Fun and games come to American art - and high time
One of the outstanding heirs to this informal mini-tradition of good cheer is the subject of a remarkable one-man show at the Allan Frumkin Gallery here. It's an exhibition that is not only a delight in itself but that, in its masterful handling of the wryly humorous and the gently satiric, speaks well for the future of wit and lightness of touch in American art.
William T. Wiley is a Californian even though he was born in Indiana and went to high school in the state of Washington. His work reflects the iconoclastic and nonformalistic attitudes of several West Coast artists who entered the art world in San Francisco or Los Angeles during or slightly after the day of abstract expressionism. After warily or wholeheartedly participating in that then all-pervasive movement, they turned their backs on it as dramatically as did their pop art contemporaries on the East Coast.
There has probably never been a more single-minded and orthodox community in recent years than the Bay Area art world of the early 1950s. Art was defined as abstract expressionism - and that was that. To live in San Francisco at that time and to paint in another style was to be a nonperson as far as its art community was concerned.
Small wonder, then, that one of the first and most dramatic reactions to abstract expressionism should take place there, and that California should become and remain one of the fervent hotbeds of creative individualism in this country.
Wiley was very much a part of this West Coast scene since his art-school days in San Francisco in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was in the forefront of the attack upon the dogma of abstract expressionism. Unlike his peers Richard Diebenkorn and David Park, however, who went on the offensive with a blunt and bulky representational style, Wiley did so with a formal elegance, a rapier wit, and an iconoclastic attitude that seemed as much European as American.
This quality is with him still. It makes for pictorial excitement and for surprises - and this show is no exception.
It consists of several huge (largest is almost 13 feet wide) canvases whose entire surfaces are covered with very fine charcoal lines and a few small but carefully placed areas of bright color. In addition, there are smaller canvases in which the charcoal lines and the color areas are in more balanced competition with each other, a few constructions, some watercolors, and a number of drawings.The large canvases are the most impressive, not only for their intricate and extremely detailed imagery, but for the extraordinary manner in which their human, animal, landscape, and abstract elements are combined into highly complex and intriguing surface patterns. ''For A.D.'' projects echoes of both Jackson Pollock's ''overall'' paintings, and Pieter Breugel's 16th-century panoramic mountain landscapes. And ''Acid Rain'' - for my money the best piece in the show - could at first glance be taken for an abstraction.
In many ways, however, the watercolors steal the show. They are marvels of color, draftsmanship, and organization. They enchant as well as tantalize, for each tells a tale whose point is never clearly established. This is so even though Wiley frequently appends a few dozen words in explanation of, or as counterpoint to, the picture itself.
It all works remarkably well, however, for this approach enables Wiley to combine illustrational and cartoonist techniques, ''modern'' color patterning, thematic ambiguity, and verbal elucidations, with an incisive wit and a shrewdly directed creative attitude to create truly fascinating, provocative and often quasi-literary images.
''Memory Smudges'' is a beautiful watercolor with some of the loveliest tiny color daubs and washes seen since the days of Maurice Prendergast. ''Scam Quentin,'' a fanciful depiction of a prison cell, is a minor masterpiece evoking the best of Ensor, Redon, and Klee, and yet is unmistakingly from the hand and the sensibility of William T. Wiley.
There is a moral tone to Wiley's work that bubbles up when least expected. Not that it ever mounts a pulpit or undermines the otherwise madcap goings-on in these works, but it exerts its influence nevertheless. It does so discreetly and subtly, and as much through the words written above, underneath, or beside the images as through the images themselves.
This excellent show at the Allan Frumkin Gallery through Jan. 30 needs to be visited more than once.