Though I only knew him a few years, my friend and mentor William S. Wilson, Bill, made a profound impact on my perception of the arts and on my life. I met Bill in 2013 while researching my undergraduate thesis about Ray Johnson, with whom Bill was a close friend. For decades Bill was a steadfast proponent of Johnson’s work, writing numerous publications about his friend and amassing one of the most significant collections of Johnson’s collages and mail art – an unofficial archive of Johnson’s work. I deeply admire Bill’s personal and scholastic commitment to preserving and promoting the legacy of Johnson and other friends like Alison Knowles and Eva Hesse, and I am inspired to conduct myself with a similar dedication. A vivacious octogenarian and ostensibly retired professor, Bill welcomed students, scholars, curators, artists and anyone interested in Johnson’s art to correspond with him and to visit his home-archive. His open and generous attitude toward all researchers, in addition to his tenacious dedication to learning and teaching, made him an inspiring mentor to many. Bill was also the primary inspiration for my continued graduate studies in art history, and my experience working in his collection galvanized my passion for archives and has led me to pursue a career in the field. In addition to teaching, Bill encouraged his many correspondents to collaborate and share information and often arranged beneficial meetings between his friends.
Guiding and encouraging research about Johnson, Bill wrote me hundreds of fascinating emails, as he did for innumerable others, answering questions and prompting inquiries that led to a myriad of other subjects from art history, literature, and philosophy. Talking and writing with him was exhilarating and he made me more excited and compelled to learn than ever before. The breadth of Bill’s wisdom was astounding and perfectly accompanied by his radiant sense of humor. Here is an example of one of his emails to me from July 12, 2014:
An email about Valerie Solonas it not an email about you. I cc’d email to [another person] responding to his questions about Valerie — to have you over-hear, not to indict you or prompt you to look into a mirror. I think within constraints on what a single consciousness can know. You asked me why some man whom I don’t know had done something. I would never attempt an answer (he might not know “why” he had done something). I would ask for the interrelations and structures of thought in the situations. I have a severe epistemology.which must defend itself against unanswerable questions (which I constantly study in philosophy). . What and how something combines with something else is as much as I can expect (hope) to experience. How does the name RAYMOND JOHNSON resemble the name JACQUES DERRIDA? How come Gretta loves Michael but marries Gabriel? Is she at sixes and sevens? How come Greta Garbo has only one “t”? These are trivial except that the minute details are elaborations of larger and governing themes. Tom Jones loves Sophia, which renders him a philosopher. So also Raskolnikov (sp?) who loves Sonia, who is Sophia: it’s wise to love wisdom. (Sophie’s Choice is a disgrace to literature). I mention Derrida, The Postcard, not as a book to know about as an external object, but as an experience, as with an experience of Buber’s book, “:I-Thou,” as an I-Thou experience. So not “why does Joyce write about a postcard,” but how does the postcard in Ulysses combine with the other images conveying other ideas? No one is accusing you of being Valerie…(with whom I used to have quite ordinary conversations)…
The insightful quality of his attention when observing unique details in art and literature taught me to be more attuned to the subtle qualities of each work through sensitive examination. He showed me how to reveal additional possible meanings through persistent questioning of any potential implications. His guidance broadened my understanding of art and showed how even minute visual and textual features might convey meanings that extend beyond the field of art and relate to ideas in philosophy and society. Bill’s uniquely creative way of thinking and writing about art is revealed in the perceptive and often surprising connections he made between ideas and themes.
Bill took notice of my increasing fascination with archives and asked me to assist him and his archivist Michael with projects in his collection. In 2014 at Bill’s request, I digitized most of the articles that are now available on this site. At the time, it seemed like Bill had devised the project in order to give me an excuse to come visit him every week, since we spent much more time talking together than I did scanning. I was grateful for the opportunity to continue our conversations and glad that I could be useful to him in some way. Other than requesting two matching binders of printouts, one for his archive and one for mine, he didn’t specify what he wanted me to do with all these digitized articles. Read them, of course, but what else? Though it seems obvious now, it didn’t occur to me (or I was too shy) back then to propose a making website of his writing to see what he thought about it. I hope that Bill would approve of this online resource since his generosity and wisdom inspired its construction. He did give me general permission to share his essays :
Sure share any of the essays, but especially Brodkey because as he lay dying he wrecked his reputation, so I tried to salvage without savaging [. . . . .] I’ll show the palindromes to you as a minor detail which is an elaboration in miniature of larger themes like reversibility and continuity. Ray didn’t “need” Nabokov, but he did recognize methods that matched his own matches of sticks to light flames and of counterparts like an anagram matching the other word with identical letters in a different order. Because M matched W upside down, MATCH matched WATCH, as in ABAD [A Book About Death].
I hope that this website of Bill’s collected writings helps to continue the story of his life and that it is helpful and informative to anyone who finds it. I also hope that it serves as a memorial to Bill, who through his writings reminds us to continue questioning, learning, and thinking. I try my best to model my actions on his values and aspire to be a rigorous scholar and a more open person in his honor. I will always admire Bill’s generosity and wisdom and I am so grateful to have known such an extraordinary and insightful person. This is the story I would want Bill Wilson to read.
The site is still under construction and in need of improvements. Please contact me with any suggestions, questions, additions, or corrections. I’d be happy to collaborate and would love to read other memories of Bill.
[updated June 3, 2016]