1.13 / Review

A Personal Meditation on the occasion of “What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect”

By Renny Pritikin April 21, 2010

I am taking this opportunity to cogitate about why William T. Wiley has been so important to me since I first encountered his work as a grad student at San Francisco State thirty-five years ago. By the way, the exhibition-brochure essay by David Littlejohn at UC Berkeley Art Museum, provided free to visitors, is a masterpiece of the genre. I couldn’t improve upon it. There is also an extensive exhibition catalogue.

I was a student of Jock Reynolds, who had been Wiley’s student at UC Davis. Jock brought me up to Davis to participate in Out Our Way, a collaboration among all the art departments that was billed as “Dada Vaudeville.” Students and teachers developed short visual, musical or comedic performances presented in quick succession. Throughout the evening one of the through-lines was the wandering character of Mr. Unatural, who was Wiley’s adopted persona. Dressed in a black silk kimono—hairy black legs exposed—a dunce cap, Punchinello strap-on nose, and exaggeratedly tall Japanese sandals, he carried a signature black-and-white striped, long walking stick. Wiley staggered around the stage silently observing the goings-on, half bemused witness and half commentating Greek chorus. I was in awe of Wiley for several reasons. He had put together a costume for Mr. Unatural with a few deft strokes that remains unforgettable, and in fact became one of Wiley’s ongoing signature images. Each piece of the unlikely getup worked perfectly together; it was a machine of dumb parts that, like some kind of psychic motorcycle, when assembled could effortlessly purr along at 100 miles an hour. It showed me a new level of artistic mastery, an artist’s eye that could reinvent the found things of this world. In addition to the visual sophistication, Mr. Unatural also opened my eyes to the Davis aesthetic that Wiley was central to developing: anyone caught taking themselves or their art too seriously better watch out because they were going to catch a pie in the face real quick. Pomposity, self-importance, pretension or what Wiley and company referred to as “drama-turds” were not welcome. The soon-to-be-popularized notion of the trickster-coyote was already incorporated into Wiley’s persona. He was a great artist willing to make himself look foolish, to risk playing the fool, in order to make a deeper aesthetic point.

I want to return to my earlier mention of Wiley as teacher. Jock Reynolds was deeply influenced by Wiley, who embraced Jock as more than a student. He was willing to transcend that hierarchical relationship to treat his most promising students as peers, colleagues, friends. Jock in turn treated me that way and changed my life forever. I know of only one other artist teacher in the Bay Area with that kind of legendary generosity and vision of moving the field forward one relationship at a time: that person is Jim Melchert. Melchert’s name is often associated with some of his most accomplished students: the late Jim Pomeroy and the late Theresa Cha, for example. In the same way, Wiley’s decade long stint as a teacher at UC Davis is forever linked with his close relationship with Bruce Nauman, Davis’s most illustrious alum. What accounts for the ability of a teacher to break through the natural wariness, generational disjunction, and knee-jerk cynicism of the student?

I can only speculate that a combination of Wiley’s innate wit, his lack of self-regard, his outsider status (never a trend surfer, never a market darling), his political and social commitment, and openness to innovation were some of the traits that bred trust between him and Nauman. Nauman’s essentially performative early video works, with his body as deadpan sculptural element, might be seen as Mr. Unatural in private, without the costume.

Your Own Blush and Flood, 1982; watercolor on paper; 22 x 30 in. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. 

Sketch for the Tower of Babloid and the Monitor, 1998; charcoal, graphite, and acrylic; 69 1/2 x 55 1/4 in. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. 

I remember Reynolds lauding Wiley as having “the most unique, influential and imitated drawing style of his generation.” I took it on faith in 1975; after a lifetime of looking, I now can affirm the truth of that evaluation. For me, his instantly recognizable combinations of complex, rich, excessive pencil-on-canvas drawings, teased with text and consummated with rich swaths of color, are recognizable from across the room in any museum’s gallery in the world. His appropriations of sections of older painting—increasingly 19th-century works recreated and incorporated into his own—are moving elegies to our connectedness to the past without sentimentality. Given the importance of cut-up, mash-up and other forms of historical quotation in recent years, Wiley’s work is seldom acknowledged in this context for its early and innovative practice.

I do have a thought or two about the exhibition. There have been troubling rumors for the past several years that the planning for this important retrospective was not going smoothly back East. The Smithsonian staff had less  experience with selecting contemporary art than might have been expected, the grapevine said, and little moxie to get the best possible work loaned. The network to get the show seen widely, especially in New York, was not available according to other reports. The bad news is that with the arrival of the exhibition here, much of these fears are born out. Most disappointing, the show will not travel outside of DC and Berkeley.

The good news is that such a gathering of notable work by a contemporary master is inevitably a thrill, even if some favorites are AWOL. The rarely seen juvenilia and other early work afford a new view, like looking at a familiar bit of scenery from a freshly discovered hilltop angle. The early video of Wiley goofing around with his friend Robert Nelson, both fresh-faced and in their prime (late 20s or early 30s) forms a moving emotional bookend with the video at the end of the show, depicting Wiley now in his 70s and looking his age, if still with his mischievous twinkle in the eye. In his New York Times review of the show when it was at the Smithsonian, Ken Johnson argued that Wiley’s watercolors were the exhibition’s and Wiley’s great strength. It is true that those works are strongly represented, and that his watercolors are the equal of any other artist of Wiley’s era. While the mature paintings do have one or two relatively less successful pieces, such as Running Out of the Forest (1993), which to me is muddy, their highs transcend the watercolors because of their greater level of ambition. The exhibition does have some odd choices, including one of Wiley’s rare missteps, a Buddha in washtub that should not have left the studio, let alone be included in a retrospective. The show also lacks representation of more recent work; there are only a few from after 2000.

Can we imagine a retrospective of Alex Katz, or even Chuck Close, that only had two stops, neither of which were in New York? Or that didn’t include much work from the past ten years? I’m willing to debate someone that Wiley should be considered in that august company. This retrospective might not be the one Wiley deserves but it’s still tons of fun. As he might say, hairy on down, beef or you miss it.


"What's It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect" is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through July 18, 2010.

Comments ShowHide