Bill Wilson (1932-2016)


Bill Wilson (1932-2016)

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Heavy heart-- Today I learned of the passing of my dear friend Bill, better known to many followers of his work as William S. Wilson. If you were lucky enough to know him, you understand what a great loss this is. Love to our mutual friends.

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Latest Activity: Mar 29, 2018

William S. Wilson

William S. Wilson, born in Baltimore, 1932, was graduated with Honors in Philosophy of Science from the University of Virginia, then went on to Yale University where he received an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature. He has taught at Queens College, Columbia University, The Cooper Union, and the School of Visual Arts. He has lectured on Eva Hesse at the Jeu de Paume, Tate Modern, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the College Art Association. His novel Birthplace: moving into nearness, was nominated for a Pen-Faulkner Award. He has received an N.E.A. art-writer’s grant of $10,000.00, and a $40,000.00 Warhol Foundation Grant, 2012, for a book about the life and art of Ray Johnson.


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Comment by Miss Noma 2 on February 9, 2016 at 1:38am


The number 13 was like an art-supply, that is, an image that would combine with other images in his life-poem, joining a collage or montage of visual ideas and images. When he saw two objects that were separate, he looked for a motive and a means to combine them into one object. 13 is one number constructed with two arabic numerals, 1 and 3. Squeezing the 1 and 3 together, he got B. Therefore, in his logic, the capital letter B was a mashed 13.

When Ray saw one object that seemed autonomous or self-contained, he looked for a seam where he could split the object into two parts. While the number 13 can be divided in an infinite number of ways, the simple 6 + 7 = 13 usefully opens toward an expression, "to be at sixes and sevens." The theme of "at sixes and sevens" reaches into Ray's characteristic mode of looking. He attended to possible matching between the unmatched, and to possible unmatching between the matched. We talked more than once about names with five letters each, Nosey Flynn, James Joyce, and Greta Garbo. Garbo's initials would led toward his friend Gloria Graves, and then to the sisters with the palindrome, Roberta and Wanda Gag. Greta could also reach Gretta, a character in James Joyce's story, "The Dead," in the book with the self-exemplifying title, Dubliners. Gretta (6) had been loved by Michael (7), but was married to Gabriel (7), so that the story shows a woman and two men at sixes and sevens. Joyce's book of 13 poems, "Pomes Penyeach," was printed in a special edition numbered 1-13.

The implications of numbers will combine with other images and ideas. The combinatory power of numbers are so strong that anyone writing naturalistically, trying to summon no powers or causes that science can't explain, has to be aware of such implications in order to avoid them. Look out for chapter 13, for it has an aura before it has been written. The hotel room can't be on the 13th floor, and no character can arrive as the thirteenth guest at a party. In the manned-space program, NASA did not skip 13 when enumerating the missions to the moon, hence when Apollo 13 got into trouble, every number around the event was investigated for links to 13. The problem is that any number exists within a field of infinite relations with an infinity of other numbers. A writer who decided that 18 was significant for Barnett Newman soon found that 2 X 18 = 36, a measurement Newman used, and then a length of 72 inches also became significant. However 72 doubled is 144, but that is also 12 X 12, a significant number in some systems of mythic thought. Newman did not think with images of popular superstition, therefore he had to avoid 13.

Ray's choice of the 13th day of January exposed his final event to misunderstandings. The confusion results from not seeing his perspective. From Ray's point of view, 13 did not have a malevolent power, and to him, his drowning was not a tragic or evil event, it was a fulfillment of the governing images of his life and art. I would say that he wanted 13 simply to take its place within the order of numbers, to be on the same plane of visibility and meaning. If he could use 13 unselfconsciously, the problem was less with 13 than with consciousness.

The problem of consciousness is the problem he solved with his drowning, the act by which he intended to become water-in-water. Walking on beaches or gazing into the sky, he had been an observer, even a participant observer, but rarely was he a fully unselfconscious participant in a field of cosmic forces. In some erotic events he had been able to submerge mind and body in a field of oceanic forces. But he was 67 years old. After at least fifty years of sunlight near the water, his face presented unsightly symptoms of disease.

