William Vaughn Howard

It is not difficult to locate William Vaughn Howard (1921-1986) along the spectrum of art movements in the United States when he joined the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno art department in 1963. Abstract Expressionism still held sway over museums and galleries, both their collections and exhibits, and Howard held up Abstract Expressionism as the stylistic model in his classroom.

It has been said that during the 1950s, the United States, strengthened by postwar prosperity, settled for normality and conformity in its mood and behavior. While such an assessment is debatable, it can be maintained with fair certainty that the visual arts across the country were not content with the status quo.

Howard joined a post-war generation of Abstract Expressionists who rebelled against regionalism and urban social realism in favor of a more physical approach to paint. It was called "action painting." New York City was the center of Abstract Expressionism; the scene where the paintings of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) were described as "what gravity hath wrought," and William de Kooning  (1904-1997) scoured women across his canvases with fierce intensity. "My child could do that" became a favorite response to AE among unconvinced viewers.

Howard's first connection with Abstract Expressionism happened in the West, at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he met painters Agnes Martin (1912-2004), a minimalist; and Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and Willem de Kooning's wife, Elaine (1920-1989), both deeply committed to the gestural in their work. Howard also spent a defining year in Mexico studying with Jose Gutierrez (1900-1968)–a muralist and pioneer in developing paints with a plastic base–at the Instituto Politcnico Nacional in Mexico City.

It was in Reno that Howard's approach to abstraction matured. His palette moved from the dark figurative images of the 1950s to lighter tonalities in the 1970s; his canvases became battlegrounds for vigorous experiments in spatial relationships and color, and the artist eventually moved from working in oil to acrylics.

Howard began to travel with student groups to Greece in the 1970s. Eventually he made the island of Paros, one of the Cycladic Islands, his sole destination. More accurately, these excursions became pilgrimages during which Howard's paintings took on the light and color of the Aegean region, not necessarily literal interpretations of its landscape or architecture.

Howard retired after twenty-three years on the UNR faculty and died of cancer shortly thereafter. As a prophetic gesture, the artist titled his final work, "My Last Painting."

Geographic Area: 

Article Locations

Related Articles

None at this time.

Further Reading