William Otton

William Otton’s carefully crafted oil paintings beckon you with their intense and unusual colors, the symmetry of a carefully curated gallery within the painting and the appeal of strong familiar images. Whether they are paintings within a painting that dialogue with each other including Matisse, Diebenkorn, Monet, Picasso, or Hopper, there are also newly created vistas. At first, these seem serious or even wistful with their formality, then there is some whimsy to be found, and ultimately, joy as the art of experiencing art is celebrated.

“My paintings include the essence of ideas, techniques and styles explored by selected artists of the last century who influenced my understanding about what makes a successful painting. I include those essences while also acknowledging 20th century Modernist reductive conventions focused on the elements of art, the two dimensional surface of the canvas and the exploration of color formed space.”

Otton’s journey as an artist is informed by a lifetime within the world of art as a Doctorate of Art, professor at Texas A&M University, museum director the Laguna Art Museum, the Wichita Center for the Arts, and the Art Museum of South Texas, and once again in the studio as a painter, sharing his lifetime in art.


During the opening years of the twentieth century a new kind of fine art painting emerged in Western European art centers. It was a trend that gained major attention – often controversial – as academic illusionism was being replaced by a new kind of art created by avant-garde artists. These artists rejected the rules demanded by those interested in academic fine art with its focus on representational imagery. Painting was moving into an era where “Art about Art” replaced the emphasis on“Art about Life”.
Art about Life focused on how successfully an artist could dissolve a picture plane and introduce subject matter in a way that often mirrored the visible world and depicted a particular place, event, story or people.
the new Art about Art focused on using the elements of art as an important part of the content of a work. It sought to manipulate the surface of the painting, depicting an abstracted kind of imagery as compared to the earlier Art about Life that sought go make images have more verismilitude in a space that mirrored the visible world.
Various movements emerged that continued to further the shift the focus from representational painting toward abstraction and to a flattened picture plane on which loosely painted images might be included such as Cubism. In many cases the brush marks became an important part of the content of a painting as they depicted a new kind of image that was unique to painting.
By the mid 20th century, Action Painting had totally removed any reference to images found in the visible world resulting in a fully abstract format. However, by the later decades of the century artists like Any Warhol reintroduced representational images into Modern Art and in doing so helped raise the question about the future importance of abstraction.

Since the beginning of the 21st century there has been a focus on issues related to “multiculturalism” across society and efforts to replace what many call the colonial derived “melting pot” outlook of the past with a new way to look at history, current affairs and the future. This new thinking is thought to be the best way for western culture to move forward. Questioning the melting pot approach of past centuries has impacted the development of fine art today. It has also impacted the art history discussed in the above paragraphs which sought a single line of art development including a specific group of artists and an exclusion of diversity and multi points of view.
Yes, a melting pot approach to defining culture and fine art has strong weaknesses. In fine art it includes limited acceptance of works created by women and people of color as well as any major focus on social issues, political points of view and topics that fall outside the parameters of defining what constitutes a masterpiece.
Today multiculturalism has a major impact on what artists create in their studios and how art history is being rewritten to better serve this new way of looking at culture. As these changes occur there is are efforts in some art circles to discount the fine art developments of the last 150 years and replace it with a new view of what actually happened from a multicultural point of view and discounting many of the contributions that were accepted as valid in the past.
Since 2015, when multiculturalism became a dominant influence on contemporary art making I shifted my outlook about how I viewed what was happening in fine art. I sought a way to keep the major threads of art history alive by addressing it in some way in my own works. My solution was to include the “essence” of past works into my own studio efforts.
Today my paintings include the essence of ideas, techniques and styles explored by selected artists of the last century who influenced my understanding about what makes a successful painting. I include those essences while also acknowledging 20th century Modernist reductive conventions focused on the elements of art, the two dimensional surface of the canvas and the exploration of color formed space.
Unlike many leading abstract artists of the last century I have never dropped the recognizable image from my work, no matter how abstracted it might be in a painting. I also believe that including the conventions that are part of the Modernist vocabulary can and should be integrated into my paintings. The current work seeks to successfully blend the conventions of Modernism and my interest in representational image making into each painting I create in my studio.


William Otton started his career in art as a public school teacher in Paradise, California after graduation from college. He then gained a Masters in Art from Sacramento State where his advisor, Joseph Raffael, and Committee members, Jim Nutt, John Fitzgibbon and other teachers launched him on a professional career in fine art.

He then returned to university and achieved a doctoral degree in Illinois where he studied under midwest regionalist painters, Harold Gregor and Ken Holder, who sent him on the path of leadership in organizations that further fine art in any community in which he lived.

The journey eventually took the form of museum directorships in Laguna Beach, CA, Wichita, KS, Corpus Christi, TX, and Sacramento, CA. Mr Otton now resides Marin County where he has been able to return to studio work.

Review by Dewitt Cheng


In 1951, the French writer André Malraux introduced the term musée imaginaire in his three-volume work on the psychology of art. In 1965, a portion of that magnum opus was published in English as Museum Without Walls, referring to the expanded world, newly available to art-lovers, that had been created by modern mass communication and photographic reproduction. In the digital age, the proliferation of images far surpasses anything imaginable at mid-century, We are now able to magically summon images and information from all world history to furnish our internet-provenance mental collections.