Comment by Miss Noma 2 on February 9, 2016 at 1:37am


Many people tried to read numerological meanings in area codes, zip codes and license plate numbers, searching for clues to a malevolent power. Ray rented a motel room in which to compose himself before drowning. If he had a choice among rooms in the motel, and chose room #247; and if he dropped himself into the watery system at Sag Harbor at precisely 7:15pm, the motive would include the 13 implied as the sum of the digits. To combine several images which have a common identity, so that they can be used to point toward 13, is an example of the movement of the mind as Ray encouraged continuities among separate images.

In his life and in his art, Ray collected or constructed constellations of images with a common theme so that the mind could move among them, both setting in motion the images and being set in motion by them. The parallel is with the movies which have many discontinuous frames. When the separate frames of a movie begin to move through the projector, an illusion of continuous movement is experienced. The celluloid as it is set in motion produces a conscious experience of motion on the screen, but the only movement is within such consciousness. Ray often used stationery from the movie projectionist's union, aware as he was of images projected into the darkness.

Once Ray dated an item the 39th day of the month. He saw a film by Alfred Hitchcock, whether or not he read the novel by John Buchan: "The Thirty-Nine Steps." 3 x 13 = 39. Next, 4 X 13 = 52, the number of cards in a deck. Within a deck, the most versatile is the Ace, because it has two functions, as 1 or as 13. 1 and/or 13. One, or the other, or both. An Ace is both, that is, it is one object with two functions, depending on its position in a structure. Thus the value of an Ace detached from its deck, in a collage by Johnson, or in a painting by Picasso or Braque, can't be decided on. As either 1 or 13, it represents the power of changing identity according to use and context. Like so much in Ray's life-poem, an Ace does not do what it does because of what it is; it is what it is because of what it does (credit to Max Jammer). Ray's attraction to the Ace combines with his preference for a person, place or "thing" that has at least two functions, or two identities. His interest in the penis included an interest in that one structure with two conditions, detumescent and tumescent. Such a twoness underlies his fascination with the male urological system, where the penis is a structure that serves two functions, the ejaculation of semen and the discharge of urine. Ray was almost as fascinated with the flow of menstrual blood and of urine in biological females. I would quote William Butler Yeats often enough: "For Love has pitched his mansion/ In the place of excrement."

Do artists think with images such as the double function of the Ace? Well, in his poem entitled "Aneinander," Paul Celan writes, "the card-reader slain/ cleaves to/ the ace of hearts," or: "die Kartenschlägerin klebt/ erschlagen hinterm/ Herz-As." The title of the poem suggests together, just as two meanings or uses are together in an Ace, #1 together with #13. This reference to Paul Celan bears on Ray because Celan drowned himself in the River Seine. Ray had made mailart using a newspaper clipping about a drowned corpse pulled from the Seine wearing cowboy boots. In one of his favorite films, Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved from Drowning," a man is rescued from drowning himself in the Seine, but later he fakes his literal drowning, trying to rescue himself from metaphorically drowning in bourgeois proprieties. The River Seine is "the River Net." Ray's linked images were like a seine, a net. Such nets of ideas and images, like webs, could catch related images, as in like attracts like. In 1956 Ray designed a book-jacket for a mystery written by C. Day Lewis: A Tangled Web.

Comment by Miss Noma 2 on February 9, 2016 at 1:35am

(Part 1)

by William S. Wilson

The power of a number, as with a lucky number, is a form of ikonicity. I spell "icon" as "ikon" to separate my uses from the misappropriations that are scattered around us. In my sense, an ikon is an object that is involved with action-at-a-distance, perhaps receiving or sending spiritual energy, like an ikon of a saint. Imagine that numbers exist in a transcendental continuum, infinite and eternal. In some faiths an entity in the transcendental continuum, a power like a saint or a number, can act within the world, through the medium of an ikon. Many people believe that numbers have the power to act in the world as causes of events, or as benevolent or malevolent powers.

