Relations between My Paintings and Wallace Stevens's Poems

While I am painting I am not thinking of a Stevens poem. When I have finished a painting I have every painter's problem: what to name it? For example, all I was concerned with in painting what I later named "But See Him For Yourself" was the juxtaposition of the ancient Mayan ceramic figure, much enlarged, and the two Iowa farm girls. I was interested in the contrast between the man's massive simplicity and the girls' countrified dressiness, his Yucatan colors and their United States colors.

I find my titles in Stevens's poetry because it has become the worded landscape most kindred to my mind. In this case I recalled the dish of country cheese and the pineapple at the end of "Paisant Chronicle." That poem has something like the combination of imagined grandeur and plain country life that the painting has. Instead of cheese and pineapple there are two girls, but more essentially the poem tries and tries not to visualize "the major man." The major man in my painting is all clay, all peasant ("paisant" is an archaic form of "peasant"), but he has been fired into a hard strange artifact. Not bronze, not a public statue, but fundamentally small and easily broken. Perhaps he is what Crispin feared he might become if he stayed in Yucatan, and perhaps he is therefore a version of the clown-hero that Stevens never considered. But he is my kind of clown-hero, descended in part from Stevens's, "created out of men" and "artificial," but vulnerable, both in his element (earth) and out of his element (the tropics), both at home and exotic - in short, an increasingly common sort of American.

The poem provides a place for the painting to go in its own direction. The process of naming each of my paintings has a similar tale to tell.

 --William Burney, 1998

Click on the thumbnail images to see full-screen view. All works are acrylic on paper.


But See Him for Yourself
13.75x11, 1998


A Man and a Woman are One
13.75x11, 1998


A Cat of Sleek Tranparency
8.5x11, 1993

Fire-Fangled Feathers
Dangle Down, 11x9, 1995

The Imperfect Is Our Paradise
8x11, 1998

The Strength of the Sun
12.5x11, 1998