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William T. Wiley, ‘Funk Artist’ Who Spurned Convention, Dies at 83

William T. Wiley, ‘Funk Artist’ Who Spurned Convention, Dies at 83

William T. Wiley, the influential artist and educator who helped found the funk art movement and establish the San Francisco Bay Area art scene as an unfiltered alternative to what he saw as the flagrant commercialism of New York, died on April 25 in a hospital in Greenbrae, Calif. He was 83.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son Ethan said.

The funk art movement took its name from “Funk,” a seminal exhibition organized by the curator Peter Selz in San Francisco in 1967. It included, among others, Mr. Wiley, the painter Joan Brown, the sculptor Robert Hudson and the ceramist Robert Arneson.

None, it seemed, could ever fully agree on what funk art was, only on what it was not. It wasn’t, for starters, redolent of New York in the heyday of Minimalism. It was figurative, accessible, often broadly political and made from materials you were less likely to find shelved in an art store than strewn on the floor of a junk shop.

Funk artists were distinguished by a desire to avoid commerce, a negative endeavor at which they largely succeeded in their early years. Many took teaching positions, and as California emerged in the 1960s as the country’s art school capital — a distinction it still holds — Mr. Wiley gained in stature. Based at the University of California, Davis, he shared his idiosyncratic wisdom, or “Wiz-dumb,” as he called it, a pun that resurfaces in his work. Sometimes strumming his guitar in class, he exhorted his students to remain open to everything, except for theory or ideology.

Among his graduate students was the future Conceptual master Bruce Nauman. “Wiley was a big attraction to a lot of other artists because his studio was always open,” Mr. Nauman said in a phone interview. “If people didn’t know what to do, they would just copy his work. If he was making question marks, then everyone would be making question marks. He used question marks in a lot of the drawings. Great big ones.”

It makes sense that Mr. Wiley was enamored of question marks, the form of punctuation that carries the most cosmic doubt. In interviews, he described himself as a self-styled Dadaist in the lineage of Marcel Duchamp. He also expressed a debt to Jasper Johns, who imbued American art with philosophical depth. But in the place of Duchamp’s cutting French wit and Mr. Johns’s perceptual riddles, Mr. Wiley’s humor was closer in spirit to the raucous and socially-pointed ribbing of R. Crumb, the comix pioneer whom he counted as an acquaintance.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, while Minimalism flourished on the West Coast and cubes and grids proliferated, signaling the triumph of formalist reduction, Mr. Wiley tacked in the opposite direction. Although he possessed great facility as a painter, sculptor and draftsman, he is best known for his small-scale watercolors. They have the intimacy of a diary and dissolve the line between the personal and the political. They might show figures in a landscape, especially a recurring character named Mr. Unnatural, a stand-in for the artist who wears a pointy dunce cap and a kimono and expresses anguish over nuclear spills and the despoliation of the natural world.

Most of all there were words, and more words, often inscribed in sentence form at the edges of his work to complement a drawing style that is itself rooted in vernacular forms: comics, road maps and children’s book illustration. His work anticipated the obsession with storytelling that would come to dominate contemporary art a generation later.

Even his titles were heretical. In contrast to, say, Sol LeWitt’s dryly titled “Wall Drawing #87,” Mr. Wiley courted puns galore — “The Good Old Daze,” “Victory Guardians,” “Andy’s Deck Aid” (in reference to Warhol’s decade) and “It’s Only a Pay Per Moon.”

Once, as he recalled in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, his heart sank when a sculpture of his called “Remains to be Seen” — the “remains” refer to branches, dangling tree roots, an aerosol spray can and a scrap of animal hide — was ruined by an art dealer who unthinkingly changed the title to “It Remains to be Seen.”

A tall, rangy man with a thick mustache, Mr. Wiley lived deep in the woods of Marin County and dressed in denim and cowboy boots. He liked to fish for wild salmon and then home-smoke it.

He named his first son Ethan after the character Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne in the 1956 Western “The Searchers.” His second child is named for Zane Grey, the once-popular cowboy novelist. In addition to his sons, he is survived by his second wife, Mary Hull Webster, an artist.

Mr. Wiley’s affection for Western lore and the myth of the lone rider was undercut by an opposing fascination with the meditative proclivities of the Far East. He was a devotee of Zen Buddhism, in which he was deeply read, and his friends wondered whether it explained his permanent air of detached mellowness.

