“In the simplest terms,” Itter said,  “with drawing, the edge or contour is used to create the surface. With color, you start in the midst of the surface, moving outward to create the edge.”


Itter Mesa

William Itter, Mesa, 1973, oil on canvas, 80' x 80" Collection of James and Cindy Briggs


Itter drawing

William Itter, Trestle Blocks, 1978, drawing


William Itter: A Retrospective

Paintings and Drawings 1969 – 2009

In the SoFA Gallery

October 16 - November 20, 2009

One of the first paintings William Itter completed upon arriving in Bloomington, Indiana, to teach in 1969 represented a breakthrough. In fact, Itter describes “Snowflake Deco” as his “Rosebud” because of the way the invented forms began to recall for him a distant memory, of traveling through Radio City Music Hall as a child over Christmas with his grandfather. It was his earliest experience of being overwhelmed by visual forms, in that impressive Art Deco interior. The way the invented forms of the painting took on the emotional weight of the memory was a revelation, he has since been at pains that his inventions should always bear a trace of a lived visual experience. He calls his paintings his souvenirs.

This breakthrough opened the way to the inclusion of other visual memories, such as the rising moon/setting sun passages in “Mesa” (1973) or the experience of low tide at “Chasm Quay” (1985) in the south of England that found him photographing the incredibly corrugated rock formations exposed by the receding water. The viewers of Itter’s densely articulated paintings might be skeptical of how much nature has inspired them, in spite of the rich desert colors and the sunset light that suffuses the late watercolors. In his early work, he favored a more artificial and theatrical light, a more architectural or industrial form, and a hard, metallic sheen to his color transitions, all of these qualities seen in "Fugue in Red and Grey” from 1975.

Itter Snowflake Deco
            William Itter, Snowflake Deco, 1970, oil, 96" x 75"

The tangle of overlapping, intersecting pipes never quite sorts itself out in a rational way, as they would in a Sheeler painting. As always in Itter’s work, behind and through all the forms, we see the effect of light but never the actual source. But a key aspect of the work was brought to light in 2004 by a request from a choreographer at IU, Laura Poole, who wished to use a version of the painting as a backdrop to a theatrical dance piece. Its use as a theatrical backdrop seems an obvious notion for so much of the work of this period. In all the cascading layers of “Mesa” don’t we sense the low illusionist lighting and shallow space separating the flats and scrims of a stage set? But more integral to Itter’s work (and his career) is the intuition of an articulated space that one wishes to move through.

This crucial insight to the career of Itter’s art can be explored through three constants in his life: his teaching, his collecting and his drawing. As early as his first teaching post in Pittsburgh, Itter was haunting the junk stores and antique shops of the city, making incredible finds. He has always valued highly the nuances of beautiful handwork, Mission furniture, Navajo weaving, oriental rugs, and African cooking vessels, but he has the strongest affinity for form that serves a function: beautiful, intelligent making that serves a utility. His love for Navajo blankets serves as a parable for all his pictorial interests, as he followed the paradox of image, iconography and sculpture that existed simultaneously in the blanket. Primarily sculptural as a beautiful weaving, the blanket bore an image of a complex and clever treatment of geometric patterns, thus pictorial, with unfinished squares on the edges that would become complete and whole when drawn around the body and worn, thus again becoming sculptural.

The fullest treatment of these ideas can be seen in the constant, almost relentless, pursuit of form in his drawings. Very simple ideas, like curved lines meeting straight, take on a merciless elaboration that stretches over months and years. Cubes rotated and stepped down in size, meeting a set of arches. Cubes pierced and slotted with missing parts matched to reciprocal positives. These forms might be done in outline, then carefully shaded with a light from underneath or behind. In their elaborations, new, unexpected patterns would emerge, both flat and dimensional. Itter said, “I never thought of line as an outline, but as a contour to shape the page, to create a function for the line.”

The constant challenge was to create a coherent space for the forms to exist in, and then to apply a color that would articulate that space. Shortly after arriving in Bloomington, Indiana, Itter embarked on a long summer and fall of setting up and drawing elaborate still lifes made of an odd variety of geometric scraps he found discarded in the woodshop. The painstaking dispositions of these forms in space were treated in careful outline, rich graphite shading and color casein, always with an eye to the paradoxical alignments that would cancel or contradict the spatial description, snapping the penetration of space back to the surface of the picture plane. The addition of color allowed for an exponential increase in complexity.

No matter how complex his ideas about painting, Itter felt challenged to condense these ideas to their essence when formulating assignments for his fundamentals class. Itter said, “When students would ask what preparation they’d need to take my drawing class, I’d tell them they needed color and sculpture. When they would ask what they needed in order to take color, I’d tell them drawing and sculpture,” and so on. In practice, each area is so embedded in the other as to make the distinctions difficult. “In the simplest terms,” Itter said,  “with drawing, the edge or contour is used to create the surface. With color, you start in the midst of the surface, moving outward to create the edge.”

We return again to the role of nature in Itter’s work. As vast as the word is, nature has a kaleidescope of aspects that apply here. There is the mathematical distillation of measure and proportion, the Golden Section. On a chemical or molecular level, there is a treatment of bilateral symmetry, right- and left-handedness. In the most ephemeral way, there is the iron logic of light as it reveals and shapes form with color, but also allows for the puzzles of shadows, illusions and camouflage.

In moving across the energetic surface of an early painting like “Mesa,” we see the setting sun change into the rising moon. The pyramids of Egypt change into mountain peaks. Flat-topped mesas become city spires. And beyond any description of content, we see the positive become negative, atmospheric and linear perspective, described in a shifting chromatics.  The Renaissance window is slammed shut in a very modern way. In short, all the restless transformations, the growing and the dying of life. The mind, the body and the heart are all equally implicated, in their diverging and contradictory ways, in the full spectrum of nature.

William Itter was born in New York City in 1942 and schooled in Long Island and Connecticut. Because of early problems with vision, he struggled with the academic side of schooling but gravitated to music, model boats and trains, and eventually, with great discipline and dedication to drawing and painting. He won prizes and scholarships in art. After completing three years at Silvermine College of Art, he was granted early admission to the Yale graduate program in painting, where he studied under Leland Bell, Richard Lindner, Al Held, Jack Tworkov, among others. His classmates included Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, Richard Serra, and Rackstraw Downes.

During his tenure at the University of Pittsburgh, Itter met and married his wife Diane, a noted fiber artist. He also began what would become extensive collections of quilts and Native American textiles and baskets, as well as African baskets, cloth, and cooking vessels. Itter began teaching Fundamental studio at Indiana University in Bloomington at fall of 1969, where he remained until his retirement in 2007.
Diane Itter died after a long illness in 1982. Itter has devoted considerable energy to cataloguing her work and preserving her legacy. This culminated in an important show at