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William T. Wiley
(Bedford, Indiana, 1937 – 2021, Kentfield, CA)
Estate contact: Ethan Wiley (

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Undoubtedly one of the most eccentric Bay Area artists of his generation, William T. Wiley’s laid-back attitude and flippant sense of humor reflected the shifting values of the art world in the 1950s and 1960s. Wiley’s rejection of abstract expressionism in favor of his own blend of enigmatic painting and funky assemblage embedded with humorous puns and mythical symbols led New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer to label his unique sensibility “Dude Ranch Dada.”1 Throughout his career as an artist and instructor at the University of California, Davis, Wiley has been guided by a keen intellect, sharp wit, and independent spirit, which continue to influence his artwork today.

Originally from Bedford, Indiana, Wiley’s family moved frequently around the United States before settling in Richland, Washington, where Wiley took high-school art classes from Jim McGrath in the early 1950s. McGrath instilled in Wiley (and his close friends, artists William Allan and Robert Hudson) a deep appreciation for nature, the environment, and the diverse cultures of the world. In 1956, Wiley enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where the influence of abstract expressionist Clyfford Still continued to dominate. Inspired by the paintings of René Magritte, however, Wiley began to incorporate symbols and phrases into his paintings and three-dimensional assemblages. According to art critic Thomas Albright, “Wiley was one of the pivotal figures in the transition between the funk art of the 1950s, with its lingering roots in Abstract Expressionism, and the more self-conscious Funk art that followed.”2

In the late 1980s, Wiley’s concern for nature and the environment became one of the dominant themes in his work. Gineric D.B.L (Part A) (1989) is densely packed with layers of Wiley’s distinctive markings, symbols, and texts. At the center of the monumental canvas is a large sphere representing “an abstract version of the earth,”3 which is filled with vibrant expanses of swirling colors resembling dynamic cloud formations and weather patterns. Surrounding the sphere, the canvas is partitioned into distinct areas that are packed with Wiley’s trademark inscriptions and drawings. On the left, beneath layers of doodling, a devil-like figure kneels before a simple building resembling a church, while a gargoyle spews water from above. Wiley overlaid two cryptic quotes in this section, “Threats for sure,” and “Say so long to the elephants,” leaving us to ponder the relationship between spirituality and the earth’s natural resources. Additional playful phrases are sprinkled throughout the work. “Aw! You’re not supposed to do that,” and “Awe right you guise … cool it,” are random exclamations made by the artist to an unnamed party. The title Gineric D.B.L. is equally mysterious, although it may refer to a three-dimensional, inflatable globe—the painting’s “generic double”—that once accompanied the work and has since been “eliminated” by the artist.3

The bustling energy of Gineric D.B.L. (Part A) results from Wiley’s obsessive scrawls and scribbles that saturate the raw areas of canvas. Inspired by ancient alchemist engravings, the stars, spirals, coils, and curves are jumbled together to create what art historian Christine Giles has called “a sense of chaos and the unknown.”5 But the agitation Wiley expresses does not necessarily articulate personal confusion. Rather, he believes that art is “a place to explore the mind, the world—what it means to be human-inhuman. What it means to be here, this far, and still not know.”6

Tucked away, in the lower right corner of the painting, Wiley draws a radiant sun between two gently sloping hills. Whether it is rising or setting is uncertain, but its presence gently suggests that the mysteries of time encourage the lifelong process of self-discovery, with ample opportunity for laughter along the way. —A.W.

1. Hilton Kramer, “Dude Ranch Dada,” The New York Times, 16 May 1972.
2. Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 119.
3. William T. Wiley, interview by Karen Kienzle, Into the 21st Century, exh. cat. (San Jose: San Jose Museum of Art, 1999), 45.
4. Ibid.
5. Christine Giles, “William T. Wiley,” Collaborations: William Allan, Robert Hudson, and William Wiley, exh. cat. (Palm Springs, Calif.: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1998), 79.
6. Wiley, quoted in What Is Art For? William T. Wiley & Mary Hull Webster & 100 Artists (Oakland, Calif.: Oakland Museum of California, 1999), [Q: need p.].

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Born in Bedford, Indiana in 1937, Wiley studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned his B.F.A. in 1961 and his M.F.A. the following year. Wiley has taught at several West Coast universities including the University of California, Davis and the San Francisco Art Institute. His work has been exhibited at institutions including the Walker Art Center, the Dallas Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Wiley’s work is the permanent collection of the following institutions: Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Walker Art Center, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His painting, Gineric D.B.L., is currently on display in SJMA’s lobby as a part of Collection Highlights. SJMA currently owns three works by Wiley. This would be the second painting to enter SJMA’s collection. (SJMA Collections Committee, 2003)  Died April 25, 2021, Kentfield, CA.

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