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What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect

March 17, 2010 - July 18, 2010

William T. Wiley: Sketch for the Tower of Babloid & the Monitor, 1998; charcoal, graphite, and acrylic; 69 1/2 x 55 1/4 in.; The John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation.

What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect presents a fifty-year survey of the work of one of the most singular artists of our time, a well-known and beloved Bay Area figure who is also a “national treasure,” in the words of Sidney Lawrence of the Wall Street Journal. Spanning the full scope of Wiley’s enormously vital career, the exhibition includes more than eighty paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculptures, installations, prints, book collaborations, films and videos, and even a Wiley-designed, functioning pinball machine. What’s It All Mean offers a freewheeling ride through the nooks and crannies of Wiley’s witty, idiosyncratic, and sharply critical imagination, while holding up a telling mirror to American social and political life over the past half century.

From abstract roots, Wiley developed an eccentric and introspective imagery, rich with self-deprecating humor and a sense of the absurd. His figurative and text-based works—infused with references to popular culture, art history, and literature—meander through a variety of personal ruminations as well as active commentaries on current affairs, as if performing in imagined interstices between Pieter Bruegel, Lao Tzu, Marcel Duchamp, and talk radio. Wiley masterfully weaves layers of meanings, symbols, and allusions into fluid and vibrant voyages of color, line, and form.

Wiley was born in Indiana in 1937 and raised in Richland, Washington, a small community in the southeastern region of the state, where as a teenager he came under the influence of a free-spirited young art teacher, Jim McGrath. It was McGrath who encouraged Wiley, and fellow Richland students Bob Hudson and William Allan, to attend the San Francisco Art Institute (then the California School of Fine Arts). Wiley received his M.F.A. from SFAI in 1962 and almost immediately began a long-running teaching position at UC Davis. He quickly became a popular and highly influential mentor—Bruce Nauman, Deborah Butterfield, John Buck, and Jock Reynolds were among his students—and collaborator with his colleagues and students alike.

Wiley’s work was exhibited in group shows in San Francisco and New York even during his student years. In 1967 Peter Selz, founding director of BAM/PFA (then the University Art Museum), included Wiley in the notorious exhibition Funk Art; Wiley, along with Nauman, Robert Arneson, and Roy DeForest, formed the nucleus of the Bay Area Funk movement. Wiley and Robert Hudson presented a “happening” for the opening of the new UAM in 1970, and in 1971 Brenda Richardson curated Wiley’s first major museum exhibition, Wizdumb, which traveled from Berkeley to several museums across the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Wiley’s category-defying work has followed an unusual arc, a bit like one of his favored compositional metaphors—a voyage to unknown places and unexpected or unclear endpoints. In the late 1960s, trying to pull himself out of a creative block, Wiley began making small, intense watercolors, many incorporating short, witty texts. Indeed, this became a breakthrough for Wiley, a nontraditional approach to a traditional material that opened up pathways through which he would find an abiding independence and artistic freedom. From this base, and continuing to incorporate a variety of media in two, three, and four dimensions, Wiley developed a language of characters, references, and gestures that move back and forth between painting and drawing, word and image, figuration and abstraction, often within a single work. Hide as a State of Mind (1971) is an exquisitely rendered and cartoon-spirited map/landscape/puzzle that constantly slides back and forth between such poles, a slipperiness that seems a destination in and of itself. Off in a corner, a cartoon figure heralds a statement, “GOD ONLY KNOWS WHAT WE WERE EXP__ING.” Expecting? Exploring? The question is ours to contemplate.

Social and political issues, particularly war and environmental concerns, have played central roles in much of Wiley’s work. Since the 1980s he has often coupled these topics with art historical and literary references, as in Sketch for the Tower of Babloid & the Monitor (1998), referring to a work by the sixteenth-century Netherlandish painter and printmaker Pieter Bruegel, known for his landscapes, scenes of village life, and images of social critique. In Rocks Keeping Our Secrets—With Abstract Colors (1999) Wiley refers to an ancient story of war and human loss described by Nobel Prize–winning Bulgarian author Elias Canetti in his book The Human Province. According to a Celtic tradition, before going off to war, men would throw a single, identifiable rock onto a common pile. Upon their return, each would retrieve his stone. Wiley’s rock-strewn field poignantly tells of both those who returned and those who did not.

What’s It All Mean was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it premiered in October 2009. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog by exhibition curator Joann Moser, with essays by critic John Yau and film and media curator John Hanhardt. The show includes loans from museums such as the Yale University Art Gallery, Norton Museum of Art, Des Moines Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and numerous public and private collections in the Bay Area. Wiley is represented by several works in the BAM/PFA collection.

Lucinda Barnes
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections

The presentation of What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect at the Berkeley Art Museum is made possible in part by Nancy and Timothy Howes, Nancy and Joachim Bechtle, Phyllis Friedman, Charles Cowles, Gretchen and John Berggruen, Roselyne C. Swig, and the continued support of the BAM/PFA Trustees.

The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support was provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation, Gretchen and John Berggruen, Charles Cowles, the Cowles Charitable Trust, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Electric Works, Sakurako and William Fisher, the Lipman Family Foundation, James and Marsha Mateyka, Arnold and Oriana McKinnon, Rita J. Pynoos, Betty and Jack Schafer, Laura and Joe Sweeney, Roselyne C. Swig, and the Tides Foundation: Art 4 Moore Fund. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go.