William Thomas Wiley was born on Oct. 21, 1937, in Bedford, Ind., in the southern part of the state, to Sterling and Cleta (Abel) Wiley. His father was a road surveyor and his mother a homemaker and later a bank teller. He had a peripatetic childhood. Living out of a trailer, the family made extended stops in Texas and California before settling in Richland, Wash.

Mr. Wiley’s early efforts at art were admired by a high-school teacher in Richland who helped him win a full scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute (which was then the California School of Fine Arts). He earned both a bachelor’s degree and an M.F.A. there. “I loved it,” he once said. “Going to art school was like going to heaven in a way. Finally I was with people who felt like I did.”

Opting to extend his time in the academy, he began teaching at U.C. Davis in 1963. Although he taught for only a decade, he was often described as the most influential art teacher in the Bay Area in the 1960s, an avatar of experimentalism best-known for his “Slant Step,” a found object that became as celebrated on the West Coast as Duchamp’s ready-made snow shovel and bottle rack remain in the East.

Mr. Wiley first spotted the object at the Mount Carmel Salvage Shop in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco. It struck him as puzzling. Contrived from plywood and dark green linoleum, it vaguely resembled a tiny chair or a shoe-fitting stool. When he tried to buy it, his offer was rebuffed. “He asked about it a few times,” Mr. Nauman recalled. “And they said, ‘No, we need that.’ They thought they would use it for reaching high shelves.”

But after finally convincing the sellers that the object’s steeply angled top made it unusable as a footstool, Mr. Wiley got his wish. The price was reasonable enough: fifty cents.

It was a “beautiful, pathetic object,” Mr. Wiley said, and it spoke to the part of him that discerned the most value in objects of no value. He found in this humble castoff an evocation of all the useless, unwanted objects in the world, things that are neither art nor design but homeless anomalies. Its clunky outlines soon surfaced in his drawings and watercolors, in keeping with his penchant for recycling his symbols.

Mr. Wiley’s students and colleagues, in the meantime, regarded his discovery of the footstool as roughly tantamount to the discovery of Saturn. Their enthusiasm culminated in a now-historic group exhibition, “The Slant Step Show,” which was held in a cooperative gallery in San Francisco in 1966. It brought together 21 artists and at least as many sculptures, all created in tribute to the canonical thrift-shop find.

Mr. Nauman’s entry in the show, an 18-inch high plaster sculpture entitled “Mold for a Modernized Slant Step” (1966), is owned by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It lives on as both a radical art object and a sweet souvenir of a now-vanished scene informed by Mr. Wiley’s communitarian spirit.

That history will be revisited starting next Jan. 10, when an exhibition tracking the adventures of Wiley and Company opens at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at U.C. Davis.

“I think that Davis was so generative for so many artists,” said Dan Nadel, the museum’s curator-at-large. “In the ’60s, if you went to Davis, you could find your voice without theory or orthodoxy. There was no theory in Northern California.”

In New York, Mr. Wiley remains less feted. Although he was tapped for important group shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art as early as 1960 and represented by the estimable Allan Frumkin Gallery starting in 1967, he endured a critical drubbing in 1976, when the Museum of Modern Art included him in its series of modestly scaled “Projects” exhibitions.

It was his first and only one-man show in a Manhattan museum. Mr. Wiley designed it as a do-it-yourself art seminar, providing pencils and musical instruments and inviting visitors to draw on the walls, toss the I-Ching, sit on a blanket on the floor and play a guitar. Most everyone agreed that the show didn’t work, leaving the ground floor galleries looking more like a kindergarten classroom than a site of countercultural revolt.

In the end, Mr. Wiley never acquired the broad fame commanded by his best-known students, who insist it was all deliberate on his part. Mary Heilmann, who is known for her poetically spare abstract paintings, said this week: “I’m remembering William Wiley with a lot of emotion and love. He was determined to remain underground. He never made a phone call to advance his career.”

But he did make calls to help his students, including Ms. Heilmann, who recalled that he had gone out of his way to introduce her to Ray Johnson, the New York collagist, when she headed east in 1968.

Mr. Wiley himself harbored no desire to follow his students to New York, the much-vaunted art capital.

“Being in New York all the time, painting, without some other life form intermingling, wouldn’t seem real to me,” he said in the Smithsonian interview. “It just wouldn’t seem like life somehow.”

What was his idea of real life? “To go salmon fishing or deal with tree limbs.”


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