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William S. Wilson: good-bye my dear friend

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In 2009 Bill made another trip to London. The exhibition "Ray Johnson. Please Add to & Return" was to be the inaugural show at Alex Sainsbury's gallery, Raven Row, in East London and it would mostly consist of Bill's large collection of works by Johnson and selections from the collection held by the Feigen Gallery which controlled the Estate of Ray Johnson. It opened February 28, 2009. (See here.) Photos of the show and the gallery are here.

As usual, after expressing our joy at seeing each other, we got into the usual silly arguments. At one point we had an argument at Liverpool Station over whether we should sit down or stand up. Our voices became raised and passerbys were looking at me like, "how can you be so horrible to this harmless elderly man." But I think that was part of the problem. I felt that he was treating me like a skivvy and he felt like I was treating him like an old man. Needless to say, the argument came and went and we were friends once again.

At the opening of the exhibition he was absolutely hilarious. A number of people had come from the Feigen Gallery in New York - dressed to the nines - and there was Bill who had allowed himself the luxury of a new pair of Levis except that with his hands being as shaky as they were, he couldn't do up the buttons on fly. I offered to help but he refused with horror. I suggested Alex. He gave me a dirty look. I think his son Andrew arrived at the show and helped him. I kept on introducing Andrew to people as his brother rather than his son.

Bill sat near the inside entrance of the gallery and spent much of his time gleefully insulting some of the people who he knew from New York. He had the same knack for ridicule that he had when he had made fun of David Bourdon's lump in 1964. It was just a bit of mischievous fun, really - everybody else was socializing or looking at the art. I don't think he did any harm.

As insulting as he could be to some people, he could be completely charming to others. A lot of local artists had helped to hang the show and to paint the gallery and Bill showed his thanks by taking all of them out to dinner. The conversation never lagged. He really could work a room when he wanted to. I will always remember that wonderful dinner and his humorous conversation. And how much the artists liked him.

He always said he hated gossip but that didn't stop him from doing it - or asking for it. In July 28, 2008, he wrote, "Opposed to gossip as I am, do you have any more for me?  The more you feed my appetite, the larger it grows..." I would always let him know when I had heard that an artist from the past had died. In fact when I first learned of his death, I found myself thinking several times that "I must tell Bill that Bill has died" and then I'd remember that I couldn't because Bill was dead.

His humour was outmatched by his knowledge. He seemed to know something about everything. When I was doing my Abstract Expressionism chronology he was able to flesh out many of the historical characters who he had known personally - in some cases very personally. He had, after all, lived through an amazing period of American history - From World War II to the rise of Abstract Expressionism to the revolution of Pop, followed by a digital technological revolution that has changed the world considerably. By the time he got round to hosting parties in his New York home, the place was packed.

He was grateful for having lived such a long time. On one of his many birthdays he had been sent an "Andy Warhol Dead at 58" postcard which he then sent to me with his own message.

Front of the postcard received by Bill on his birthday...

which Bill sent to me with the above message

I tried to keep a diary of our time together and of what he had told me, but it backfired during his first visit to London. He had asked to use my computer to check his emails and of course I said yes. He went straight to the computer's search box and found a file marked "Bill Wilson" and inside some notes that I had made, including that he had told me his wife had left him for Gene Swenson. "A-ha!!" he exclaimed. I explained about the diary but he looked at me suspiciously and then left gasping for air. He hated my flat. I was a smoker back then and although I didn't smoke indoors while he was here, the smoke hung in the air like dust. He would grab his throat and complain "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" and head for the door.

Because of my research into Warhol, Swenson was a person who interested me. About a year or so ago I mentioned that I was going to use a quote from Jill Johnston's biography that mentioned him (Bill) and Swenson and Bill's wife, Ann Wilson, and sent him the quote. It was a long quote - Johnston went on and on - but the bit that dealt with Bill was the following:

Jill Johnston:

... Around that time I became acquainted with two people [Gene Swenson and Ann Wilson] who bridged the worlds of art and politics and who would mean a great deal to me in the months to come. One of them had organized the demonstration outside MOMA the night of the Dada-surrealist opening; the other lived down the street from me, at the big, sprawling intersection of Canal Street and the Bowery where the Manhattan Bridge lies.

Both had also been to Bellevue. Of the two, Ann Wilson, who lived down the street, had not gone crazy exactly but had tried to commit suicide by consuming quantities of pills. That was in late August '65, her stay at Bellevue preceding mine by several weeks...

