Bill Walton’s Studio

Bill Walton's Studio

The Institute of Contemporary Art

By Lauren McCarty

Through December 4, 2011

On December 4th the ICA will be hosting an event to share memories about Bill Walton, (1935-2010).

Tucked into the ICA’s Project Space is Bill Walton’s Studio − a carefully constructed posthumous recreation of the artist’s studio. The exhibit is about Bill Walton’s work and Bill Walton working. Interestingly, it raises questions about the practice of preserving a space as a way to memorialize an individual. This long-standing practice has been employed to extraordinarily diverse ends, including Graceland, The Barnes Foundation, the Wharton Esherick House, and the Betsy Ross House among others. This exhibition is similarly didactic in nature but rather than being a glorification or an attempt to historicize, it is a memorial to Bill Walton’s approach to making. The artist’s space provides a particular insight as the individual’s work methods are reflected in their living and working environment. In Bill Walton’s case, the tools from his studio (rags, brushes, paint tubes) often became art works in themselves. This exhibition is notable because rather than simply replicating Walton’s studio it is defined by the very arrangement of the objects it contains.

Grey-painted floorboards neatly delineate the studio, which is divided into a workspace and a display area. The display area is empty except for several small works, shown with ample space around each. The workspace is filled with the usual trappings of an artist’s studio−tables, storage, tools, unused materials, and work in various stages. A wooden loft creates a low ceiling over the intimate work area, lit by lamps and a hanging fluorescent fixture. The objects on the tables, shelves and floor enjoy an elevated importance as the display area reminds us that for Walton, everything in his studio was a potential artwork. In fact, many of the objects in the workspace are already completed works, while some are permanently ambiguous because the artist can no longer confirm their designation.

Entering the exhibition, we are able to closely examine each of the works in the display area. A paint splattered chair and stool are offered for respite. Tied to the stool is a small notebook. Sitting in the chair and leafing through the notebook is the extent of the physical interaction permitted. Stanchions around the workspace allow only distanced observation and serve as a reminder that this can only be a recreation of a working space. The notebook, stool, and chair are positioned in such a way that one could easily make notations while sitting and looking − which was my first impulse. The notebook is full, though, and there is no pen because the notebook is a facsimile of one compiled by Walton in the last year of his life using over 50 years of journals. The exhibition literature identifies it as a “concrete field guide to his art.” Like most artists’ notebooks though, it is cryptic, comprised of technical notes, poetic wanderings, physical observations, and simple sketches.

The isolated works in the display area employ small groupings of objects with like shapes interacting through subtle overlap or close proximity. There is tenderness in their arrangements. They are manipulated, but only according to a logic dictated by the forms themselves. It is easy to see how these pieces grew from experimentation and observation in the studio. Paint Brushes consists of 7 brushes hung by the holes in their handles. Similarly, Marie is 2 pieces of gessoed cotton hung next to each other. Somehow these pieces of cotton have a magnetic grace about them. The simplicity of their form and presentation has a direct honesty that is arresting.

While I was in the gallery I overheard one person tell another, “His friends say his studio was never this tidy.” As I questioned the notion of authenticity in such a presentation I began to take stock of the evidence of life and accumulated time: dust caked on the top of the stereo, cobwebs on the bottom of a stool, dirty slippers under a work table. But the floorboards are pristine and there is not a speck of sawdust under the drill press. I was reminded of my last trip to the Wharton Esherick house in Paoli, Pennsylvania. As our tour guide showed us the bedroom, she opened a compartment in the bottom of the bed to demonstrate a feature that the artist had included in the design. Inside laid several neatly folded garments. The guide clarified that the clothing was vintage but had not actually been owned by Esherick. It struck me that those garments were functioning as props, supporting the illusion of life in the space. Similarly, Bill Walton’s Studio has the theatricality of an historical museum. Both artifacts and props have been employed in the presentation of an illusion.

The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY is another example of a staged, historic recreation. 19th century buildings have been dismantled with finite attention to detail−every piece of every building was numbered and mapped−and then reconstructed on the site using period tools and techniques. Although it is clear that the museum’s creation of a town is staged, the integrity in the endeavor is evident. This is also the case with Bill Walton’s Studio. At some point while examining the exhibit, I became hyper-aware of the placement of the slippers. I understood that they were meant to look like the artist had casually left them, although their positioning is, of course curated. Because the construction of the exhibit is imbued with the kind of integrity employed by the Farmers’ Museum, I was able to consider the slippers beyond their role as either prop or artifact. Instead the slippers became a signifier of Bill Walton’s interactions with everyday objects. My gaze was slow as I looked around Bill Walton’s Studio, freely associating the objects before me and coming to an understanding about how another person saw.


Lauren McCarty is an artist who moved back to her hometown, Philadelphia, in 2008. Lauren recently received an MFA from the University of the Arts and is currently traveling, curating, making art, writing, and waitressing.