Remembrances and Eulogies

Group message board dedicated to Bill Wilson on the IUOMA (International Union of Mail Artists) website created by Ruud Janssen

Gary Comenas’s obituary and tribute to William S. Wilson

The obituary for Bill Wilson published in The New York Times on Feb. 5, 2016:
William Smith Wilson III, 83, beloved brother, father and grandfather, died in Manhattan on Monday, February 1, 2016 from cardiac arrest. Born in Baltimore in 1932, he was raised in Maryland, attended the University of Virginia for his B.A., Yale University for his Ph.D. and taught college as a professor of English in Queens College, City University of New York from 1962 until his retirement in the early 1990s. While raising three children in Chelsea he published a collection of short stories, “Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka” (1975), and the novel “Birthplace” (1982). The son of sculptor and painter May Wilson, he was deeply involved in the post-war New York art world, the subject of his numerous published essays. Survivors include his sister, Betty Jane Butler, children Katherine, Ara and Andrew and grandchildren Jack, Alex, Augusta and Josephine. Contributions may be offered in his honor to PBS public television the High Line or the Baltimore Museum, ( join/give.html#tribute)

Online guest book for Bill’s obituary in the New York Times

Mark Bloch’s remembrance of Bill : R.I.P. Bill Wilson aka William S. Wilson (1932-2016). He was a scholar and the keeper of an important Ray Johnson Archive, the one Ray asked him to keep because Ray knew he would do a good job–and he did. I don’t mind saying Bill was a curmudgeon and a pain in the ass who gave me a difficult time at every turn because he was also very generous with me and others and I met a great many people through him and heard of a great many things from him personally–as well as indirectly. Most importantly, though, through his curmudgeonly ways, he taught me how to be rigorous and accurate and to pay attention to detail in scholarship. That was what he was after and I will miss his rigor and accuracy and detail, even when it comes to information about myself which he was not shy about sharing, often appropriately, sometimes not, mostly to my face, although he also traveled in other channels, god bless him. He traveled in information, for better or worse. Ray Johnson told me once that mail art had become “an industry” and I have felt since his death in 1995 that Ray himself had become an industry. Well, the man at the center of the Ray Johnson Industry from 1995-2015 has now passed so there is no telling what will come of Ray’s legacy next but I sense that we are all a lot less likely to uncover it completely with the passing of Bill Wilson. He knew things no one else knew. I always urged him to tell me less of his opinions about Ray and more of what he knew as facts and details of the life of Ray. He was a conglomeration of both of those and I am not sure he knew where one began and the other left off. But he was rich in both and we all hung on every word and we will miss him. Godspeed, “Beel,” as Ray once called him. Backstroke in peace. Keep in touch!

Eulogies by Richard L. Feigen, Ina Blom, and Clive Phillpot on the Ray Johnson Estate’s website: 
The Ray Johnson Estate mourns the passing of William S. “Bill” Wilson, who died on February 1, 2016. Bill, called “Ray Johnson’s Boswell” by New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman, was one of Johnson’s closest friends and his unwavering champion. He generously welcomed students and scholars to his extraordinary Johnson archive and wrote brilliant essays that provided deep insight into Johnson, his era and his work. Always generous with sharing his profound knowledge, Bill returned questions posed to him from all over the world through ever inspired and voluminous emails, phone calls and letters. He was truly a correspondent extraordinaire. There is no doubt that his legacy and work will only continue to expand its reach in the future. Regarding his relationship to the artists he studied, Bill once strikingly said, “In my private aesthetic, I feel and think that something is beautiful when I desire to conceive something with it.” The Ray Johnson Estate is profoundly grateful for the many thrilling conceptions and inceptions, on Ray Johnson and in all of his art scholarship, with which Bill has left us.The art world, this estate, and his many friends and family, have lost a cherished friend and mentor.

-Richard L. Feigen, Chairman and Frances F. L. Beatty, President, Richard L. Feigen & Co.

It is hard to think of a more spirited conversationalist and communication partner than Bill Wilson. His vast reading and detailed knowledge of a dizzying array of subject matters, personalities and historical incidents kept the associations coming hard and fast; a single line of thought would soon become a delta of interconnected narratives and lines of interrogation, kept in check only by a brilliant analytic wit. Perhaps it was his aesthetic and intellectual passion for the reverberating detail and its wider networks of associations and connections that made him such a good friend to the artist Ray Johnson, whose mail art and collage practice seems to have been founded on similar principles of operation. Bill was in many ways Johnson’s ideal archivist: not just because he stored and took care of a significant body of his work but also (and even more significantly) because he kept creating new nodal points in Johnson’s network. He took its wealth of minute visual and verbal details seriously enough to constantly and passionately question their potential implications or directionality, without ever closing down on final answers. And in this way he kept the archive vibrant and mobile, in word and in writing.

-Ina Blom, Art Critic and Professor of Art History, University of Oslo

If Ray Johnson was unknowable, as William S. “Bill” Wilson implied after Johnson’s death when he noted: ‘Ray, we never knew you’, it was not for want of trying, for Bill devoted so much of his time, particularly after Ray’s death in 1995, to knowing yet more.

Bill took it upon himself after his great friendship with Ray Johnson in the latter’s lifetime, to promote the achievement and as far as was possible the nature of Ray’s life’s work.

Bill had other enthusiasms and preoccupations, but Ray was at the centre of his concerns. His house became a Ray Johnson Archive storing not only correspondence but also many works by Ray, from drawings to collages to reliefs. On entering his house visitors could immediately enjoy a gallery of diverse works by his hero.

Many of these artworks were sent directly to Bill in the early days of their friendship, and they help to define a great many features of Ray’s early development. But Bill added to his collection over the years, acquiring more works but also collections of Ray’s correspondence with others, not to mention copies of publications in which he featured. His Johnsonian archive had many strands.

If his Ray Johnson Archive was a generative core for his deliberations over the riddles that were Ray, Bill was also very receptive to others who toiled in the same vineyard. He would encourage us, exchange information and ideas, and was extremely generous with his time both in discussions but also in writing and dispatching cascades of emails.

One hopes that eventually more research will reveal how much of Bill’s thinking and knowledge informed Ray’s work. But for now, we can carry forward memories of Bill’s generosity, his keenness to enlarge horizons and his twinkling and mischievous sense of humour.

-Clive Phillpot 4-2-16


[page updated July 3, 2016]