Enigmatic Contemporary Realism

The Work of William Oberst

by Sarah Sutro

The tableaux and portraits painted in oils by William Oberst (b. 1948) fall somewhere between the magnificently exhibitionistic scenes of Eric Fischl and the quietly stoic reveries of William Bailey. While he deploys the techniques of painters dating as far back as Titian, Oberst’s subject matter lingers in the real world of enigmatic twenty-first-century human relationships.

William Oberst, Three Figures, 1996 Private collectionOberst took an unconventional path to becoming a realist painter. He is almost totally self-taught, having consulted the great figures of  art history   for guidance in conception, composition and technique. Growing up in a Connecticut suburb during the 1950s, Oberst was interested in art, but had only part of one year of formal art instruction, during which he learned to mix paint. His authoritarian father was a judge and attorney, and his mother had her own radio show before she married. Raised to believe that art was not a serious career, Oberst studied physics and then philosophy in college while continuing to experiment with painting. After graduation, he worked on a Ph.D. in analytic philosophy at Claremont University, where he stumbled upon the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s papers on Paul Cézanne, whose art helped him recognize painting’s “physical, visual” nature.1

After several years in corporate journalism in New York City, Oberst realized he needed to paint more seriously, and was accepted into the MFA program at Stony Brook University. There he worked “against the grain” of the department—conceptual, postmodern and theoretical—by developing his own mode of painting. To learn how to paint, he returned to trusted masters from the past, especially Vermeer  and Titian, exploring traditional methods through books about their techniques. He also visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look closely at the edges of old pictures, where he could discern several paint layers, noting especially how solid colors underlay the final color choices.

William Oberst, Elizabeth, 2011 Courtesy artist

Having earned his MFA, Oberst worked as a full-time adjunct professor at Stony Brook for ten years, teaching foundational drawing and painting and the history of ideas in its honors college. During that time, he showed his work  at Tatistcheff Gallery and Atlantic Gallery, both in New York City, and at other venues around Long Island and greater New York. Now living in a community of artists in North Adams, Massachusetts, Oberst finds this rural area ideal for working and living, especially during the long quiet winters when he can concentrate on work. He now shows at Gallery Reynard in nearby Williamstown. In his work, Oberst often alludes to intense internal dramas, or to the awkward and unacknowledged scenarios that play out between people, in spaces that express their connection or disconnection. He uses the term “ambiguous” in relation to his subjects, underscoring the detached, almost dissociated quality of his paintings. The painting Mother and Baby (2006) shows a young woman hugging an infant. Her left hand firmly holds the baby’s head so it will not fall back; her right hand grips his legs. She looks out frankly towards us with a wide, dispassionate gaze. The pose might be that of a Madonna but for her cool, observing look. Citing Mary Cassatt as an inspiration, Oberst feels that the genre of mother and child has been neglected in contemporary realism, even though the subject is “a fundamental part of life.” In Mother and Baby, the woman wearing a pale blue pullover, and the baby in its crinkly white jumpsuit, could easily have just stepped off a bus. Yet the baby’s face is hidden. Oberst’s subjects often have unexpected gazes, in which a figure may stare out at the viewer as if seen close up. He says he often has a “dialogue with the face,” to the point where it is looking right back at him. Mother and Baby suggests that moment in mothering when a woman faces the long run of childhood—and thus her gaze is unfocused. She seems connected to, and protective of, the child, yet she shows no overt emotion. By contrast, Oberst’s painting of folds in the mother’s soft shirt and the baby’s puffy outfit is acutely attentive. Thus Oberst finds a way to invest the picture with the passion he has for his craft; his subject includes the beautiful way that cloth folds or light falls—the intricacies of form. In this and other paintings, texture and descriptive qualities are conveyed with curiosity, quiet glee and evident enjoyment.

To arrive at his subjects, Oberst studies people he does not know, though he sometimes uses family members and friends as models. In most cases, Oberst truly does not know what the figures are actually feeling. He spends much  time thinking about how he will pose them, photographs them informally or during designated shoots with paid models, and then uses Photoshop to collage people onto visual backdrops until he finds his final subject, for which there   is literally no “story.” Oberst next paints a gouache study of individuals or a group to grasp how the painting will look and how he will handle color. Every composition is carefully thought out in order to minimize any problems that might be encountered during the actual painting process, which is—once he begins—calculated and highly scripted.