Ann had come to New York about 1954 from Pittsburgh, where she had studied art at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon), a class behind Andy Warhol. She said she had gotten off the Greyhound bus in Manhattan with a bunch of framed paintings and was met by Ray Johnson, who took her directly to America's leading gallery, the Janis... Within two years she was living in a loft building on Coenties Slip also occupied by Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly. Nearby were Leonore Tawney, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, John Chamberlain, Jasper Johns, and Rauscenberg.

Ann left the Slip in 1960 to marry Bill Wilson, college professor, critic, writer, and son of a well-known art-world character called May Wilson. By the time I met Ann she was quite a well-known art-world character herself. With Bill she had twin daughters and a son, losing her standing with the artists by becoming a mother. She then lost her standing as a mother by falling in love with Gene Swenson ("a romantic escape," she has described it, "from the harshness and domestic responsibility of marriage") and running away from home. With Gene her standing was precarious because Gene was mostly homosexual...

The quote continued but Bill had had enough. His response was "if I read more of this quotation from Jill, going beyond the erroneous date, 1965 for 1966, I wouldn't have the composure to write the letter I am writing to you for you about Andy: a portrait of the young artist as a young blot...   I need to compose myself in order to be composed enough to compose..." (Email December 8, 2014)

What strikes me about the Johnston quote is her reference to Swenson as "mostly homosexual." I think that applied to a lot of people in the arts back then - Swenson, Johnson, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Henry Geldzahler, Frank O'Hara, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and, of course, Bill himself. Despite having a wife and family Bill would later identify himself as being gay. It's why he could understand the gay imagery of Ray Johnson's work and probably one of the reasons why we got on so well together. Gay gossip is different than straight gossip.

In her quote, Jill Johnston makes reference to Coenties Slip. Years earlier, Bill gave a first hand account of Coenties Slip in an email dated September 6, 2005:

Bill Wilson (September 6, 2005)

Robert (Clark) Indiana lived at 2-5 Coenties Slip (I have the numbers he painted above the door), while Rolf Nelson lived at 3-5 Coenties Slip, in the same loft with my fiancée, whom I didn't marry, and with Anne Ubinger, whom I married. 

In the same building, 3-5, lived Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, and Jack Youngerman, for a period with his wife, Delphine Seyrig, whom sadly I never met (once at a film I wept at her beauty: Last Year at Marienbad.  I fear that the film has become ridiculous--the last time I saw it, the audience laughed politicized and editorializing laughs, commenting on the absurdities of the seriousness, and the depictions of women).

As you can imagine from those names, that was an intense building, with ferments and effervescences.  However, don't trust everything you read about Coenties Slip: I have seen misdated works of art, and the usual self-serving misinformation. 

Across the Slip lived an aspiring painter, Bob Mitchell, who now lives nearby on 20th Street with his delightful partner of many years.  In an odd link, Bob Mitchell was college roommate of a friend in Pittsburgh, aspiring painter Charlie Jackson, a friend to Anne Marie Ubinger (Wilson), and only in modern times revealed to me to be gay. 

I suppose that a person's life occurs within Four Hundred, that is, a set of 400 hundred people who share sympathetic sensibilities, and whose lives therefore overlap and dovetail, as they have ways of finding each other.  One subterranean theme of that era is the homosexual substratum: people who would not have met socially met in bars and baths, so that we have an official "Who knew who?" and an underground "Who had sex with whom?"  The sexual network did not coincide with any other networks, just as the sexual hierarchies--who is cute? who is beautiful?--did not correlate with art-world hierarchies...

Many horses were at the starting-gate, and the race was only about to begin when I became intimate with Coenties Slip, where Agnes Martin blew up a telephone booth to get the money, she was so desperate.  Robert Indiana did some sexual work for money.  I don't quite know how to delineate Andy's splendid isolation---next to some other Pop Artists, but never with them on the same plane socially.

What Bill taught me about Warhol was that he was an artist - as much an artist as Johns, Rauschenberg or Pablo Picasso. He thought like an artist and made decisions as to what he would paint and how he would paint it from the perspective of an artist. Warhol is too often written about as a media personality or someone who chose subjects to make money. But few people bought his Soup Cans when he first painted them. His Death and Disaster series was a disaster as far as sales went. Apart from the excellent catalogue raisonné, there is very little out there about his artistic methods and decisions. Silkscreening was just one of the techniques he used.

