William T. Wiley

(Bedford, Indiana, 1937 - )

Weigh of the Spirit and Flesh


Acrylic on canvas

84 x 111 in. (213.4 x 281.9 cm)

Collection of the Akron Art Museum

Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John A. McAlonan Trust Fund


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Wiley's paintings from the early seventies began as a reaction against the rationalism and seriousness of minimal and abstract art. Inspired instead by surrealist art and popular culture, the works incorporate verbal games, visual puns and whimsical elements and display an irreverent, funky aesthetic. 'Weigh of the Spirit and the Flesh' is a "map," creased like paper that has been folded for many years. If travel is a metaphor for life, where will this map lead you? To treasure or trouble? Will you follow the path of the flesh or the spirit?

William T. Wiley Weigh of the Spirit and Flesh, 1972 Collection of the Akron Art Museum William Wiley grew up in a nuclear-power boomtown in rural Washington State. He was profoundly influenced by his high school art teacher, Jim McGrath, whose interests included poetry and Native American culture. In 1956, Wiley went to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he encountered the lingering but powerful influence of Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still. Of the intense atmosphere of the art institute Wiley has said, “If you drew a line it had to be grounded to God’s tongue or the core of the earth to justify putting it there.”1 Wiley quickly developed a fluent Abstract Expressionist style distinctive enough to earn him a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1960. As a member of the art faculty at the University of California, Davis, from 1962 to 1973, Wiley encountered an unusually talented group of students, some of whom, he has said, were “better than me: Bruce Nauman . . . and Steve Kaltenbach . . . David Gilhooly and Robert Arneson (see pp. 214–15). . . . It all just bubbled.”2 In the 1960s Wiley’s own painting style shifted to a cooler approach indebted to Dada and Surrealism; the sly, interrogative tenor of this new style concealed a growing personal crisis of conscience. By 1968 Wiley found himself artistically immobilized and unable to work for months on end. The crisis ended with his realization—what he has described as “really an amoral thrill”—that “art is something I love doing. . . . It was surrender, you know? I said to myself ‘I can’t do it anymore, keep everything separate. I’ll just fall over dead.’”3 The resulting signature style embraced painting, drawing, sculpture, found objects, words, and symbols, often in the same work. He drew upon incidents of his everyday life as the springboard to explorations of more universal concerns. Using the idea of the artist as nomadic wanderer, he favored objects and imagery—notably maps, hides, and branches—recalling the West and Native American culture. At the same time he drew heavily on Zen philosophy, which he valued, among other things, for its ability to reconcile seeming opposites. The lowly pun became a favorite device, especially in his titles. While some older observers viewed his development with grave misgivings, Wiley’s knowing self-rustication influenced younger artists and placed him at the center of the so-called California Funk Art scene.4 Dominated by large jagged forms, Weigh of the Spirit and Flesh clearly reveals Wiley’s grounding in Abstract Expressionism. Closer inspection, however, reveals words and symbols that transform the painting into something like a morality tale. By highlighting the word “flesh,” Wiley gives specific meaning to the pink field of color. The void in the center is identified as the “Sea of Solutions . . . Where Miracles Fester.” But what kind of solution? The kind that solves problems or the one that dissolves substances? And how can a miracle fester? Scattered across the terrain are symbols. Some—the spiral, the tic-tac-toe mark, and the figure eight—commonly denote space and infinity. Others—pyramids and precious stones—suggest mystery and wealth. In one corner are two brawling figures whose actions generate similar symbols, here indicating profanity and injury. The words “Raw” and “cuss” (a pun on “raucous”) appear above and below the antagonists. Embedded in a painted border around the pink field are impossibly long figures wearing hats: cowboys? gangsters? Do they menace or protect? Everything is ambiguous, yet it seems that when weighed by Wiley the ways of the spirit and flesh are finely balanced indeed. - Graham W. J. Beal, 2001 1. Albright, 119. 2. John Perrault, interview with the artist, August 1979. Cited in Beal and Perrault, 9. 3. John Perrault, “Metaphysical Funk Monk,” ARTnews (May 1968): 52–53. 4. See Hilton Kramer’s review of “Dude Ranch Dada” in the New York Times, May 16, 1971. Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–1980, An Illustrated History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989. Beal, Graham W. J., and John Perrault. Wiley Territory. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1979.
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