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Moscow today & tomorrow, November, 2000

American Sculptor Frank Williams Is Not Looking for the Exotic...

He's just been working in Russia for ten years


«Vespers» © 2000


«When I am asked, or when I ask myself, why I chose to stay in Moscow, my answer is that the reason is my interest in the historical changes that are happening here. For me, Russia is an inexhaustible source of creativity»

When Frank Williams was asked in Siberia whether his interest in Russia was akin to Gauguin's fascination with Tahiti, Williams was amazed. "Gauguin was seeking the romantic, the exotic in Tahiti. I don't want to find anything exotic in Russia during my lifetime," said Frank. Nevertheless, Frank Williams is an exotic figure for Russia, which is, after all, not all that surprising. This American sculptor has been working in Russia for almost ten years, has shown his works in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and has taken his exhibition to all the important art museums in Russia, from Ivanovo to Tomsk, and from Moscow to Kemerovo.

He has photographed the Russian landscape, and lectured in mining towns on contemporary park sculpture. The exhibition entitled "Texas for Russia", which he organized, was shown in seven Russian cities. The exhibition "Russia for Texas", also his brainchild, travelled, predictably, to the United States.

This unusual man has sometimes been likened to the Frenchman Gauguin, at other times to the Russian Fyodor Konyukhov, who conquered Alaska in a dog sled, and still at others to an early explorer, such as the Russian Cossacks, or the American pioneers. Such were his ancestors, who sailed to the United States from Germany, then moved from the Northeast, where water in the cows' watering trough would freeze solid, in a southwesterly direction, to the plains of Texas. Williams himself, a successful American sculptor, painter, and designer, moved even farther — from Texas to Moscow. His arrival in Moscow was entirely prosaic: his wife, a lawyer by profession, was offered a contract in Moscow in 1992, and she in turn suggested Frank come with her, since in those days a trip to Moscow was considered a real adventure. "Like everyone else in my generation, I'm a child of the Cold War, and understandably, when I was planning to come to Moscow, I was ready for anything. Everything, that is, except that I would be allowed to roam all over Moscow with my camera, go wherever I wanted, and photograph anything I pleased," Frank recalls of his first trip. Even his lack of the Russian language did not keep him from meeting sculptors, gallery curators, and critics. It was then that he received his first offer to exhibit his works in Russia, and even sponsorship in creating his works of art. In 1993, when the Williams family started to work in Moscow, each of the spouses had their own interests in Russia.

When he is asked what most amazed him during his first trip, he answers that first of all it was the openness of the people he met here. "And also, probably, a respect for art that you will not find in the West. All that was very exciting. This was a place I wanted to come back to. Of course, I never dreamed it would be for such a long time. At first, I intended to stay maybe two or three years, and I've been here almost ten years. I have truly grown to love Russia." Critics write that his coming coincided with a new era in sculpture. He calls his early works surrealistic. "I felt closest to figurative sculpture," Williams explains, "but at the same time, I like the work of Mark de Suvero and Kenneth Snelson. I love to look at sculptures by Robert Rauschenburg and Edward Kienholz. I felt their strong influence even while I was still a student." In his new, 'Russian' works, a movement of artistic-philosophical and social commentary unexpectedly appeared, but Williams sees nothing unexpected in this. "My main theme has always been change, which has always had an individual meaning. It is a constant, whether you are talking about economics, culture, politics, or some inner thing. When I am asked, or when I ask myself, why I chose to stay in Moscow, my answer is that the reason is my interest in the historical changes that are happening here. For me, Russia is an inexhaustible source of creativity," is how Williams explains his credo, as printed in the exhibition catalogue for his 1996 Russian Museum showing.

Frank Williams' latest exhibition, entitled "The Angels Among Us", opened in October at the Manege Gallery, just a stone's throw from the old Kutafya Tower which overlooks the Kremlin Bridge. In spite of the wings on their backs, Frank Williams' angels do not resemble heavenly beings very much. On the contrary, their flesh is excitingly perfect, and their beauty is far from a synonym for purity of spirit. The Insane Angel, Expressing Unhappiness; the Devoted Angel; the Angel with the Beautiful Breasts; the Rapidly Falling Angel, all these charming creatures are obviously acquainted with the temptations of the world, and with earthly desperation. So much more puzzling is their striving to fly heavenward, held back by the weight of their flesh, causing them to teeter between flight and falling. "I did not strive to give my angels the face of Christ," says Frank, "I don't know how they look. I believe that angels appear in everyday life. I have read the lives of saints, many of whom were ordinary people, and who then ascended. This is a particular type of human individuality, albeit an immortal one."

