William Anthony (1034-2022) was born in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. While majoring in history at Yale University, Anthony attended a few art courses, one of which was taught by Josef Albers. He also attended the Art Students' League in 1958 and 1961.
After graduating from Yale, he joined his family in California, where he attended the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1962, Anthony taught figure drawing at a commercial art school in San Francisco, where he developed a method of drawing that resulted in his book A New Approach to Figure Drawing. Two years later he moved to New York City.
From 1977 to 1978, Anthony made a series of drawings for magazine Andy Warhol's Interview, and published another book Bible Stories. In 1983, he married Norma Neuman, and continued to produce and exhibit his art work, including solo exhibitions in New York, California, and Europe. In 1988, the Jargon Society published an additional book, Bill Anthony's Greatest Hits.
Stalke Galleri has exhibited William Anthony in many solo and groups exhibitions from 1998.
Many years ago, so I remember as if it were yesterday, I went to one of those small Chelsea galleries on an upper floor off of tenth avenue, looked at an image parodying Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and laughed aloud. And was jokingly rebuked: ’Don’t you know that this is an art gallery?’, the person at the desk asked me. That’s how I came to meet Bill Anthony, who became a friend. And that’s why, to the right above the computer on which I am writing, I have his drawing after Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, (1819). But where Ingres’ two doomed Italian lovers are impossibly elegant, Anthony shows the most awkward two people imaginable making out. For reasons that I don’t claim to fully understand, humor in visual art is a surprisingly neglected topic. Now and then, I see a painting that is unintentionally funny, but I cannot think of another artist who like Anthony made a career from presenting visual humor.
Always mischievous, but never malicious, Anthony got the ideas for his art from teaching beginning drawing students. They drew heads too large, arms and legs too small, and so he appropriated their style for his parodies of old master, modernist and contemporary art. Thus in his Men of Avignon (1997) Picasso’s women are replaced by five skinny naked man. In his Just What is it? (2021), Richard Hamilton’s famous pop image Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing? (1956) is redone with a female body builder replacing Hamilton’s male weight lifter, and Anthony’s own art on the walls replacing Hamilton’s examples. The Red Studio (1994) redoes Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911), with the pictures within the picture done, naturally!, in Anthony’s inimitable style. And in Dance (2016), six happily moronic looking pink dancers take the pose of Matisse graceful figures in Dance (1909-1910). The ungainly Giorgione Girl (2008) satirizes Giorgione’s great The Sleeping Venus (1510); Balthus Baby (2000) turns that painter’s pubescent femme fatale into a simpleton; and Laocoon (2011) redoes the very famous ancient Greek sculpture, Laocoön, with the three emaciated men struggling with a skinny blue snake. These examples all come from a recent book, Deviant Draftsmanship. And Anthony also did political history, in his earlier books War is Swell: A kids Idiotic Vision of WWII (2000) and Biblical Stories (1978), a book that impressed Warhol. And he presented politics, as in his politically incorrect Requiem for a Retard (2019), in which a man about to be electrocuted who is eating his last meal asks, ‘What’s for dessert?’ And I love his three drawings (1996), The Effects of Masturbation on Boys (blindness, hairy palms, insanity). Anthony also did caricatures of well known images by Caravaggio, Giorgio de Chirico, Degas, Ensor, Eric Fischl, Gainsborough, David Hockney, Magritte, Sigmar Polke and Tom of Finland. No artist, however famous or dignified, was beyond his reach. Like one of the great old masters, he thus created in his art a whole parallel universe, with everyone ungainly. All of his figures, male or female, look silly; every one of them appears to be a complete idiot.
We are accustomed to paintings with esoteric symbolism or recherché subjects that are not easy to explain. But why are these simple-looking drawings funny? If you don’t know the artworks of Balthus, Richard Hamilton or Giorgione, then it would be impossible to find these images funny. Just as blasphemous jokes only are amusing to people within a religious tradition, so Anthony’s caricatures mostly only make sense to people within the art world. Imagine that some impecunious curator who cannot afford to exhibit original paintings, substitutes instead images by failed art school graduates, thinking that they are as good (I.e. as bad!) as Anthony’s works. This exhibition would a failure, for no one wants to see work by mediocre artists. If a man stumbles in the street, we rush to help him up. But when a great clown does a pratfall (I think, for example, of the great clowning of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther (1964)), then we applaud his excellent performance. Analogously, although Anthony’s works may be visually indistinguishable from mediocre student works, they, in fact, deserve praise, for they are serious artworks, the product of a gifted draftsman. It takes a great deal of skill for an expert draftsman to make inept drawings. Comedy involves a complex attitude towards what we experience.
What is at stake, I wonder, in Anthony’s making fun of art? Some plausible theories of humor focus on aggression. Was Custer’s last stand funny? Obviously not, but Anthony’s Custer’s Last Stand (1984), with the troops and native Americans alike depicted in his usual fashion, is hilarious. His image turns this tragic disaster into a comedy, perhaps because confronting the whole story of American imperialism now makes us uneasy. Capitol punishment is reprehensible, and so Requiem for a Retard is funny because it relieves us momentarily from acknowledging that fact. It’s hard to imagine a more serious myth than the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, but his Samson and Delilah (2011), which has an idiotic-looking Samson checking his haircut in a mirror, while Delilah holds the scissors, is a hoot. Here, maybe the problem is that the idea that getting a haircut could cause you to lose your strength is preposterous. But I can’t explain why Anthony’s other parodies are funny. Maybe what’s at stake is pleasure in the momentary refusal to take the artistic masterpieces seriously. When Tony Green, who is a very serious art historian, published Poussin’s Humor (2013), a publisher who laughed at the project said: ‘That will be a short book’. But he was wrong. It would be most interesting to have a general account of visual humor, and, also, to explain why some of Anthony’s images do not quite ‘come off’.
Anthony and I met every now and then, and I tried (and sadly failed) to publish a book about him. Late in life he remained a cult-figure, showing in Iceland and Denmark but not, so far as I know, recently in New York. Which is sad, for no artist who won the praise of Laurie Anderson, Jasper Johns, Ken Johnson, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Masheck, Philippe de Montebello, Larry Rivers, Robert Rosenblum, Barry Schwabsky, Roberta Smith and Leo Steinberg could be altogether uninteresting. And our art world is a great subject for parody, for there’s a lot of pretentious, unintentionally funny art. Every time I look at Anthony’s works, they lift up my spirits and inspire that most reliable response, involuntary laughter. How many artists can claim to be that successful?
Two books by Sam Jedig, Deviant Draftsmanship. The Art of William Anthony (2021) and Ironic Icons. The Art of William Anthony (2013) survey his career. See also Paul Barolsky, Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art (1978).
David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.
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