Multi-faceted artist and educator, William T. Wiley, an integral part of the Bay Area art scene, dies at 83

Artist William Wiley was interviewed in 1996 at his Woodacre studio in Marin County. Photo: Jerry Telfer, The Chronicle 1996

William T. Wiley – a founder of the Bay Area Funk art movement who developed in all mediums and styles of creation, from watercolor to printmaking to giant sculptures in a career that spanned from 1960 to he just a few months ago – passed away on Sunday April 25. at Marin general hospital.

His death was due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, which he had suffered since 2014, said his son, Ethan Wiley. He was 83 years old.

A painter with a unique style developed from an early age, Wiley exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1960 when he was 23 and was still a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Since then, SFMOMA has become the owner of 50 of its pieces, eight of which – in mediums ranging from ink on felt and leather to engraving on paper – exhibited in a designated gallery since the museum reopened in March.

“Tools and Trade”, 1978 by William T. Wiley exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: SFMOMA

A full one-man show has long been slated to debut next January at the UC Davis Campus Museum, where Wiley was hired straight out of art school in 1963. He joined the faculty of first generation art from UC Davis, where he taught alongside Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson and Manuel Neri.

“He was a wonderful spirit and I watched his work from the start when he was an abstract expressionist painter,” Thiebaud, now 100, told The Chronicle by phone from his home in Sacramento. “We disagreed all the time and we still loved each other. He was a true gentleman and a lovely person. The last time I saw him he gave me a nice kiss.

“No Bell Prys for Peace with Predator Drone”, 2010, acrylic and charcoal on canvas by William T. Wiley. Photo: courtesy of the Hosfelt Gallery

For most of his career, Wiley lived in the San Geronimo Valley of West Marin, with his first wife Dorothy and sons Ethan and Zane. Everyone he came in contact with, including his wife and students, simply called him “Wiley,” to differentiate him from a plethora of contemporaries named Bill or Bob. Dorothy Wiley even made a 1971 documentary film on it called “Five Artists: BillBobBillBillBob,” starring Bill Wiley, Bob Nelson, Bill Allan, Bill Geiss and Bob Hudson.

Wiley left UC Davis faculty in 1973 after 11 years, but during his time on the staff he was considered “the most influential artist for students of American art schools,” according to an essay of museum catalog compiled by Paul Karlstrom, West Coast Regional Director for the Archives of American Art.

Wiley was “charismatic and energetic and tall and beautiful and kind,” said Todd Hosfelt of Hosfelt Gallery. Photo: Jerry Telfer, The Chronicle

“Wiley was charismatic and energetic and tall and beautiful and kind,” said Todd Hosfelt of Hosfelt Gallery, Wiley’s longtime dealer. “He was also an environmental and social activist. Everything people care about now, Wiley has been talking about for decades and putting on his artwork. “

One of the reasons art students loved Wiley was that he knew absolutely no bounds. It was clear from the start. His debut at SFMOMA has been described by News-Call Bulletin art writer AJ Bloomfield as “having all the subtlety of 10 sticks of dynamite.” There are drops, splashes and impulsive brushstrokes all over the place. Anarchy seems to be the rule.

This was a rule he followed and it resulted in three solo shows at SFMOMA, as well as solo shows and career retrospectives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Fondazione Marconi in Milan; Frankfurter Kunstverein in Germany: the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; and pretty much every museum in California.

“William Wiley brought to every job he did an inimitable combination of eccentricity and scholarship, humor and mischief,” said Sarah Roberts, head of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA.

She described the selection that will be on display in the fifth floor galleries throughout the summer as “visual puzzles and word games that spark – and often make people laugh.”

“On the left… Us?” Try a new sign for the palate. On the Right, Gold Man Sacks the World ”, 2010 watercolor and ink on paper by William T. Wiley. Photo: courtesy of the Hosfelt Gallery

William Thomas Wiley was born October 21, 1937 in Bedford, Indiana. Her father, Sterling Wiley, was a construction foreman who moved the family. One of his stops was a gas station with an attached restaurant on an isolated highway in Texas. During breakfast at the restaurant, Elder Wiley bought the place and put his family to work to run it. (Young William’s first works of art were comics, cartoons, and drawings of horses displayed on the walls of the restaurant, his son Ethan said.)