Bill knew Warhol during the '60s and '70s and of course Ray Johnson had contact with him as well. In 2003 Bill recounted what Ray had told him of the incident when Dorothy Podber shot Andy Warhol's Marilyns:

Bill Wilson (Email November 27, 2003):

Billy Name, in the film by John Walter [How to Draw A Bunny], points blurrily toward a demonic vaudeville act, Dorothy Podber and Ray Johnson.  Billy doesn’t mention that Ray was with Dorothy when she shot the Marilyn Monroe paintings, and Ray didn’t mention to me that Billy was present.  His presence was probably taken for granted when Billy was in his mode of sorcerer’s apprentice, selflessly giving but not taking.  Three times Ray acted out the scene in which he was astonished by Dorothy, thus at least suggesting that he did not know her plans.  As he described the event, Dorothy is sitting in a chair, facing forward with a purse in her lap.  She opens her purse, and in Ray’s reenactment, glances and then gazes to her left, until, without turning her whole body, she aims a shot at the painting on top of a group leaning against the wall.  Dorothy then returns the pistol to her purse (remember that the name Dorothy suggests a gift from a god, like Isidore/Isadore, gift of Isis.  Dorothy is a ready-made name with themes comparable to the self-namings of Ondine, Viva and others).  Shooting the paintings was not Ray’s idea, because he didn’t plan events that way, yet he might plan to use whichever random “props” happened to be available whenever he happened to set in motion.  He was in a sense using Dorothy as a prop or an accessory in one of his events when he took her to meet Andy.   Ray lived for enlivening spontaneities, improvisations and unrehearsed specific moments, and Dorothy was to him as Gracie Allen was to George Burns.  According to Ray, after Dorothy stepped out into the hall, Andy said to Ray, “Please don’t bring that woman here again.”  

In the same email he also told me about Valerie Solanas and how Solanas had stored her gun under the bed of his mother May Wilson who lived next door to the Chelsea Hotel where Valerie lived. (For the correct spelling of Valerie's last name, see Valerie Solanas.)

Bill Wilson (November 27, 2003):

On June 3rd, 1968, Valerie Solanis [sic] walked from the Chelsea Hotel toward 208 West 23rd Street, where May Wilson lived in a studio-apartment. May Wilson was then a sixty-three year-old mother and grandmother. Valerie had asked if she could keep her laundry under her bed, but May Wilson was not fooled, and would occasionally pull out the laundry-bag and press the fabric to outline the gun. The joke was fairly public: Valerie kept her pistol wrapped in a laundry-bag under May Wilson’s bed. Since my small children sometimes played in that apartment, I fault myself for a lack of prudence, since as Chekov suggested, if a gun appears as a prop in a play, it is going to be shot so that it becomes part of the action. The date was the 2nd anniversary of May Wilson’s arrival in New York after the break-up of her marriage. On her coffee-table lay a copy of Art and Artists openable to her son’s essay about Andy Warhol, published by Mario Amaya, fee $25.00. The later events I know only by hear-say: Mario was visiting Andy that day, and, pressing back against the door, took a few bullets. These misadventures with guns were far from Ray’s stylizations of events, though he had long been fascinated by 19th century muff pistols, small pistols a woman could conceal in her fur muff. Because of Valerie shooting her gun, & Ray being acted upon in a “mugging” when he went out to buy a late-edition newspaper, the assassination of Robert Kennedy added terror to the dangers. Therefore Ray moved toward the safety of Richard Lippold and his family on Long Island. Our worlds turned. Bill

In 2011 I received a disturbing email from Bill's long-time assistant, Michael, who devoted so much of his life to helping Bill in so many ways. Michael told me that Bill was in the hospital with cancer of the colon. Bill managed to survive that operation which is why I thought he would survive his most recent hospital stay.

Bill had had a difficult year prior to becoming ill again. In late November 2014 he sent me an email about a woman who was stalking him. At first it seemed like a joke but she became more and more invasive of his space and threatening. She attacked him at art receptions and threatened to commit suicide if he did not see her. She showed up at his home. This went on for about a year and it was the first time that Bill sounded weak and afraid. He described himself as "an 82 year old cripple" in one of his emails. On November 18, 2015, he wrote that the stalker "was back, terrorizing me, wrecking my attention, with the meretricious destructive "interest" that a psycho-path can have..." To that woman (and you know who you are) I say that you are sick. Get some help. Bill was a strong person, but you played on his weaknesses. You should be utterly ashamed of yourself.

