A Life of Collecting Art- A Passion of Painterly Principles- and printed pages.
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
An essay on the art connoisseurship of Gil Williams- By Brian Keeler
To call Gil Williams the crème de la crème of art collectors is not hyperbole as he really deserves the accolade. The sheer amount of art in his collection (7000 plus as of a recent counting) lets us know this is not a casual gathering of canvases or works on paper.
Gil and his wife Deborah have assembled a large group of art comprised almost entirely of American artists from the 1930’s to the present. Their focus and passion, however, has been on regionalists from the 1930’s such as Lynd Ward, Rockwell Kent, Charles Burchfield, Phillip Evergood, Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and others. These are not household names to most, but artists generally know their work.
Gil is the collector and authority on these works, which are predominately fine art prints, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and engravings. Deborah, of course, is very involved and knows the collection intimately, but Gil is the one who selects, purchases and deals with occasional sales. Gil has managed galleries and frame shops at various venues and in his bookstore in Binghamton, NY where the couple has lived since the late 1960’s. Although he is sometimes a dealer of fine art, he says that he only buys pieces that he loves; in the event that a given work does not sell, then he is happy to keep it.
I have known Gil since sometime in the early 1990’s when he first purchased a work of mine at July Fest, an outdoor show that was held on Court Street in downtown Bighamton. Since that time, Gil has been to my studio in Wyalusing many times and at the Blue Heron Gallery, which I founded there on Main Street. The Williams also attended the father and son exhibit (William and Brian Keeler) at the Everhart Museum Retropective in Scranton in 2004. Gil graciously wrote an essay for the book on my father that accompanied that show. So, needless to say, I am very honored to be in Gil’s collection with works amassed over such a long period. And I am honored that my work is not in the many stacks around his bookstore or home, but hung on the walls. There is one in the living room and even a small acrylic- a cityscape of Philadelphia -in their bedroom.
When Gil turned 50 in 1994 I did a portrait of him from life while he was sitting in his bookstore on Court Street in Binghamton. Gil has had quite a few portraits done of him over the years and some are remarkable works. Another painting was done during his 50th birthday year is by Aksel Sand Pedersen, a painter (from Deposit, NY) who depicts Gil in profile with a style that is reminiscent of the famous profile of the Reniassance portrait by Piero Della Francesca of Duke Federico da Montefeltro. My favorite portrait of Gil is a large canvas in their dining room by Robert Varga. This work painted in 1981 from life depicts Gil holding the artist’s dog and is appropriately titled, “Gil and Sally.”
But let’s go back to the formative years. Gil credits his mother Doris with sparking his initial interest in art. Gil was born in Middletown, NY in 1944 and by the time he was an adolescent his mother was taking him to the Frick Musuem in New York City with the enticement, “There is no junk here!” He recalls a painting by William Hogarth titled, “The Shrimp Girl” that impressed him on that initial trip. He also had a trip to the Museum of Modern art in 1955 at age eleven to see an exhibit of photography called "The Family of Man."
After graduating from Pearl River High School in 1962 he went to SUNY Albany where he studied history and showed slides for the art history department students, followed by a period at SUNY Buffalo where he received his BFA in art history in 1968. He then went on to SUNY Binghamton where he studied printmaking with Robert Marx. He earned his Master of Library Science from SUNY Albany in 1972. In subsequent years he’s studied with various painters in Binghamton including Michael Tanzer and Orazio Salati. As a sixteen-year old he did a stint at the Art Student’s League in NYC where he studied under Stephen Greene. So we can see that Gil is not just an armchair collector. He knows the nuts and bolts of painting and printmaking, and the art history study in academia has given him a comprehensive overview.
Walking through the Williams’ house and bookstores, which I’ve visited a few times with Gil as my guide is a feast for the eyes and the ears. Gil’s encyclopedic knowledge of art history keeps me enthralled. Going up the stairs of their house to the second floor living area, I was immediately taken by several outstanding etchings and lithographs. There was one there that would hold its own next to a Durer. But my favorite was a small litho by Grant Wood that I had never seen before, it was not even in that artist’s recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum. This work is titled, “Mid-Night Alarm” and it depicts a man coming down a stairway in his BVD’s holding an oil lamp.