After a few years, the family moved to California and then to Richland, Washington, where they lived in a trailer. Wiley finally came to San Francisco in the mid-1950s to enter SFAI, then called the California School of Fine Arts.

During a summer break in Richland, he met and married Dorothy Dowis in 1959. They divorced in 1999.

In 2005, he married digital artist Mary Hull Webster. They settled in Woodacre before moving to Novato six years ago when Wiley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Gallerist Hosfelt said one could never describe Wiley as just a type of artist. Wiley was cunning and fearlessly worked in film, performance, installation, sculpture, even watercolor when it was considered old-fashioned and old-fashioned.

“For Leaner Times,” 2012, watercolor and ink on paper by William T. Wiley. Photo: courtesy of the Hosfelt Gallery
“Agent Orange”, 1983 by William T. Wiley. Photo: courtesy of the Hosfelt Gallery

He played the harmonica and sang and used some of his sculptures as percussion instruments. He even introduced himself as Mr. Unatural in a series of theatrical performances he performed while wearing a donkey cap to accentuate his character. He also made self-portraits of himself in the donkey cap.

“He never fell into any of the New York categories,” Hosfelt said. “New Yorkers thought his work was ridiculous or light-hearted because he used humor.”

But beneath this quirky art, there were always serious issues ranging from the environment to war crimes and torture.

San Francisco collector Roselyne “Cissie” Swig keeps a 4-string guitar Wiley made and painted at her home in Presidio Heights, where she also exhibits her paintings and drawings on the walls. Reached by phone, Swig said she would start to cry at the mention of Wiley’s name.

“He had such a special way of expressing himself,” she said. “He was endearing and embraced his talent.”

He also embraced the talent of other artists. In 1999, he was offered a solo exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. But instead of doing it solo, he turned it into an omnibus exhibit called “What Is Art For ?: William T. Wiley and Mary Hull Webster and 100 Artists.” The large museum hall was filled with all forms of art, from painting and photography to an antique bicycle and a giant steel wagon filled with cardboard gourd shapes.

“People who ordinarily find the new art disorienting might suffer from giddiness in such a chaotic carnival of images as this,” wrote then-art critic Ken Baker in his review of The exposure. “Other visitors may feel liberated, newly empowered to bypass what doesn’t interest them and savor whatever interests them.”

“The Gong”, 1986 by William T. Wiley at the Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis. Photo: Cleber Bonato, Galerie Hosfelt

Since opening in 2016, the Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis has always exhibited at least one work by Wiley. At its entrance is a giant gong with a mallet for hitting by all who visit. It’s the classic Wiley.

The Davis collection also includes a 1970s abstract painting titled “Working out the Wrinkles,” a landscape watercolor titled “Rim Rat’s Cabin” and “The Slant Step,” an object found in the form of a child’s chair.

“Bill was a guy who started developing a language of symbols in the early 1960s and he used that language to work on how to live in the world, find beauty and embrace mystery,” said Dan Nadel, general curator at Manetti Shrem.

The next show, titled “William T. Wiley and the Slant: Everything on the Line”, is the first to take a close look at the development of his art in the 1960s. Thirty pieces will be presented. While keeping it, Nadel regularly visited Wiley’s studio in Novato.

“He was enthusiastic and we worked together to select works of art that he said consistently lived up to his standards,” said Nadel.

“Spooky on the Line”, 1987 acrylic and graphite on canvas by William T. Wiley. Photo: courtesy of the Hosfelt Gallery

Wiley was predeceased by his younger brother, Charles, who became a special effects artist at Industrial Light and Magic. Survivors include his wife, Mary Hull Webster of Novato, ex-wife Dorothy Wiley of Forest Knolls, sons Ethan Wiley of Forest Knolls and Zane Wiley of San Rafael, and four grandchildren.

A memorial is planned for the summer.

Donations on Wiley’s behalf can be made to the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut St., San Francisco, CA, 94133.

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