Like the letters of the alphabet used to spell "thirteen," numerals have no intrinsic size. Anyone writing the number 13 is not representing a physical entity, but is working like an abstract artist, arbitrarily choosing sizes as well as colors. Because the shape of a number or a letter is not absolutely determined, but has "a freedom of form within form," a person, especially an artist, can express a whole range of meanings through size, shape, color, and any other sensory qualities. The number 13 becomes what we do with it. As we learn about an invisible world of meanings, we become acquainted with numbers, and as with human acquaintances, we can feel friendly toward some numerals, especially if they seem friendly to us. Other numbers can seem unfriendly, or at least have a reputation for heartlessness, like 13. Arnold Schoenberg, born September 13, 1874, spelled the name "Aaron" as "Aron" so that the title of his opera, Moses und Aron, would count out as 12 letters, not 13. How many people listening to an opera are going to count the number of letters in the title? Schoenberg, incidentally, died in 1951 in Brentwood Park, Los Angeles, July 13.

Ray Johnson wrote an essay about Marianne Moore, whose name has 13 letters. He mentions Marilyn Monroe, another person with the initials M.M., and with 13 letters in her name. Standing the M.M. on its head to get W.W., he used the name William Wilson, also 13 letters. But understand that Ray said that he did not regard the number 13 as unfriendly. He was not superstitious, but he was aware of superstitions. He wanted to use 13 casually, unselfconsciously, but he couldn't point toward 13 and say that it was the same as other numbers, because after all he was pointing toward 13. What he could do, or attempt to do, was to use 13 aimlessly. His response to our pathlessness was his disciplined aimlessness.

Nam June Paik interviewed Ray Johnson by submitting ten handwritten questions which I typed and mailed to Ray. He then typed out those ten questions, but wrote responses to thirteen questions. He wrote: "13. I wait, not for time to finish my work, but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur." His drowning on Friday, the 13th of January, 1995, was astonishing. I would not have expected it to occur, proof that I was not paying attention. Ray certainly had chosen the date long before, rigging it to coincide with his age, 67, or 6 + 7 = 13. 

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 8, 2016 at 4:36pm

February 08, 2016
Dearest Bill, you were so kind to me when I was young and green. You gave me the vision to believe in myself, and you stayed a steadfast friend these many years. You are in my heart.
Lauretta Harris,
February 08, 2016
Another morning and I am still in bits my friend. Your life and death affected me so greatly. And has affected so many others I am sure. You were always there for me. I'm in bits.
Contact Me
February 07, 2016
Dear Bill, say hello and embrace our warm feelings to Ray, up there, flying with the angels. Love is not blind. I'll probably see you soon. - Art Secunda
Arthur Secunda,
Boulder, Colorado
February 07, 2016
Dear Bill, Since Ray introduced us in 1960, you have always been with me and shall remain in my own archives of you, along with the bunnies I bought to send you one by one on your birthday. I shall always love you,
as will all the other Correspond-DANCERS all over the world. You were/are the eternal curmudgeon with the warmest heart for all who knew/know you. Ray is with you now, thanking and blessing you through your transition to that New York Correspon-dance School up there. We shall meet again. I love you, Bill, always.
Marie Tavroges Stilkind,
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Contact Me
February 05, 2016
Bill, gracious, entertaining and fun. Thank you for our brief encounters in London and NY. Onwards and upwards.
Harry Moore,
- See more at:

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 8, 2016 at 4:25pm

Bill's obit in the Sunday NY Times (7-2-2016):
WILSON--William S.

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. 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 Frances F. L. Beatty, President, Richard L. Feigen & Co.

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 8, 2016 at 9:57am

In the Stendhal Gallery in New York, Bill Wilson and John Held Jr. Photo by Ruud Janssen - April 2010.

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 8, 2016 at 9:55am

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 8, 2016 at 9:55am

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 7, 2016 at 8:26pm

visit from Canada.

Comment by Ruud Janssen on February 7, 2016 at 8:24pm


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