On December 20, 2015 I received an email from Bill saying "I've been discovering facts about my wife, & that a Ray Johnson "Love-Book" was made because he had learned something..." At the end of the email there was a sentence unrelated to anything else in the email: "Wed. we schedule surgery. You have endured so much, so I'll think of your ordeals while I face the music and dance: Bill"

He hadn't mentioned the surgery before. I wrote back, "What kind of surgery are you having, what hospital will you be at and how long are you expected to stay in hospital?"

He didn't answer. On the 22nd I asked him again:


Did you mean you schedule surgery on wed. or that on wed. you are going to schedule surgery for a date in the future? Am still curious as to what kind of surgery you are talking about. Hope that it goes well, whatever it is, but what is it?



He replied the same day:

Gary: on Wed. the 23rd I meet with Dr Pacholka who about 6 years ago performed surgery on my cancerous large colon. I now have had the tests -- C-T scan; barium enema -- which should clarify the results of a colonoscopy a few weeks ago. The cancer has been seen as a recurrence, now recent tests can guide the surgery which is to be scheduled. I am horrified, but have been through this operation before, so I can hope that the horrors are limited to the physical. This season I am rather weak, without much spirit for my work, so maybe I can improve. I don't need a full colorful life -- I need energy for my work. Thus at least a month of disaster, with dangers to my brain from anesthesia and pain medications, so I'm trying to organize my notes so that any future work can be more like editing than creating. I am satisfied to die now, but will work to earn a gift of time to complete some work on both Ray and Andy (the Andy stuff is in better shape). Please don't be upset. I'm 83, now with a panoramic view of my life. But I plan to go on going on to be able to share my work with you, my fittest audience: Bill

He gave me further details on the 26th:

Gary: As of today, I am scheduled (January 21st) to enjoy two operations at Lenox Hill Hospital, where my twin daughters were born in 1962, thereby focusing Ray's appreciative study of identity and difference. The twins bodied forth one of his governing themes -- they functioned like axioms made visible. My visit may have fewer aesthetic implications.

The surgery will be two operations -- first to treat a hernia which is in the way, then, without cutting through muscles (the horror the last time) to perform a laparotomy (if that is the word). If all goes well, my walking won't be affected, and I might be able to come home after 4 or 5 days. I am much relieved of specific anxieties based on the earlier emergency operation which hacked through muscles. I'm planning as though all will go well, while more and more eager to get it over with so that I can settle down to my work. I hope to prepare my sketchy notes so that I can edit them into coherence, without needing fresh inspirations. I have to figure out how to "use" these events -- so will compose questions for myself about Ray's disagreements with conventional agreements: Love among the ruins: Bill

Later that night he sent an email that was blank except with the following words in the subject panel: "Fwd: Yup... it's almost over,"

And then another email with the words "my stage for 2016" and a Charlie Brown cartoon attached:

I didn't see these emails until the next morning because of the time difference between New York and London. Early morning on December 27th I sent him encouragement - "Thank god you have told me what's happening. I woke up this morning determined to get the specifics from you. Hernias are so painful - you must have been in so much pain. I can't help but wonder whether that pain was what caused them to discover the more serious condition that requires a laparotomy. I'll keep my fingers crossed that it has a good result - there's no reason why it shouldn't..."

We continued to correspond as though nothing horrible was going to happen. When David Bowie died Bill sent myself, his good friend Marie Stilkind and a few others an email with an attachment of a work by Ray Johnson which featured Bowie.

On January 20th I sent him this:

Hi Bill,

It's Wednesday morning here and you're going into hospital tomorrow so I wanted to wish you the very best. If the nurses don't treat you properly, ask to speak to the head nurse (called the Ward Sister over here) or the doctor. They can't deny you that and it will scare them into action. And sit in the chair next to the bed as soon as you can.

I'm sure you don't need this advice - but I'm not there to boss the staff around so I am offering it anyway.

I don't express my emotions very well - but I am thinking about you and thinking about you and thinking about you,

love always - for the past and the future


In reply, I received this from Bill:

You have fortified me. I do feel that we have a "special relation." Now I'll try to be strong for "us": Bill

On February 3, I woke up early and not being able to sleep reached for my phone. I noticed there was an email from Bill's daughter:

Dear Gary,

This is Bill Wilson's daughter, Kate.
I'm writing with the sad news that Bill Wilson has died. In recovery from surgery, he suffered a swift heart attack on Monday, February 1st. A relative was by his side.

Bill was gone. I would never hear from him again.

