Witnessing Charleston through William Halsey's end-of-life works 

More Than A Memory

William Halsey's "Broken Mirror"

Provided

William Halsey's "Broken Mirror"

William Halsey: Paint on Paper
Opening reception, Thurs. May 23 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Through June 22
Free to attend
George Gallery
54 Broad St.

In 1939, a 24-year-old William Melton Halsey, recently graduated and married, was slated to travel to Europe on an artistic scholarship. For us here in Charleston today, the artistic landscape of our city might have looked quite different had everything gone according to planned.

Halsey's name on the College of Charleston's Institute of Contemporary Art is how most people probably know it, but for fans and art history buffs like The George Gallery owner Anne Siegfried, Halsey is all over Charleston.

"It's kind of like his ghost lives everywhere around here," says Siegfried. "There's probably not a road in the city he didn't walk down, being born and raised here and spending practically his whole life here."

This month, when Siegfried opens the Paint on Paper exhibition showcasing a collection of small "little gems," as she calls them, from the very end of Halsey's life, it's a chance to see the artist in living color.

The show is a collection of relatively small, abstract works of paint on richly hued paper, pieces that the artist created during the final years of his life without any traditional tools and, in his own words, without any regard for their reception. Reconciled to working on paper after decades in under-ventilated rooms swirling turpentine fumes damaged his lungs, Halsey treated paper no less seriously than the rigid boards he traditionally chose as canvasses.

Here was a septuagenarian man wielding tubes of paint against paper. "I have an abhorrence of brushes," he once said. At times he took years to be satisfied and deem a work finished. You can still read his scribbled accounts of changing the name, completion date, and orientation on the back of many pieces that will be on display in Paint on Paper.

"At the age I am, I'm not concerned about what people think," said Halsey in 1996. "Now I do what I think is good. I'm painting directly from my internal feelings and hopefully doing what comes naturally and has some basic instinct to it ... I'm very happy about where I am ... feel I have been successful." And he had.

As early as the 1930s (when Halsey was 24-years-old), his work was shown in galleries and museums from Massachusetts and Greenville to the Met and the Whitney in New York City. Now it's on display at the Smithsonian in D.C. as well as in Boston, Atlanta, and of course in Charleston's Gibbes Museum of Art. Halsey did make it.

On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Siegfried became glowingly proud that Halsey's work holds its own with his contemporaries of the day, despite his never having lived in a big art city. He can still fetch over $10K at auction and claim a spot at the Smithsonian.

What sets Halsey apart from his peers — Stephen Greene, Robert Goodnough, Jackson Pollock — and makes him an icon in Charleston is not that he spent nearly 20 years as assistant professor and artist-in-residence at the College or lived and worked here almost all his life. What sets Halsey apart is that he was able to be so completely Charlestonian and at the same time so influenced by and influential in the world. It's a lesson present-day, fast-developing Charleston might do well to learn.

click to enlarge William Halsey's "Untitled- Yellow" - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • William Halsey's "Untitled- Yellow"

"Somehow he managed to pull it off; to be part of that time period and that movement but still stay in Charleston," says Siegfried. "Can Charleston stay as authentic to Charleston but still evolve?"

Let's backtrack to 23-year-old Halsey, recipient of the James William Paige fellowship and an eager artist slated to spend months in Europe studying in the workplace of masters. What happened? World War II. No longer safe to tour around Europe, Halsey and his artist wife Corrie McCallum went to Mexico instead, studied Diego Rivera instead of Caravaggio, and fell in love.

"It probably made his work more interesting," says Siegfried. "A lot of people are influenced by Europe and bring that back to New York. He was different."

Over the years, Halsey and McCallum went on to travel around Ecuador, Guatemala, Greece, Peru, Portugal, Spain, and the Yucatan. His paintings come across like abstract, post-impressionist journals of his travels — every surface is textured, overlain with fabric swatches, sediment and dust, layers of paint and scratches.

"This city is as layered as his work is," says Siegfried. "There's a lot of depth, some kind of nostalgia, and an interest in now, today, this very moment. If someone walked in here and said it [Halsey's work] was done yesterday, I'd believe them ... How do you stay that authentic to yourself but still transcend the moment you're in?

If you want to see a portrait of Charleston's texture that looks everything and nothing like the city we see today, check out Paint on Paper. What you'll see is the living ghost of a man who witnessed the aftermath of both World Wars and the advent of the internet, who traveled the world, made a name for himself in New York City, and decided to stay and walk the streets of Charleston. You'll see a layered portrait of the city as complex as its history, and perhaps, in between the layers of sediment and paint, you'll glimpse Charleston as it is today, a city that's transforming not for the first time or the last.

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