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On view


Artist: William Baziotes (American, 1912 - 1963)

Date: 1949
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 27 × 22 5/8in. (68.6 × 57.5cm)
Overall: 18 × 14 3/16in. (45.7 × 36cm)
Signed: Lower edge right of center (black paint): 'Baziotes' Verso, top: 'Toy / William / Baziotes 1949'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.72
Label Text
During the 1940s New York City-based artists such as William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, painted in a non-representational style that has come to be known as Abstract Expressionism. These painters derived inspiration from psychology and mythology because they sought connections to spiritual forces that the artists believed have been lost in so-called civilized cultures.

At the start of the decade, many artists incorporated totemic figures and symbols into their art works but some, like Rothko, gradually removed representational forms altogether. Not so for Baziotes. He continued to find phantoms emerging from his intuitive painting method. Toy seems almost the portrait of a strange, wide-eyed animal that exists in a curiously defined space. What, for instance, is that glowing orb? The viewer is expected to draw on his or her own childhood memories, dreams and similar subconscious states to find a connection with the enigmatic creature.

Mary E. Murray

Text Entries

In Baziotes’s apartment two toy soldiers guarded the entrance way to the living room where a collection of dolls was carefully displayed in the corner. Central among them was a porcelain doll, described by his wife as a type of memory jug, sporting an assortment of coins, shells, and other memorabilia. Like the photograph of Proust that hung on their wall in the 1950s, this jar was a reminder of the key role childhood and memories played in Baziotes’s art.

A lifelong admirer of Baudelaire, Baziotes would have agreed with the poet’s concept that genius was childhood recovered at will and perhaps also with his discussions of toys as “the child’s earliest initiation to art . . . and when mature age comes, the perfected examples will not give his mind the same feelings of warmth, nor the same enthusiasms, nor the same sense of conviction.”(1) Indeed, Baziotes’s notes call for the artist to “see as a child.”(2) It is not surprising that during the 1940s and 1950s Baziotes was inspired by this theme and frequently used the word “toy” in his titles.

“Chance, difficulty, and danger” permeate a child’s treasures, “and serve him not just as fetishes and good-luck pieces. They spirit him away to the world of adventure and distances. . . .” Like the magical objects of mythology, the toy can have a power that “enables you to go beyond what is normally possible: it permits you to disappear at will, to paralyze from a distance, to subdue without a struggle, to read thoughts, and to be carried in an instant wherever you want to go.”(3) These words reveal a Surrealist attitude that may lie closest to Baziotes’s own. Indeed, Baziotes, who was known to approach a trance-like state while painting, imbued his painting Toy with an aura of mystery.

In this work a large biped with multilayered meanings, a familiar form in Baziotes’s art at this time, stares silently at the viewer, its limbs immobilized, caught by the edge of the canvas. The mesmerizing effect of the creature’s gaze is reinforced by the picture’s slowly painted scumbled surface and muted colors. By the late 1940s when Toy was painted, Baziotes’s art had moved in the direction of a few forms subtly distributed within the canvas and in relation to the edges. They appear trapped in a viscous matrix. In the Utica picture the only shape free of the edges, the circle, is embedded in the left rectangle. Baziotes liked the quality of slow deliberation, which is evident here and came to characterize his version of Abstract Expressionism. He was later to say that he wanted his forms to take effect slowly, to haunt and to obsess.(4)

Baziotes painted intuitively and, like the Surrealists, remained receptive to memories, metaphors, and associations. The subject, he asserted, revealed itself to him as he worked or afterward. At some point in the process the strange and richly evocative world of toys with its many associations inspired the title for this suggestive, fettered, staring “toy.” As Harold Rosenberg wrote in a poem dedicated to a painting by Baziotes, with the best toys “the shut heart balloons like a light turned on.”(5)


1. Charles Baudelaire, “A Philosophy of Toys,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. By Johnathan Mayne (New York: Phaidon Press, 1965), p. 199. For a general discussion of Baziotes’s art, see Michael Preble, William Baziotes: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalog, with essays by Barbara Cavaliere and Mona Hadler (Newport Beach, Calif.: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1973).

2. William Baziotes’s undated Hunter College teaching notes, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Baziotes taught at Hunter College from 1952 to 1962.

3. Roger Caillois, “The Myth of Secret Treasures of Childhood,” VVV, vol. 1, no. 1 (June 1942), pp. 5-6.

4. William Baziotes, “Notes on Painting,” It Is, no. 4 (Autumn 1959), p. 11.

5. Harold Rosenberg, “Reminder to the Growing,” Tiger's Eye, no. 7 (March 1949), p. 82.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).