William T. Wiley

Life Dates:
b. 1937
Artist Biography:
William was an artist that Jack Lemon was working with before I started at Landfall Press in 1971. Bill had a very healthy attitude towards printmaking, a Zen-like approach if you will. Everything that happens is meant to happen. For example if, during the processing of a printing plate, something went wrong and messed up the image, Bill would not have us start over, he would just use what he had. Printers like it when the artists don’t hold them responsible for technical glitches. Mistakes can often lead to areas you might not otherwise explore. Bill like to experiment. Landfall had been working with the newly formed Twinrocker Paper Co. to make papers for other artists. Bill wanted a circular shape with a hole in the middle, and lots of chicken feathers in the paper. Twinrocker obliged and the first sheets were just what Bill wanted. The only problem was there were so many feathers in the paper they fell out all the time and got stuck in the ink on the printing plates. After the number of feathers was significantly reduced, printing was able to continue.

William T. Wiley was born in Bedford, Indiana on October 21st, 1937. He was raised in Indiana, Texas, and Richland, Washington, but went to school in California. Wiley attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Fransico and earned his B.F.A in 1960 and his M.F.A in 1962. One year later he became a faculty member of the UC Davis art department with Bay Area Funk Movement artists, Robert Arneson and Roy DeForest. Wiley explored many mediums including, drawing, painting, sculpture, film and surprisingly, pinball. Most of his work is widely referred to as Funk Art, an art movement that was a reaction against the non-objectivity of abstract expressionism. Over the course of his career he has rejected minimalism, conceptual art, and other trends, instead, he has made his way by developing a style all his own. Wiley’s work spans a large assortment of themes, including but not limited to, art, politics, war, global warming, foolishness, ambition, hypocrisy and irony. He lets his imagination run wild, mixing political statements with personal puns and scattering his art with self created symbols and pop culture references. His wit and sense of the absurd make his art accessible to all with multiple layers of meaning revealed through careful examination. He has created a distinctive body of work spanning 50 years that addresses critical issues of not only the past but those that relate to issues of the present as well. Because of his work’s thoughtfulness, and its distinctive balance of the personal and the political, eminent artists, including Bruce Nauman, his student at the University of California at Davis and an artist whom he has collaborated with many times on performance and film work, count him among their major influences. Wiley’s extensive body of work challenges the principles of mainstream art. His work ranges from traditional drawing, watercolor, acrylic painting, sculpture and printmaking to performances, constructions of assorted materials and, more recently, printed pins, tapestries and a pinball machine. Though he has always been a committed printmaker, he made his first prints in 1972 at Landfall Press in Chicago, where in 1989 he was the subject of a solo exhibition, “William T. Wiley: A Decade of Prints”. He has worked at Crown Point Press frequently since 1978 and participated in the group exhibition “Committed to Print” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988. He has a well developed and very recognizable drawing style that is prominent in almost all of his works. His most preferred theme seems to be that of wordplay, such as in puns and imaginative vocabulary that turns words into symbols therefore lending them to art and specifically illustration. Such as an anvil or the sign for infinity. His symbols have accumulated meanings and nuance as he repeats and transforms them, making his imagery personal and idiosyncratic. Wiley is aware that some people don’t take his work seriously but is comforted by the fact that the whimsical nature of his work draws the viewers in causing them to question the meaning more. During his college years Wiley was quite influenced by Asian philosophies, causing him to rethink the formalism of art and add narrative, language and figurative imagery to his work. He is well known for a regular cast of alter egos in his performance work including the character “Mr. Unatural” who was a response to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural. Mr. Unatural is a tall, lanky figure who wears a long fake nose and a dunce cap, to both express and disguise his own awkwardness. Since the 1960s, he has drawn from sources as diverse as the I Ching, personal and universal symbols, and ancient Roman history. Wiley found inspiration in medieval art, such as alchemical texts with woodblock images, and 16th-century painters Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This inspiration drew on his desire to create work that seamlessly blended art in literature, not just from a narrative point of view but in a way that shows his love and great interest in the words themselves. Wiley’s work may seem obscure but it is his own way of communicating by opening his mind and showing it in it’s purest form, raw and unedited, so that we may make our own connections and find our own meanings.
His first solo exhibition was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Wiley had works appearing in the Venice Biennial and Whitney Biennial in the ’80’s and had major exhibitions at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco in 1996 and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 2005. In 2009, the Smithsonian presented a retrospective of Wiley’s career titled, “What’s it all mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect,” from October 2nd, 2009 to January 24th, 2010, containing 88 pieces of his work. A review in the Wall Street Journal stated: "Mr. Wiley's work is unlike any other in recent art... He is less a contemporary artist than a national treasure." In 2010, the retrospective moved the the Berkeley Art Museum, from March 17th to July 18th. Wiley also has works in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Hishhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as many others. He has also won a few awards including the Purchase Prize from the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968, Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2004 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Graphics Art Council in 2005.As well as received an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1980. William T. Wiley has been generally regarded as an artist whose unique perspective, use of imagination, and love of language and literature has helped shape the idea of contemporary art today.