In the catalog essay for William T. Wiley’s 2005 print retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, co-organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, curator Eric Denker wrote, “There is an innate directness to Wiley’s work – he applies his inherent wit and creativity to basic materials to explore very humanistic themes. Wiley’s assured draftsmanship and quiet humor draw us into his world, where we pause to marvel at the metamorphosis of symbols and words and images.” Wiley’s work is inhabited by a democracy of images. Starting in 1960s, he drew from sources as diverse as the I Ching, personal and universal symbols, and ancient Roman history.
Wiley began making art when abstract expressionism ruled the art world; over the course of his career he rejected minimalism, conceptual art, and other trends. Instead, he made his way by developing a style all his own. His irreverent art can seem spontaneous and offhand, but Wiley was deeply committed to the overall meaning of each work. Robert Johnson, curator of Wiley’s 1996 show “Nothing Lost from the Original: William Wiley Looks at Art History” at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, wrote, “When you first see the works, you are struck by the artistry, the sheer beauty. Then, when you read them more, you start to realize that there’s a kind of deadly seriousness about the whole thing.” Because of his work’s thoughtfulness, and its distinctive balance of the personal and the political, eminent artists, including Bruce Nauman, his student at the University of California at Davis from 1962 to 1973, count him among their major influences.
Wiley’s work spanned painting, sculpture, watercolor, set design, and filmmaking. He made his first prints in 1972 at Landfall Press in Chicago, where in 1989 he was the subject of a solo exhibition, “William T. Wiley: A Decade of Prints”. A committed printmaker, he worked at Crown Point Press regularly starting in 1978. He participated in the group exhibition “Committed to Print” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988.
Wiley was born in Bedford, Indiana, in 1937. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received his BFA in 1961 and MFA in 1962. His first solo exhibition was held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1960. His work is held by many collections, including those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Stedelijk van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. He received a Purchase Prize from the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Graphics Art Council in 2005. In 2009, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. presented “What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect”; the exhibition traveled to the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley in 2010. William T. Wiley passed away in April, 2021.
-Rachel Lyon, Crown Point Press
William T. Wiley at Crown Point Press, 2006 (2 minutes)
Artist William T. Wiley discusses working at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, 2006.