis with Tony Smith which was a series of paintings.


In 1972 her work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial Exhibition. Several solo exhibitions followed: 1973 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; 1974 the Fischbach Gallery in New York City; 1977 the Art Fair in Cologne, Germany; 1979 The Clocktower in New York City in May. In 1979 she received a National Endowment Grant and invited to join the Willard Gallery in New York City with a debut exhibition in 1980. Barbara Rose included Thorne in the exhibition American Painting: The 80s, at the Grey Art Gallery in New York University, which was reviewed by Hilton Kramer for the Sunday Edition of the New York Times. A solo exhibition with the Dart Gallery in Chicago followed and paintings at the Grand Palais in Paris in a group exhibition organized by the Société des Artistes Indépendants.


In 1981 Thorne’s works were included in another edition of the Whitney Museum’s Biennial Exhibition. In 1982, a solo show at the Willard Gallery and a drawing show at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery in Buffalo, New York. In 1983 she had a solo show at the Dart Gallery in Chicago; John, Yau wrote an article that was published in Arts Magazine; and received a National Endowment Grant in Painting. In 1985 she had a one-person exhibition at the Graham Modern Gallery in New York with a catalog and essay by John Yau. Stephen Westfall wrote about her work in Art in America Magazine in December 1985.


The American Academy of Arts And Letters selected Thorne to participate in the "Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts" in 2020. In 2021 she had a four-decade retrospective at the Barry Art Museum in Norfolk VA with a 54 page catalog and essay by Richard Vine the Managing Editor of Art In America Magazine. Another essay was written by Vittorio Colaizzi, art historian.


Thorne was a recipient of the Prix de Rome Fellowship to paint at the American Academy in Rome, the Pollock Krasner Grant for painting (twice) and the Gottlieb Grant among others.


Thorne’s artworks are in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Albright Knox Gallery of Art in Buffalo, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas and the Cincinnati Art Museum Cincinnati, Ohio, Barry Art Museum, Norfolk, VA among others.


Dean Fleming


Fleming studied at the California School of Fine Arts with Elmer Bischoff and Frank Lobdell. There, he met and developed life-long friendships with Peter Forakis, Leo Valledor and Mark di Suvero. He shared a studio with Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Bill Brown and Forakis and “poured” himself “into the West Coast version of abstract expressionism”. During that period he regularly exhibited at the Six Gallery and Batman Gallery in San Francisco.


Fleming moved to New York in 1961 and was a founding member of the Park Place Gallery, an important artist collective and exhibition venue for experimental art in New York in the 1960s. The founding members, were interested in working in diverse materials and approaches in painting and sculpture to explore their mutual interest in literal and illusory space, music and social concerns. Fleming’s painting at that time was minimalist, hard edge and geometric with a reductive palette. In 1966, he was included in the important exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, “Systemic Painting”, organized by Lawrence Alloway.


Moving to the Rocky Mountains in 1967 and founding Libre, an artist community, Fleming started a new chapter in his career. His extensive international travels to Europe, Northern Africa, Latin America and Asia and fascination with diverse cultures and artistic practices continued to inspire and inform his artwork as he explored gestural abstraction, calligraphic and Zen-inspired gestures, and the symbology and natural dyes of Indigenous peoples in North and South America.


Fleming’s artworks are included in the collections of the following museums: Oakland Museum, California, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania Denver Museum of Art, Colorado; Larry Aldrich Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut; San Francisco Art Institute, California; Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado

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