Funk Art and the Pursuit of Authenticity

The first time you met William T. Wiley might have been in 1992. You told him you were planning an exclusive dinner in his honor, to celebrate the opening of an important exhibition of his art at the museum where you worked. Your real motive, likely, was to show him off to the backers of the museum, but you couched it as an opportunity to meet collectors and build his clientele. He said he’d rather go fishing.


So that’s what you did, on a yacht commandeered from a friend by the museum board chair. A party of trustees and donors entertained one another, cruising the Orange County coast, while Bill fished from the stern. Your retinas could not bear the light of him for long, that ecstatic grin beaming back into the glimmering sun.


Wiley died in a Marin County hospital in April, at 83. Obituaries yielded a lively impression of the man and the idiosyncrasies he revealed through his art. Skillful in all media, he was a masterful draftsman and watercolorist. Yet it was the stories he told—intricate, frantically embellished yarns spelled out in improbable visual contrivances, rebus puzzlers, groan-inducing verbal puns—that both made him famous and stymied critical acceptance.


September 27, 2021