Grounded in Modernism (catalogue introduction)
I hate statements about art, since most artists write about art as badly as all critics. —Bill Stockton
Bill Stockton was many things: artist, sheep rancher, soldier, sign painter, performer, storyteller, husband, father, grandfather, and dyed-in-the-wool Modernist. This catalog, published on the occasion of Yellowstone Art Museum’s 2019 exhibition, assembles a portrait of a remarkable individual from the perspectives of six writers. While the exhibition presents the most extensive gathering of Stockton’s work to date, the publication creates a lasting record of the life and work of this influential Montana Modernist.
Gilles Stockton, Bill Stockton’s son, recalls his father as he knew him in childhood and through the ensuing decades. The colors of his writing shift with his perspective across time. Scholar Michele Corriel positions Stockton in the small vanguard of Modernists who influenced Montana’s cultural development, linking the events of his life to specific works of art. Gordon McConnell writes about Bill through his perspective as both an art historian and YAM’s former assistant director. His reminiscences include traveling to Grass Range to choose paintings and drawings for the Museum’s collection. Artists Ted Waddell, Sara Mast, and Patrick Zentz paint a picture of Bill Stockton as a mentor and friend whose example helped them thrive as place-based artists in a rural state. Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Wyeth, Pollack, and Munch were claimed by Stockton as his historical art “mentors.” He said, “I was also influenced, from example, by my contemporaries: Isabelle Johnson and Bob DeWeese. From Isabelle I learned that what was around me was all important. From Bob I learned that the imperfections of honesty contained the real truths.”1 Stockton passed these ideas on to the next generation of Montana artists.
His passion for Modernism and his need to create extended beyond traditional art media. He remodeled the Sears Catalog house on his family homestead, turning it into a flat-roofed modern dwelling and decorating the newly sunken living room with sleek modern furniture that he built from broken equipment, nails, and rope. He learned to felt the wool from his sheep into swirling abstractions, which he and his wife, Elvia, sewed into hats, mittens, and vests. He also expressed himself in writing: publishing a memoir titled Today I Baled the Hay to Feed the Sheep the Coyotes Eat and assembling a picture book of sheepish puns called Ewe-phemisims. Stockton was especially prolific as an artist during the winter, between haying and lambing seasons, and after 1975, when he retired from ranching.
In the 1950s, Stockton combined nonobjective abstraction with the colors and patterns of the Western landscape, making paintings that resemble Jackson Pollock’s early abstract expressionist works. He introduced his excruciatingly expressive figurative sculpture during the 1960s. The 1970s were a time for experimentation with new media and ideas: felted wool, jewelry, portraits, simplified landscapes, and character studies of people and sheep. From the 1980s through the end of his life, Stockton’s mature works—mostly drawn with livestock markers and graphite—represent the immediate environment in and around his home in Grass Range.
Looking back on his body of work in 1999, he noted, “The paintings I have done with the [livestock] markers, of little quasi-abstract corners of nature, have become my favorite series. To me they are a natural evolution from the Avant Garde paintings I did 50 years ago.”2 Stockton is best known for these depictions of the below-the-surface, thriving, interconnected life he experienced on his small patch of Northwestern prairie. The exhibition and catalog survey five decades of art making, beginning with student drawings Stockton made in Paris in the 1940s and ending with his last painting of the scrub brush and reeds on his ranch.
Bill Stockton, Self-Portrait, 1987; Oil stick and graphite on paper. 21 x 15 in.
Bill Stockton: Grass Roots Modernist, edited by Susan Floyd Barnett.
Essays by Gilles Stockton, Michele Corriel, Gordon McConnell, Sara Mast, Theodore Waddell, and Patrick Zentz