Malraux’s “museum without walls” comes to mind when we view William Otton’s Essence of Truth paintings of the past seven years. A former museum director and educator who worked during his long career in Texas and California with such art notables as the architect Philip Johnson and the museum founder Eli Broad, Otton moved to the Bay Area after retiring. He resumed painting in earnest, having not exhibited for years, informed by his knowledge of art history, especially the revolutionary art of the twentieth century, which liberated color and form from subservience to the demands of realism, altering modern consciousness. Thrilled by the 2017 San Francisco Museum of Art show that traced Henri Matisse’s influence on Richard Diebenkorn, Otton began painting his Essence of Truth series, an homage to what the artist calls the “vocabulary” of modernism. “Essence” and “truth” are notions that have fallen into disfavor in current art culture, suspicious of tradition and influence. Otton uses the terms in a personal sense (as Cézanne often prefaced his remarks with pour moi, for me), reminding us that good art contains its makers’ subjective truths, which are more compelling—and universally compelling—than art based on dogmatic adherence to received wisdom.

Otton’s paintings within paintings are indeed compelling to lovers of Matisse and Diebenkorn, along with lovers of Pissarro and Sisley; Gauguin and Munch; and O’Keefe and Hopper. These artists’ works are depicted as installed within spare, modernist interiors, museums with some walls replaced by large windows offering views of nature taken from the artist’s hikes on the Novato Bay Trail, and his travels to Arizona, Norway and, Egypt; at times the paintings are extrapolated or “extended,” to use the artist’s term, into the window views, as if invading reality. Paintings that depict other paintings are not new in art history: the eighteenth-century painter Giovanni Paolo Panini depicted colossal art galleries with their walls packed with Roman architectural paintings not unlike his own. David Teniers the Younger and Samuel F.B. Morse (yes, the inventor of the telegraph) followed suit with painstaking paintings of large, teeming galleries in 1647 and 1831, respectively. In modern times, the Italian Giorgio di Chirico depicted artworks and artifacts —classical sculptures, maps, charts, signs— placed inside his “metaphysical” interiors, stripped-down versions of classical architecture. Magritte, of course, is the master of the image/reality conundrum, with paintings depicting small canvases resting on easels, and exactly conforming to the landscapes behind and around them.

Otton’s images can be enjoyed without benefit of curator or docent, but their references and allusions are intriguing:

—“The Essence of Truth: “Diebenkorn and Munch at the San Francisco Modern,” the first of the series, depicts a minimalist modern interior of concrete and plaster planes intersecting at right angles, delicately colored with hues taken from the Diebenkorn abstraction on the left. The Alfred Barr: Missionary for the Modern biography precariously perched on the coffee table is an homage to the Museum of Modern Art curator who brought European modernism to America in the 1930s. A translucent border around the edge of the painting reinforces the flat abstract composition enclosing Munch’s temptress (borrowed from the 1894 painting, “Ashes”). Outside, through the door, a seashore beckons, reflected and continued in a small window or mirror.

—In “The Essence of Truth: Diebenkorn Understands Matisse,” a 1975 Diebenkorn Ocean Park series abstraction and a 1902 Matisse landscape of Paris, both featuring cool gray palettes, hang on parallel short walls behind and between which we glimpse the Notre Dame landscape extended from Matisse’s image. The same architectural framework underlies “Essence of Truth: Cézanne and Diebenkorn Meet in San Francisco,” with the painter’s landscapes spilling into the outdoor view behind them. Note the arcades above, borrowed from di Chirico, and the ribbonlike forms—Otton calls them ‘biomorphic,’ using the art-historical term for abstract organic shapes— that float in and out of the windows and before and behind walls, lending animation and contrast to the Mondrianesque opposing horizontals and verticals that reflect and echo the boundaries of the painting.

—“Essence of Truth: Slantstep Found with Cézanne and Hopper” adds a contemporary California touch to this dialogue of French and American painters. The Slantstep was a small wood and linoleum structure of unknown purpose that resembled an armless upholstered chair, though slanted and so impossible for seating. In 1965, the artist William T. Wiley bought it at a Mill Valley thrift store for fifty cents, and then presented it as a humorous gift to his graduate student, Bruce Nauman. It became an object of humorous veneration and inspiration for local artists, and now reposes at the Nelson Gallery of the University of California, Davis.

Some of Otton’s paintings incorporate real-life landscapes and comment on contemporary events. “Essence of Truth: Walk Along the Bay Trail” features the Novato hiking trail where Otton hikes regularly, while “San Francisco Through a Hopper Doorway” presents a deep blue evening view of San Francisco as seen across the water from the East Bay, through a large picture window; more complicated is whether the image of stairs, banister and curtains, all consonant with the view through other windows, is a mirror, window, or painting. “Essence of Hopper During Covid” appropriates the contemplative woman sitting on a bed from Hopper’s 1930 “Hotel Room” as a surrogate for the artist—for all of us—pondering (as her laptop awaits) the pandemic’s closures, disruptions and losses. The ceramic figurine on the floor beneath the painting came from a Japanese temple’s funeral fire pit, abandoned after its use in a memorial ceremony.

The one-point perspective that Otton has borrowed from early Renaissance art provides a flexible framework for the artist’s playful mashups of paintings, windows, and mirrors, and his homage to past—but still present in spirit—art and artists. Essence of Truth reminds us that others preceded us, and that others will succeed us; we need to honor their legacies and create legacies of our own worth passing into the future. Picasso said that once something is art, it stays art. Ben Shahn once cautioned artists against their fear of comparison with the greats of the past; he thought we should see them as whispering friends, urging us on. Museums, culture, painting, and art are not dead as rumored, or even passé, if they live on in our hearts and minds.

Avenue 12 Gallery
1101 Lake Street at 12th Avenue
San Francisco CA 94118