Among the unfinished projects in his studio is a bust of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The city fathers of Novokuznetsk asked Frank Williams to create a monument to the great Russian writer. "In the old town, overlooking the river, stands an ancient church, and the view from there is unsurpassed." Frank explains. "They decided to put a monument in the square, by the church. I suggested several options, including this one." Frank points to a scale model bust of the writer, not yet the four-metre (1 3 ft) one that is projected. Not far from the writer's head is the famed "Potato Eaters"; the series which began with "Potato Day" exhibited in the Ludwig Collection in the Russian Museum. As it turns out, for Williams, the potato is a symbol of a reward for work, akin to what the hamburger might be in America. At the same time, it is the humblest of the daily necessities. "There were times in my life when I was very grateful for a few potatoes I would find in the refrigerator," says the sculptor. "Thanks to them, I was able to make it through some rough times. There were periods when I had to work in construction, as a chef, and as a clothing designer, but I always returned to painting and sculpture. There was something inside that made me go back. It's funny, if you think about it: you decide to become an artist so you can make a lot of money. No indeed, not at all; it is very hard work. And success is not guaranteed, no more than the potato on your table."

In that sense, from his point of view, the life of an independent artist in Russia is not that different from the life of an artist in the United States. "In America, we have federal grants," Frank explains, "but they are given out for group showings. If it says in you resume that you have already received one or several grants, that is an indication that you are not a bad artist. But in reality, that is not such a good idea. An artist can go on working at a medium level and continue to receive grants by force of habit. Strange as it may seem, the grant system in the United States and the system of support by the Russian Artists' Union have one thing in common: the Union supports those artists it is used to supporting, rather than those who are best at what they do."

Frank Williams prefers to support himself. Having made this point, Williams carefully places a box of potato chips under my outstretched hand, which is holding my tape recorder. "An artist can sell his works, but to do so, he must follow certain contemporary trends and accede to the demands of a gallery." Frank has chosen another path for himself: to do what he likes and what he deems necessary. Admittedly this is not the easiest path. "I work in my studio, I also show my creations here, and people buy them here. I don't have a gallery to represent me, nor do I have a patron who supports my studio. I had pretty much the same thing in America. I never worked with any gallery for more than a year," Frank elaborates. "In Russia, the galleries I work with are not commercial enterprises. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity of collaborating with museums, and from there, I was able to show my work in many cities and museums throughout Russia."

The reaction of the public to Williams' work is much the same in America as it is in Russia, but his observation is that Russians are more likely to approach the artist at a show and ask questions. "In reality, the interest of the public is the best form of support for an artist." Williams does not seem to be joking. "You sell a work, you get the money, and a little later, it is gone. But the memories of meeting people do not go away: the expression on their faces, their questions, their reactions, their comments, all these things stay in my memory forever. And that is the main reward of art."

All the legends about the Bohemian life of an artist notwithstanding, an artist's work is often solitary. "If I were to visit other studios and go to every gallery opening, I wouldn't have time to work." Frank Williams explains. "I have some old friends, Leonid Berlin and Aleksey Grigoryev. When I came here, I found that Berlin is into experimental art, which is very unusual for Russia. With time, I find more and more ideas in his creations." During his years in Russia, Frank Williams witnessed the 1993 putsch, and survived the 1998 financial crisis. He even created a sculpture which he called, appropriately enough, "Crisis". He has seen a couple of presidential elections, and an untold number of political crises. All in all, he has had more than his share of excitement. But if you ask him what his overall impression from this period of time is, whether from his point of view there is upward movement, he is genuinely surprised. "If I didn't see a change for the better, I wouldn't stay here. Of that you can be certain."

By Zhanna Vasiliyeva