Oberst’s painting method begins with blocking out major shapes in soft pencil or charcoal pencil, using a ruler, string and chalk for perspective lines. He refrains from drawing every detail, especially on areas of the canvas where he will be putting down solid layers of color. But he acknowledges that “drawing happens throughout the process.”2 The painting remains changeable even if it has been mapped out scrupulously beforehand, and it can change if the composition is not working.

Oberst’s paintings have two layers, a preliminary underpainting and a final layer, during which he uses glazes and scumbling. Through trial and error, and by studying Vermeer’s imprimatura and overpainting, he combines his own techniques with what he has observed, like a layer of black under a red jacket, or a red-brown glaze over a blue-black shadow. Especially consistent is his use of grey tones, or grisaille, as the first layer of paint on faces, after which he applies three to four flesh colors, a technique he attributes to Titian.

Oberst feels he is not excessively rigid, having developed his own methods eclectically and with the help of reference books. His palette consists of eleven standard colors and earth tones, including alizarin and cadmium reds; he uses linseed oil as a medium, with no solvent or turpentine during clean-up. He shows great restraint in the amount of paint he uses, always creating a thin surface. Stretching his own linen canvases, he primes them with acrylic gesso and no sanding. He prefers hogs’ bristle brushes to sable or  acrylic.

Though Oberst generally reads non-fiction for pleasure, his paintings often feel fictional, as if a narrative has been paused. He leaves his subjects dream-like and open-ended, part real and part fantastical. Elizabeth (2011) could be the character Nora Webster in Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name,3 a study of a middle-aged woman pausing in life after a tragedy has occurred. She sits mysteriously before one of the old factories that line the roads of North Adams. Oberst explains that he wanted to somehow compare her life to that deserted mill, “someone who had lived a life, looking back.”

Writing about fiction, Milan Kundera mentions the “existential codes” of character, the “psychological…enigma of the psyche,” the “uncertain nature of the self and of its identity.”4 Similarly, in Oberst’s work, relationships and faces in shadow suggest scenes between people that have occurred just before we viewers arrive. People in ordinary, contemporary clothes seem to walk on set, sit down and look the other way. Tangled groups of figures allude to previous actions, yet we are not given clues as to what transpired. Some scenes remind us of Norman Rockwell paintings, only after the fact, when the American  dream family is off-duty and a quarrel has ensued. Unlike Edward Hopper, who locates his figures in a specific environment that helps shape the painting’s meaning, the spaces in Oberst’s scenes are stage-like and often unelaborated,  a kind of collage of architectural elements. We may find ourselves wondering, “Do the figures have anything to do with each other, or are they archetypes, shadows?” Indeed, they may be aspects of the same person, split off from the whole, or representative of disconnection in contemporary life.

In his article The Perils of Painting Now, the critic Jed Perl struggles with the idea of traditional painting and its relationship to subject matter and values: “In today’s anything-goes art world, a particular pictorial style no longer implies  a particular worldview or set of values. Style has been disassociated from substance, so while for one artist classicism still represents the timeless order it did for Poussin, for another artist classicism is a camp joke about the banality of history, and for yet another its muffled emotions suggest robotic, post-human anomie.”5 The feeling in Oberst’s painting leads us to try to figure out the story, but his is anything but a straightforward telling.

In Three Figures (1996), a man and one of the women interact. She puts her hand on his shoulder, while he seems to be getting up in front of her from a crouching position. Another woman, nude, stands with her back to us, twisting around towards the couple. These figures fill the canvas, their poses seeming to have almost nothing to do with each other. The woman looking down has an almost Renaissance gentleness, like the archangel Gabriel performing the Annunciation, while the man, in a less-than-powerful position, looks up—we cannot see his face. (The other woman’s face is in shadow.) All are like dream archetypes, put together to represent some unknown set of relationships. Mute, they seem to each be a part of  a story we  cannot know,  though we  long to, as when we wake from a dream with a visual but no narrative thread. Perhaps these are manifestations of thoughts or desires.

William Oberst Mill Girl, 2011 Courtesy North Adams Public Library, North Adams, Massachusetts

Sometimes, for Oberst, the impetus for a painting is a certain composition, and it may take a long time for its subject to take shape. Curiously, the composition of Three Figures seems to have come from Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul, a large, complex painting of dynamic action. Caravaggio’s restless, churning scene seems to offer an enigmatic raison d’être for a contemporary painting that lacks a religious story behind it. We live in a curiously irreligious time, yet the passions that once animated painters still exist and need expression, however mysteriously.