"Never" is such a strange concept. I can handle "nothing" but can't handle "never." I wish I could philosophize about his death. I wish I could pretend that it was "Zen." But I can't. When I walk outside and see people going on with their lives I see nothing has changed. But how can that be since Bill is no longer here? Why hasn't the world stopped? I wish I could see you Bill, just one more time. Just one more email, my dear friend. I miss you so much.

Comments and tributes can be left on Bill's Legacy condolences page.

Gary Comenas
February 2016


A selected list of articles and books written by William S. Wilson prior to my meeting him in late 2003 (edited and provided by Bill in 2003 with his comments in brackets)

I. Books

1. Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka.New York: Ecco Press, 1977. [my story "Conveyance" now being translated for a French magazine]

2. Birthplace: Moving Into Nearness. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982. Reprinted: Viking Press; Northwestern University Press (2002). [unreadable]

II. Essays and Stories in Books

1. "Dan Flavin: Fiat Lux." Light In Art. Ed. Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery. New York: Collier, 1969. [reprint from Art News]

2. “Art: Energy and Attention.” The New Art. Gregory Battcock, ed. NY: E. P. Dutton.

4. "Cezanne's Rapport." Writers On Artists. Ed. Daniel Halpern. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988. [Reprint from Antaeus]

III. Selected Essays in Periodicals

2. "Prince of Boredom: The Reflections and Passivities of Andy Warhol." Art and Artists 2 #12 (March 1968). Reprinted: S. H. Madoff (ed.) (1997) Pop Art.California: University of CaliforniaPress.  [the dreadful title was not mine, and belongs with a destructive misunderstanding of Warhol]

3. "Operational Color." Art News 67 #9 (January 1969).

4. "Vincent De Beauvais' Speculum Historiale: A Mirror on the Late Medieval World." Auction 2 #5 (January 1969).

5. "John Clem Clarke Transmits a Picture." Art News 68 #4 (Summer 1969).

6. "Focus, Meter, & Operations in Poetry." Stonybrook 3/4 (Fall 1969).

7. "Hard Questions and Soft Answers: Robert Morris." Art News 68 #7 (November 1969).

8. "In the Eye of the Beholder." Art News 68 #10 (February 1970).

9. "Ray Johnson: Letters of Reference." Arts 44 #4 (February 1972).  

10. "The Paintings of Joseph Raffael." Studio International 187 #966 (May 1974).

11. "John Willenbecher: Pyramids, Spheres and Labyrinths." Arts 49 #7 (March 1975).

12. "Ralph Humphrey: An Apology for Painting" Artforum 16 #3 (November 1977).

13. "Robert Smithson: Non-Reconciliations" Arts 52 #9 (May 1978).

14. "Moonwork on Moonground." Antaeus 29 (Spring 1978).

15. "Saul Bellow in Agreement: The Dean's December." American Book Review 4 #4 (May/June 1982).

20. "Report from New York: Abstract Painting." Artspace 16 #3 (May/June 1992).

23. "Eva Hesse: Alone and/or only with." Artspace 16 #5 (September/October 1992).

24. "Henri Matisse: A Retrospective." Artspace 16 #6 (December 1992).

25. "Matisse: Immured in Light." Art Press 186 (December 1993).

26. "Deux sont presque devenus un: Sur Rebecca Horn." (Trans. Bernard Hoepffner). Agone 13 (1995).

27. "Dan Flavin: Specifying Light." Trans 1 #2 (1996).

28. "Continuous/Dis/Continuous." Mel Bochner: Thought made   Visible. Ed. Richard Field (New Haven:YaleUniversity

    Gallery of Art, 1996).

29. "Eva Hesse: on the threshold of illusions." Inside the   Visible (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

30. "Abstract Surrealism." American Book Review 17 #4 (April 1996).    

31. "Picasso and Portraiture." Art Journal (Spring, 1997).

32. To be entered: "Salvaging Brodkey." American Book Review. Daniel Wenk book: “End Construction”; etc.

IV. Catalogues

1. "Operational Images." Aspects of a New Realism. Milwaukee Art Center (1969).

2. "Correspondence. An Exhibition of the Letters of Ray Johnson." Catalogue for North CarolinaMuseumof Art,Raleigh(October 31-Dec 5 1976).

3. "And/Or: One or the Other, or Both." Sequence (con)Sequence: Subversions of Photography in the 80's.BardCollege: Aperture Foundation, 1989.

4. "Marjorie Welish". E.M.Donahue Gallery (June 1993).

5. With Ray: The Art of Friendship. BlackMountain College Dossier #4 (1997).

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