William T. Wiley, founder of the Bay Area Funk Art movement and influential art teacher, has died aged 83
William T. Wiley, a beloved Bay Area artist and teacher and one of the founders of the Funk Art movement, which included Peter Saul, Robert Arneson, Ed Kienholz, Bruce Conner, Jim Nutt and others, died at the age of 83. Son Ethan Wiley confirmed The San Francisco Chronicle that Wiley died of complications from Parkinson’s disease, which the artist had lived with since 2014.
Wiley was born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1937. His father was a construction foreman who frequently moved the family across the country, and they eventually settled in Washington State. In 1960 Wiley graduated from the California School of Fine Arts (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and in 1962 he received his Masters of Fine Arts from the same institution. .
The following year, he was hired to join the first group of art teachers to teach at the University of California, Davis. There, his colleagues included Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri and Arneson. Although success as an artist came to him early – the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which held a solo exhibition of his work last year, first showed Wiley’s art in 1960 when he was 23 – he devoted himself wholeheartedly to teaching.
Wiley became a valuable fixture on the college campus, where he was known as a dedicated mentor to students. As a UC Davis graduate student, Bruce Nauman was among the young artists Wiley took under his wing, and the two became close friends who often pushed each other to explore the outer limits of their creative abilities. Wiley left UC Davis in the mid-1970s and was then considered one of the most influential art teachers in the country. He would remain a resident of Northern California for the rest of his life.
“He was a wonderful spirit and I watched his work from the start when he was an abstract expressionist painter,” said Thiebaud, who is now 100 years old. The Chronicle during a telephone interview. “We were at odds all the time and we still loved each other. He was a true gentleman and a lovely person.
While still a teacher, Wiley was a founding member of the Bay Area Funk Art movement, a collection of artists who moved away from abstract expressionism and minimalism to create works with a figurative orientation that often used crass and political humor alongside wild and surrealist tendencies. He remained active through the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1967 curator Peter Selz organized the defining exhibition Funk at the Berkeley Art Museum.
Although his earliest artistic recognition involved his sculptures, which often incorporated found objects and used Dadaist humor, Wiley became most widely celebrated for his watercolors and drawings. At a young age he saw how Jasper Johns used art as a vessel through which to explore America as concept and reality in works such as Target with four faces, who Wiley met when he appeared on the cover of a 1948 issue of ARTnews. Wiley’s paintings strove to achieve a somewhat similar impact, blending his notions of Americana with his sensitivity to funk art and his interests in Zen Buddhism. The artist has also incorporated performance and filmmaking into his work.
“Like his first influences Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp and [H.C.] Westermann, Wiley creates works rich in meaning and constructed by developing, recombining and cataloging, in all the media available to him, the elements of a visual vocabulary imbued with memory and emotion ”, curator Dan Nadel wrote in Art Forum in 2019. “This activity is based on her Zen embrace of mystery and chance, combined with both a devotion to craftsmanship and an affinity for found objects, and above all natural.”
“It’s hard to overstate the influence of William T. Wiley,” says gallery owner Sam Parker, whose Parker Gallery in Los Angeles co-represents Wiley with Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco. “His philosophy seemed to permeate his students, his fellow professors, really everyone with whom he was in contact. Both in art and in life, he offered provocative puzzles, puzzles that were both humorous and deeply meaningful. I will remember all that he does not have say, the pregnant silence that allows you to think.
The Hosfelt Gallery singled out the text and puns that often accompanied the works produced by the artist. “From strolls of conscience to sharp critiques, he has used humor, puns, sarcasm and double meanings to address the most important issues of our time,” he said in a statement.
Wiley has had a prolific career that has included exhibiting his works at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. and many other institutions across the country and abroad. An exhibition of his work at UC Davis is currently being curated by Nadel for the university’s Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Museum of Art.