Gil’s passion for each artist is immediately apparent as he enthuses about each piece and can barely contain sharing details about the histories of the work or about the artists. Their collection includes nationally known artists like those mentioned earlier but also many regional artists. For example, the late Ruth Birch of Binghamton is represented by 300 works. Gil has the largest collection anywhere of the well-known Binghamton artist active in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Armondo Dellasanta. Many of these are on display in upper shelves in the bookstore, including his very first painting fom 1946.
While negotiating the stacks of books with Gil I encountered many regional artists that I know or who I have shown with. Some of these include; Scott Coulter, Jonathan Talbot, Susan Titus, Marc Schimsky, Carlton Manzano, Robert Wisner, Jamie Skvarch, Charles Baker and Ken Evett. Of more nationally known, but contemporary painters, there are works by Philip Pearlstein, Luigi Lucioni and Sigmund Albeles.
These works are not being cloistered completely on the walls or stacks in the Williams’ home and book shop. Several shows at prestigious museums in the region have been organized in recent years including the Johnson Museum here in Ithaca, The Homer Center for the Arts in nearby Homer, NY and The Binghamton Art Museum at Binghamton University.
The Binghamton University show was organized by Diane Butler. This exhibit reportedly broke records for attendance, so the public is getting to share the largesse and vision of Gil Williams. The Schweinforth Musuem in Auburn, NY and the Arnot Museum in Elmira have also shown some of the art in Gil’s art collection.
The exhibit at the Johnson Museum, titled “American Eyes” was organized by Nancy Green, who was the Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. Here is what Nancy said in the catalog:
“What makes the Williamses' collection different from others is the wide range of interests and styles that are represented. It has come together over four decades and is added to almost weekly."
Indeed, "added to weekly" is a takeaway point here. This impressive fact conveyed to me by Gil is worth shouting about. Gil says they have purchased at least one piece of art per week on average since the late 1960’s! Can we clone Gil or have just a little bit of his passion for art rub off on a few others? We are reminded of the famous Post Office couple in New York City who assembled a collection of modern masters on a very modest budget to later see their holdings coveted by many museums.
The single artist of the 20th century that Gil has focused on, who has also in recent years caught my attention, is Rockwell Kent. Williams is an authority on this American printmaker, painter, author and outdoor adventurer. Gil visited Kent at his studio in Au Sable Forks, NY in the Adirondacks in 1966 and since has made that artist a focus of his research and collecting. Kent’s work has found commonality with me as he has painted in County Donegal in Ireland and in Maine where I also have painted. Many of these artists of the 30's and 40’s were left-leaning and socially conscious, giving their work an edge and topical pertinence. Kent’s life is a fascinating one for many reasons which Gil touched upon. I must read a biography of Kent or better yet, as Gil advises, read his autobiography, "It's Me O Lord."
When asked about the formation of his aesthetic or vision in collecting he credits a NYC gallery that he frequented as a youth. Sylvan Cole's Associated American Artists Gallery on 5th Avenue handled prints, but occasionally a painting by Raphael Soyer, Grant Wood or Hershel Levitt would appear. Gil would go over to view the art during his time off, as he worked at the nearby Gimbel’s Department Store. This passage from the Johnson Museum catalog will shed some light on Gil's early brush with art and collecting;
"Ever since that first visit to a musuem, I have been fascinated by collectors, collecting and the people who work in and visit museums. As a young teen, I asked my mother, who already had bought a few original artworks, "Why not a collection?" Her quick reply was, "We don't need one!" But I felt quite differently about it. Shortly after that, I found a copy of Carl Zigrosser's Guide to Fine Prints under the Christmas Tree. Although I couldn't buy my own art, I collected stamps and miscellaneous objects along the way before I graduated from high school. On my bedroom wall were a few paintings - a couple by my great-grandmother, and others picked up here and there, some even with holes in them! A few "treasures" from overseas pen pals, a few antiques inherited from my great-grandparents, and I was on my way to being a collector."
Finally, the Williams’ collection includes antiques, sculpture, wood carving, pottery and glassware. And we have not even broached the subject of books which is the full-time day job for both Gil and Deborah. That will be another day.
Suffice it to say that many artists in the region have been beneficiaries of the patronage of Gil Williams. But more than the mere purchasing of art, the interest and passion for paint and ink is perhaps the most enduring aspect of the involvement of this collector in the art scene for over five decades.