For the artist Bill Hill, literature, art and life swirl in the same air


About four years ago, a book club gathered to peruse a James Joyce tome in a secluded Italian kitchen on Capitol Hill when one of the readers spotted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders eating a meatball. Artist Bill Hill, a member of this self-described group of “Wakers” — who meet once a week to read two or three pages of Joyce’s famously impenetrable novel Finnegans Wake — asked Sanders to join them.

“We were on page 565,” Hill says. “And the first words are” — here Hill slips into a rough bass in imitation of Sanders — “night to a still floating night, Isabel, wild eyes and primrose hair…” While the senator was tongue-tied, he stuck with it, according to Hill, who says Sanders has left the group with a farewell speech: Reading this book is harder work than fighting Republicans.

Bernie isn’t the only VIP guest reader at Wakers; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once sat down with them, as did a federal judge nominated by former President Donald Trump. Over the past 12 years, the club has made its way through Being Finnegan once, at which point readers simply start the 688-page novel over.

For Hill, an art practitioner and artist who has lived in the DC area since 1982, this stream-of-consciousness text is more than a high point for modernism. For Hill, Joyce is more like a key to unlocking the universe – and perhaps a model for his own mind.

“The Modalities,” an exhibition of Hill’s paintings at Gallery 2112 in Dupont Circle, opens a window into the artist’s multifaceted perspective. His vivid abstractions point to the style, techniques and formal experiments of the Washington Color School, artists who transformed abstract painting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hill, 65, knew them all: Gene Davis, Leon Berkowitz and others. Hill rented a studio on U Street NW from Sam Gilliam, a close friend and mentor and artist who became internationally known for his drapery paintings. Hill says he and Gilliam will meet for breakfast and spend the morning looking at an artist’s work; for their final session, in the spring of 2021, they studied Kenneth Noland. (Gilliam died in June.)

Works such as “Field Painting II” (2022) show Hill’s close relationship with Washington’s painterly pantheon. An atmospheric painting of teal, tangerine, and yellow ocher looks like light reflecting off clouds at sunset—a patterned abstraction that would be at home in the studios of Berkowitz or Gilliam. Yet a few random piles of eggshell blue suggest surface tension.

Hill describes the Washington Color School as his higher education in painting. Gilliam and fellow artist Simon Gouverneur once even showed up at his studio door demanding tuition (and carrying a six-pack of beer). “My whole youth was kind of a floating opera house with all these guys,” he says.

Hill grew up in the D.C. area. His parents met at the naval base at Pearl Harbor just before the attack, and his father studied law on the GI Bill. The family moved to McLean, where as a child Hill befriended Robert F. Kennedy’s children at their Virginia estate, Hickory Hill. Years later, as an art dealer working for galleries and collectors in D.C., Hill would oversee the moving of a massive four-foot tall decorative urn for Carrie Kennedy, RFK’s daughter.

After rejecting the corporate law track, Hill’s father moved the family to a farm in southern Maryland, where Hill says he picked tobacco as a youth. In his father’s library he found a copy of The Odyssey, another Joyce stop that determined the trajectory of his life. Hill studied painting at Carnegie Mellon University, where he met his wife Elaine while studying Chinese philosophy. But his real education didn’t begin until he returned to the county, drawn back by the art and ideas coming from Washington.

With his feathery white hair and slight giggle, the artist could be a character out of a Dr. Seuss storybook. It certainly has the Lorax mustache. But the ease with which Hill weaves narratives of Washington’s art with heady ideas from experiments in contemporary art creates a more psychedelic character, though no less animated—like Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar.

The conversation with Hill splits into dozens of fractal tangents. For an hour he glances from link to link, recalling a graph included in the corporate collection of Bethesda’s Artery Capital Group, which made the last series of prints by the living composer John Cage, or an assistant to the sculptor Anne Truitt, who went on to make jewelry for the Sultan of Brunei or the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School alumni who helped create the Jefferson Airplane.

No further reading is necessary to understand Hill’s work. Strictly speaking, following is not much of an option for someone who doesn’t possess the extraordinary memory he attributes to his early Jesuit education. But his fluid yet highly structured way of talking through his thinking offers insights into the decisions that guide his work as an artist.

Hill’s voracious intellectual appetites have not always served him so well. When he and his wife divorced seven years ago, Hill says, she told him he was still acting the same way he did as a student. “I look at that as one of my best qualities,” he says.

But when Hill explains that he had Pierre Bonnard in mind when he made Solas Nua II (2022), a subtle, almost impressionistic painting, it’s noticeable. And when Hill describes an Aristotelian sequence involving Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, in which his thoughts trace his steps along the beach as if they were on separate celestial spheres—and how that passage reflects his feeling when he’s cycling along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay — well, that pretty much follows.

Hill had discovered a “chromatic operation” in Joyce’s work, which he set out to explore using the tools Gilliam, Berkowitz and Gouverneur had given him. Hill carries the torch of a tradition that has not yet been spent: abstraction based on chance and experiment, resulting in paintings that look like landscapes seen through the prism of poems borrowed from hundreds of different pages of ears.

Gallery 2112, 2112 R St. NW. 202-213-9768.

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