Mervyn Williams: From Modernism to the digital age by Edward Hanfling, with essays by Leonard Bell and Michael Dunn (Ron Sang Publications, 2014), 336 pp., $135
Mervyn Williams: From Modernism to the digital age is a large and well-illustrated monograph that seeks to chronicle the life-long artistic journey of Mervyn Williams. It contains a series of essays as chapters linked by many full-colour photographs of Williams’ works. Edward Hanfling is the primary writer, and Michael Dunn and Leonard Bell each contribute a shorter essay: Dunn, a précis of Williams’ years in Whanganui; Bell, an overview of the artist’s influences. This structure works well, even though the Dunn and Bell essays interrupt Hanfling’s chronological flow. With an emphasis on argument around Williams’ works, Mervyn Williams is not a chronicle of the artist’s life per se, although an illustrated chronology and a double-page photo of the artist’s family appear at the back of the book. It is a book for the art world, focused on analysing Williams’ practice.
Edward Hanfling obviously cares about and is dedicated to his subject, and I found his writing to be often candid, concise and poetic. At times, however, his repeated justification of the artist’s commitment to abstraction was a little overdone. I also found Hanfling’s associated and overriding separation of ‘feeling’ and ‘thought’ to be problematic, including his distinction between the gesture of expressive ‘high art’ versus the more exact, mechanical and ‘social’ nature of Williams’ abstraction. But it’s true that Williams himself is quoted in support of this distinction, referring, for example, to the American abstract painters John McLaughlin and Ellsworth Kelly, who took ‘the spleen out’ of painting. [Read more…]