Sea Phantoms
1952
William Baziotes
American, 1912-1963

Oil on canvas
40 1/4 x 60 inches

The idea of a phantom is a strong presence in the works of William Baziotes, including the Modern Art Museum's Sea Phantoms, 1952. This painting characterizes his mature style of 1944 to 1962, a time when he created enigmatic landscapes with careful attention to spatial arrangements. Like his early work, Sea Phantoms was inspired by the Surrealists' automatic drawings, but in a subtler way. Typical of Baziotes’s painting technique, the shapes in this painting appear to float in space, defying traditional compositions in which the main attraction is at the center of the canvas. The flat patterned forms and gray background of Sea Phantoms were created with a nearly dry brush and thin layers of pigment. In Sea Phantoms, as in many of his works, the artist uses recurring motifs, such as the light blue sphere that radiates white lines at the upper right of the canvas. These forms represent Baziotes's personal symbolic language, which often remains mysterious to viewers of his work.

Sea Phantoms is mythological and dreamlike, as well as Darwinian in its suggestion of growth and evolving life. Its elusive meaning is personal to the artist and provocative to viewers. Of his work and the impulse to find meaning in it, Baziotes made a dramatic statement that reveals how he felt about any artist who unlocks the truth of their imagery, solving the mystery of creative impetus: "[He/she should] . . . smash the mirror and whip himself into a despair. A despair that only the madman in a cage can ever know." Baziotes then quotes one of his literary heroes, the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who said, "I have a horror of being easily understood."(1)

– Andrea Karnes

(1) William Baziotes, c. 1957, quoted in William Baziotes: Late Work 1946–1962 (New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1971): 7.