One of my favorite portraits that my father did while he was at Time Magazine, was of Tennessee Williams the great American playwright.
In February 1962, my parents were given front row seats for a performance of Williams’ play Night of the Iguana in New York City, and then afterwards met Tennessee Williams and his partner Frank Merlo for drinks at Time’s theater critic Ted Kalem’s apartment.
My father greatly admired the playwright for his forthright manner and honesty, and for bravely conquering subject matter that was considered taboo at the time like rape, homosexuality, cannibalism and alcoholism (and more…).
I recently discovered that my Dad had done a quick, casually rendered pencil sketch of Tennessee Williams – which he gave to Williams. It might have been a preliminary sketch that he did prior to painting the oil portrait, or, given the free hand that it was done with, it might have been done that night after the performance.
The drawing remained in Williams’ private collection along with a copy of the 1962 Time cover, and it’s now kept with Williams’ other papers at the University of Texas at Austin at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
The original oil painting is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
When I was an intern at the Smithsonian in the early 1980s I unexpectedly walked into the NPG and saw this painting hanging in the gallery – it was a thrilling moment for me.
My father painted Williams staring straight at the viewer – when you look at the portrait it’s his piercing blue eyes you see first. It’s as if he’s caught Williams in a private conversation, and it’s the moment when he has just paused to take a drag on his cigarette between words.
His expression suggests that he is about to say some brilliant, perhaps, caustic remark.
Its clear that my father really enjoyed playing up the textures in the portrait – the rough weave of the jacket; the thick knitted softness of the sweater; the glossy hair; the fine smoke from the cigarette; and the thickly painted swirling colors of the backdrop. All these elements serve to set off the finely realized head – the emotional center of the work.
I once asked my father why he painted an abstract background on this cover when he never painted abstract works, and he explained that he could do abstracts if he wanted to, he just never found it as compelling or challenging to create. However, for this work, he felt it was the only choice.
He told me that good abstract art relied on the same principles of composition and color as figurative realism. It’s why he always felt that art schools should teach the fundamentals to every student no matter what they ended up pursuing.
My father never explained it further but perhaps he used an abstract background because it best exemplified the turmoil and modernity of Williams’ subject matter.