William S. Dutterer—Bill
William S. Dutterer—usually Bill—was 27 and I just 24 when we had our first conversation. We were standing in the doorway between the Corcoran Gallery, where I worked, and the Corcoran School, where he taught. Art and education—a constant theme in our life together, instant connection and exciting beginning of some 40 years together. I don’t remember a word he said on that day, only that he took my hands in his and looked deeply into my eyes. I was completely clear that he was one whale of a good-looking man: tall, thin, with long hair. And he rode a motorcycle when he wasn’t driving “Leona,” his 1954 Cadillac Coupe deVille. Man, was he cool! He was an artist. He was adventure, and I was dazzled. Within a week we started living together at the end of our first and only date. We married a few years later in his beloved West Virginia at Christmastime in about 1972 and never looked back.
This man was completely an artist—ferociously focused on making the best art possible using all his available intelligence, wit, skill, and sensitivities . . . period. His world consisted of three parts: making art, research for making art, and suffering a “day job” to generate bucks for making art. What he called “research”, the rest of us call “life”. As his teacher, mentor and life-long friend Grace Hartigan said, “Bill invented and interpreted life for himself, and then shared it in his art.” To our accountant’s chagrin, Bill solemnly maintained that the IRS could never prove that his books, records, tribal weavings, Mexican silver, et al. were not critical to his work. And he stuck to it.
Bill made a lot of incredible work in his life, but sadly not much of it found its way to the public. When he died, he left behind a large but largely unknown oeuvre. In 2017 we established the Dutterer Trust in the hopes of changing that. Our sole mission: to bring Dutterer’s work and teaching philosophies into the public sphere for others to experience.
A studio for Bill was battleship gray floors and white walls hung with a constantly changing parade of new work—he liked to live with his work before it went into the stacks. He described his work process as “scampering around the studio like a monkey”—up and down ladders, looking up close, looking from a distance, looking for hours. Whether the work was done on the floor, on a table or on the wall, his relationship to it was intimate and physical. I had extraordinary studio visits with him simply looking at the work. His conversation was minimal—just a word here or there packed with unexpected inspiration.
Our life in D.C. was exciting, filled with artists, the Corcoran Gallery and School, showing work, gallery openings, art parties. This was a moment when D. C. was artful, and Bill and I were in the thick of it. Tom Downing was a close friend, Ann Truitt, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, were colleagues. Bill had shared a studio with Sam Gilliam. These were D.C.’s art royalty! Bill was among the “emerging” artists who taught, partied, and sparred with one another. So were Robert Stackhouse, Bill Christenberry, Tom Green. It was here that Bill found his artistic voice—moving away from rigidly formal work to his own very personal language.
New York came calling us one day. We learned about a loft for sale and after some truly crazy negotiations (we had to install an extension phone just to handle phone negotiations) we bought that loft from founding member of Fluxus, George Maciunas. It was really, really raw! With Bill’s encouragement we launched into two years of living in a construction site that had been a Chinese sweatshop until the day before we moved in—along with the first of a succession of Ford Foundation-funded art students we mentored on the vagaries of things-artists-need-to-do-in-order-to-make-their-work. During the renovation, our upstairs neighbor, godfather of American avant-garde cinema, Jonas Mekas, would occasionally call asking, “Are you doing something with gasoline?” Other neighbors in the building, artists Ida Applebroog and Camille Billops, The Hatch Billops Archive of Black American Art, and others made the building a perfect nest. In spite of living in a construction site and commuting weekly to D.C., Bill never stopped making art. At its nadir, his studio was a hollow-core door on sawhorses and his paintings were tiny. When the studio was finally done Bill’s work grew to heroic size.
The neighborhood in the late ‘70s was heaven to Bill. He relished the proximity to other artists, musicians, dancers, and actors, art galleries and the palpable New York energy punctuated occasionally by the sound of neighbor Donald Judd’s bagpipe playing. At the time, an emergency run to the hardware store would likely be extended to include a gander at work in a couple of galleries and an extended conversation with, maybe, friend and fellow artist Martin Puryear along the way. Saturdays we’d join the river of people visiting galleries and eventually landing at Barry’s Restaurant for intense conversation with other artists, curators, gallerists and collectors. Here, Bill was in his element.
But like his paintings, Bill was a complex of layers that, on first glance, seemed simple. Often described as larger than life, Bill loved conversation with individuals or small gatherings,and his gift of gab was backed up with substance on a startlingly wide range of topics. He’d keep you mesmerized with his whisper of a West Virginia accent and unique handle on verbal metaphor: “she put me on her lazy Susan of logic and gave me a spin!” Formal events, on the other hand, were anathema. He confessed that he never knew, walking into a gallery opening, whether he would be able to have a conversation . . . or be completely paralyzed. A studio visit by a gallery person was a baffling challenge. So, he walked away from that aspect of New York. What was important to him, what he loved, was making his work.
A complex man, a rich personality, Bill Dutterer was, as a museum director noted, an artist’s artist. He made beautiful work that continues to intrigue and teach. His work is who he was and what he was meant to do. He left it to us to make it available to the rest of the world.
– Jamie Johnson Dutterer
His talent was unique. . . he had a great “hand” that went on and on even though the world didn’t catch up.
– Grace Hartigan, 2007