Oberst admits that his best subjects come from his dreams, created from the unconscious, the part of the mind that does not calculate or analyze. He appears to resist going very deeply into meaning, but is very drawn to the moment when a person’s face cannot be read clearly, or when a person does not know they are being observed (as on stage). For Oberst, then, authentic representation seems to come from not-knowing, from being a recorder in a world of human emotion that is hard to decipher. It is this ambiguous relationship to feeling that comes out most strongly in his paintings.

One “storied” series of paintings appeared in the 2011 group show The Mill Children, which focused on child labor in the textile mills of New England. This exhibition opened at the Eclipse Mill Gallery in North Adams and then went on to Boston, Waltham, Fall River and Bennington. Once he had been invited to participate, Oberst became deeply involved with the topic, using photographs by Lewis Hine as inspiration, and continued with such paintings as Mill Children (2013), Fall River (2013), Sunday’s Rest (2011), Mill Boy (2013) and Mill Girl (2011). In each, Oberst moves, with great empathy and awareness, among the nineteenth-century children who worked long days to help their families. In Mill Girl, the young girl and the adult man in overalls behind her take up less than one third of the canvas. The rest is devoted to a huge mechanical loom. The girl’s gaze off to the right is stoic, even out of focus, as the machine’s enormous bulk and complexity overwhelm the composition, as if it has prematurely taken over her life. Her arm hangs at her side in a kind of resignation, even as her face betrays determination, wariness and experience beyond her years—as if her body were chained to the machine while her mind roamed. There is deep humanity here. The painting’s colors—greys, muted greens, red and blues— are restrained and dull, though the blue-grey of the girl’s dress lingers in a silvery way, drawing us to her. The overwhelming feeling is of a life confined to the clock and to hard work; her only hope lies beyond the canvas, to the far right where there may be light, space, the thought of home.

Oberst says he thinks often about the orchestration of the painting as a whole. Backgrounds are sketched and painted in, and faces are done right away in black and white, because they determine the work’s essence. He attends  especially to the integrity of the painting, which he calls its “energy and psychology.” Oberst does not use color in a modern or expressionist sense, prefer- ring the depth and resonance of shadows and nuance of over-mixed color and neutrals. He keeps a tight rein on brilliance and exertion (bravura), preferring the understated and suggestive.

In his watercolor landscapes, however, Oberst does use transparency, light and more color. These are made relatively quickly, with luminosity and the suggestion of actual depth. He finds watercolors helpful as a respite from the oils that require much more time to complete. They are not only more immediate, but also more commercial. He paints them outside, in specific locations in Maine, Long Island and the Berkshires, sometimes also using photographs. In Water’s Edge (2009), Oberst uses both drawing and loose supple brushstrokes, much like Winslow Homer’s watercolors of Florida and the Adirondacks. The upper left corner has been left loose and soft, with only a hint of land and wave beyond the spray. At upper right, dark, crisply defined tree limbs bend and curve towards the water, executed with graphic, deep strokes. Behind them, a rich Indian red with notes of purple describes the land that hugs the coast. In the foreground, bits of grass and sticks emerge from the white foam—or is it snow? As a watercolorist, Oberst seems comfortable with running passages of pale blues and purples, emphasizing the force and energy of water and mist. A reflection captures the underside of branches in yellow. This painting is almost abstract, a departure for this intensely figurative artist, demonstrating that all paintings contain unique abstract passages. There is emotional energy in nature’s calligraphy, and in its formlessness as well—all easily  captured  in  the  more  spontaneous  and  more  energetically riotous medium of watercolor.

Bill Oberst loves to paint—and he expresses that love with tremendous focus and a disciplined attitude towards the craft. His subjects remain mysterious and dream-like, in relationships that allude to feeling, and are even preg- nant with feeling. We get the sense that these paintings are beyond intellectual understanding, part of a narrative we are not given, yet all uniquely reflective of twenty-first-century life.


    1. Interview with the artist, October 14, 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Oberst’s remarks are taken from this interview.

    2. E-mail correspondence with the artist, October 23, 2015.

    3. Colm Tóibín, Nora Webster (New York: Scribner, 2014).

    4. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 29, 23,  28.

    5. Jed Perl, “The Perils of Painting Now,” The New York Review of Books, (Sept. 24, 2015),  55


American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 36, Number 1