By KEN JOHNSON
Published: December 28, 2009
WASHINGTON If you didn't know that William T. Wiley was a real
person, you might think he'd been invented by Thomas Pynchon. Over
the last half-century Mr. Wiley, 72, has been producing zany
paintings, drawings and assemblages that look as if they been created
by a dope-addled survivor of the California counterculture.
One of the founding fathers of West Coast Funk art, along with
figures like Robert Arneson, Roy Robert Hudson and Roy DeForest among
others, Mr. Wiley rose to national prominence in the 1970s, when
offbeat craft, storytelling and personal symbolism were all the rage.
In the '80s his woolly shtick lost traction in the high-art world and
lapsed into regional purgatory.
"What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect" at the
Smithsonian American Art Museum here offers a good opportunity to
reconsider his place in late-20th-century art. Organized by Joann
Moser, the museum's senior curator of graphic arts, the show is by
turns entertaining, exhilarating, perplexing and disappointing.
Mr. Wiley, who has lived most of his adult life in Northern
California, is a skillful and fearless draftsman and a terrific
watercolorist. He applies an expansive, satiric imagination to all
manner of subjects, from the stains on his studio floor to concerns
about the environment and international politics to Buddhist
metaphysics. But his works can also be self-indulgent and needlessly
obscure. (The exhibition includes films of performances, but they
don't make much of an impression.)
The one thread running throughout his oeuvre that has garnered
near-universal admiration, and deservedly so, is his work in
watercolor. Combining fine, black, felt-tip line drawing and luminous
hues, his watercolors picture indoor and outdoor spaces and odd
assortments of objects in such detail that it is as if you were
seeing through mystically enhanced eyes. "Free as a Bird" (1977), a
vertiginous, aerial view of a cubistically jumbled city with a
dark-blue bird soaring near the center, is Whitman-esque in its
Often the watercolors depict mysterious constructions of a sort that
Mr. Wiley also realizes as three-dimensional sculptures. Handwritten
captions, composed as if by a hippie cowboy and peppered with puns
and clever turns of phrase, ruminate on art, global warming, war and
"I've Got It All on the Line" (1970) presents a view through an open
studio door to an expansive landscape. To the left is an elaborate,
indoor still-life of scores of objects rendered with near-miniaturist
exactitude a pink, wall-mounted telephone under a sheet of numbers;
a leather hat and a shoulder bag on a wooden rack; books, tools and
more on shelves below. In the front yard to the right, a coat hanger
bent into the figure-eight shape of the infinity sign dangles from a
telephone wire, while smoke rising from the far horizon hints at some
catastrophic happening in the distance.
Along the bottom edge Mr. Wiley wrote, " 'I've got it all on the line
and the time it takes to make mistakes if there is such a
thing.' WIZDUMB from Lout Sue." Embracing the particular and the
universal and the comic and the cosmic, it is a transporting picture.
A precocious talent in his youth, Mr. Wiley had a solo exhibition at
the San Francisco Museum of Art before earning his undergraduate
degree from the California School of Fine Arts in 1960. Under the
influences of Abstract Expressionism and Bay Area Figuration, he made
big, oleaginous, semiabstract paintings.
In the '60s he cut back on the gestural brushwork and made large,
deadpan, cartoonlike pictures. "Shark's Dream" (1967) expresses
frustration with the formalist regime of the day. It depicts an
oblong, severely geometric, gray sculpture with a sharklike dorsal
protuberance. A stream of pale red liquid like blood spouts from a
small hole in its side. Minimalism's cold colorlessness has rarely
been so neatly skewered.
In fall 1967 Mr. Wiley found his way out of a brief period of
artist's block when he picked up watercolor, a medium that was then
not taken seriously in the high-art world. In effect he was demanding
less of himself, which freed his imagination. A watercolor may be
small, but anything can happen in one, and the most surprising things
occur in Mr. Wiley's seemingly modest efforts.
For hard-to-explain reasons, however, he creates his larger works in
ways that defeat much of what makes his watercolors so fascinating.
In many cases he uses charcoal as the main medium, which looks smudgy
and murky on the canvas. Sometimes in addition to the charcoal he
trowels on garishly colorful areas of painterly abstraction. His
subjects are similar to those of his watercolors, but the pictures
tend to be overworked and obscure.
He writes a lot on the canvases, too. On one piece he wrote, "Dude!
No one has time to read all this stuff!" Sometimes he is his own best critic.
In recent works Mr. Wiley has been translating images from Hieronymus
Bosch, medieval prints and other antique sources. In "Alchemical Lyon
Tortured With Abstraction" (2005), a large drawing on canvas
resembling an old engraving, a green, priapic lion rears up to bite
the sun. It is hard to say what it means, but the esoteric imagery is
Mr. Wiley's three-dimensional works also lack the transformational
magic of his watercolors. They are loose concatenations of found
objects, and their self-consciously homespun humor and portentous
symbolism wear thin. "Thank You Hide" (1970-71) features a piece of
leather vaguely shaped like a map of the continental United States.
Mr. Wiley cut block letters spelling "Thank You" into it and hung it
from a shelf bearing bottles and fishing lures; the line of a fishing
rod stretches to a pick ax on the floor. As an oblique, mordantly
sardonic comment on the tragic history of Indians and the American
West, it has poetic urgency. But its material literalism mutes its
In some of Mr. Wiley's paintings there appears a character named Mr.
Unnatural, who was inspired by R. Crumb's roly-poly savant, Mr.
Natural. Mr. Wiley's avatar is a tall, lanky fellow who wears a dunce
cap, a long false nose, Japanese wooden sandals and a bathrobe that
reaches his bare knees. He is a holy fool, a wily trickster whose
behavior, which seems ridiculous, crazy or dumb to the unenlightened,
is really in the service of higher consciousness.
He is an apt personification of Mr. Wiley's enterprise, which, for
all its flaws, remains a beacon of sanity in a crazy, mixed-up, modern world.
"What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect" remains on view
through Jan. 24 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F
Streets N.W., Washington; (202) 633-7970, americanart.si.edu.