For painter Bill Hill, literature, art and life swirl in the same air



About four years back, a book club was meeting to pore over a tome by James Joyce at an out-of-the-way Italian kitchen on Capitol Hill when one of the readers spotted Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders eating a meatball hoagie. Artist Bill Hill, a member of this self-described band of “Wakers” — who meet once a week to read two or three pages of Joyce’s famously impenetrable novel “Finnegans Wake” — asked Sanders to join them.

“We were on page 565,” says Hill. “And the first words are” — here Hill slips into a gruff bass in imitation of Sanders — “ ‘night by silent sailing night, Isobel, wildwood eyes and primrose hair … .’ ” While the senator got tongue-tied, he stuck with it, according to Hill, who says that Sanders left the group with a parting word: Reading this book is harder work than battling Republicans.

Bernie isn’t the Wakers’ only VIP guest reader; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once sat with them, as did a federal judge nominated by former president Donald Trump. Over the last 12 years, the club has wound its way through “Finnegans Wake” once, at which point the readers simply started the 688-page novel over again.

For Hill, an art handler and painter who’s made his home in the D.C. area since 1982, this stream-of-consciousness text is more than a high-water mark for modernism. For Hill, Joyce is more like a key to unlocking the universe — and maybe a model for his own mind.

“Modalities,” a show of Hill’s paintings at Gallery 2112 in Dupont Circle, opens a window into the artist’s multifaceted perspective. His bright abstractions point to the style, techniques and formal experiments of the Washington Color School, artists who transformed abstract painting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hill, 65, knew them all: Gene Davis, Leon Berkowitz and more. Hill rented a studio on U Street NW from Sam Gilliam, a close friend and mentor and an artist who became internationally famous for his drape paintings. Hill says he and Gilliam would meet for breakfast and spend the morning going over the work of an artist; for their last session, in spring 2021, they studied Kenneth Noland. (Gilliam died in June.)

Works such as “Field Painting II” (2022) indicate Hill’s close connection to Washington’s painterly pantheon. An atmospheric painting of teal, tangerine and yellow ocher looks like light reflecting off clouds at sunset — a dappled abstraction that would be at home in Berkowitz’s or Gilliam’s studios. Yet a few haphazard dollops of eggshell blue suggest tension in the surface.

Hill describes the Washington Color School as his graduate education in painting. Once, Gilliam and fellow artist Simon Gouverneur even showed up at his studio door, demanding tuition (and bearing six-packs of beer.) “My whole youth was kind of like a floating opera with all of those guys,” he says.

Hill grew up in the D.C. area. His parents met on the naval base at Pearl Harbor just before the attack, and his dad studied law under the GI Bill. The family moved to McLean, where, as a child, Hill befriended Robert F. Kennedy’s children at their Virginia estate, Hickory Hill. Years later, as an art handler working for galleries and collectors in D.C., Hill would oversee the move of a massive four-foot-tall decorative urn for Kerry Kennedy, RFK’s daughter.

After rejecting the corporate law track, Hill’s father moved the family to a farm in southern Maryland, where Hill says he picked tobacco as a youth. In his father’s library, he found a copy of “Ulysses,” another doorstop by Joyce, that set his life on its trajectory. Hill studied painting at Carnegie Mellon University, where he met his wife, Elaine, while studying Chinese philosophy. But his real education didn’t take off until he returned to the District, lured back by the art and ideas coming out of Washington.

With his feathered white hair and easy cackle, the artist could be a storybook character from Dr. Seuss. He’s certainly got the Lorax’s mustache. But the ease with which Hill weaves tales of Washington art lore with heady ideas from modern art experiments makes for a more psychedelic character, if no less animated — like Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar.

A conversation with Hill splinters into dozens of fractal tangents. Over the course of an hour, he glances from one connection to another, recalling a printmaker included in the corporate collection of Bethesda’s Artery Capital Group who made the last series of prints by the mercurial composer John Cage, or an assistant for sculptor Anne Truitt who went on to make jewelry for the sultan of Brunei, or the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School grads who helped form Jefferson Airplane.

Following along isn’t necessary to understand Hill’s work. Strictly speaking, following along isn’t much of an option for someone who doesn’t possess his extraordinary recall, which he attributes to his early Jesuit education. But his fluid yet highly structured way of talking through his thinking offers insights into the decisions that guide his work as a painter.

Hill’s voracious intellectual appetites have not always served him so well. When he and his wife divorced seven years ago, Hill says, she told him that he still behaves the same way he did as an undergraduate. “I look at that as one of my better qualities,” he says.

But when Hill explains that he was thinking about Pierre Bonnard when he made “Solas Nua II” (2022), a subtle, almost impressionist painting — that tracks. And when Hill describes an Aristotelian sequence involving Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, in which his thoughts trace his footsteps on the beach as if they were on separate celestial spheres — and how this passage reflected his feeling when he biked along the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore — well, that almost tracks.

Hill has uncovered a “chromatic operation” in Joyce’s work that he intends to explore, using the tools that Gilliam, Berkowitz and Gouverneur gave him. Hill is carrying the torch for a tradition that is not yet spent: abstraction based on chance and experiment, resulting in paintings that look like landscapes seen through the lens of verse borrowed from hundreds of different dog-eared pages.

Gallery 2112, 2112 R St. NW. 202-213-9768.

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