New York

William T. Wiley

It’s no wonder that William T. Wiley strikes fear in the hearts of veteran New York art pundits. I doubt if I’ve ever seen a more perverse display of self-consciously bad-art-for-bad-art’s-sake than Wiley’s “Projects” show at the Modern. Oh, how they try and understand him! “Dude Ranch Dada” and deliberate put-on of New York art, meant to 1) categorize him with familiar (European) terms and 2) place him in some kind of relation to New York art; even if he’s anti-Big Apple, it still means he’s concerned with the capital of the art universe—no one gets to ignore it.

The perversity of the institutionalized prostitution of famemaking (showing at the prestigious Madame Modern) certainly created the right atmosphere for the presentation of Wiley’s worst sculptures (a plywood heart and a guitar on cloth with stones) and nonpainting. Of course, it is no coincidence that Wiley’s big black walls were done while Richard Serra’s big black “drawing” was stapled/hung in the “we made it to the modernist tradition” drawing show across the hallway. One parody by someone who refuses to play serious with the powerful and one West-Coast sell-out to the New York star-machine. With the black walls, Wiley also created an anarchistic counterpoint to what I call the “white room” at the Modern: the one which keeps abreast of the times with a white Olitski, a white Ryman, a white Arakawa, a white Martin, etc. But he also left the hallway almost completely untouched—although he did condescend to draw a three-line rendition of a chicken in crayon. Eventually the black and the blank and the chicken were leveled out by graffiti that sprouted up day by day, producing yet another real-life mockery, this time of Twombly, refreshingly without any art pretensions. By my third visit, the plywood heart (with samurai pledge) was unreadable. The poems Wiley had left at the foot of the heart were gone. The “project” turned out to be a recounting of how many people felt the need to leave their mark (soon to be whitewashed, however).

Wiley can really paint when he wants to (I think he’s up there with Stella and Johns and Ryman and Billy Al Bengston) so it’s a shame that he indulged in this burlesque. I was fortunate enough to see a large show of his in San Francisco late last year. It is not necessary to kid New York in San Francisco, and Wiley concentrates on his craft and digs into some personal obsessions (infinity, the East, Mr. Unnatural and nature and rain and trees and cabins, Mexican princes and skeletons, and those marvelous allover charcoal paintings that resolve and dissolve into landscapes—one weak one was at MOMA). He frequently indulges in facile draftsmanship or overdoes the puns to placate those Marin County alfalfa sprout collectors (who are certainly as obnoxious as their New York counterparts), but when he lets the visuals speak for themselves, he’s eloquent. There were some watercolors in the San Francisco show that were deliberately overworked, showing the technical finesse of a first-grader, flaunting the classical conventions of the medium, but they were pastoral, tender, compact, complex and really beautiful. Is it enough to assume that Wiley would be misunderstood in New York if he presented his serious work, or would it be nice to try just once, without all the idiot-syncratic clowning around?

Jeff Perrone