A Tribute to William Graham Anthony
William Graham Anthony, an artist’s artist known for his satirical paintings and drawings, died tragically on December 24, 2022 at the age of 88. His death was caused by complications after rushing into a fire that engulfed his ninth-floor apartment at Westbeth Artists Housing in New York City. It is likely, friends agree, that he rushed into the blazing apartment to save his artwork, which lined the walls of the studio he shared with his wife Norma (née Neuman) for forty years.
Bill, as he was known to his friends, was born in Fort Monmounth, New Jersey in 1934. He grew up in Washington State, and later studied European History at Yale University. Bill took a break from Yale to enlist in the US Army, serving in Germany during the Cold War, and while on furlough visited many surviving art museums and cathedrals. This experience ignited his interest in art, and he returned to Yale to complete his degree while also studying with Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. After graduating in 1958 Bill lived for several years in Sausalito, California, teaching at a commercial art school, taking classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, and looking after his mother in her final years. In 1961, Bill, like other ambitious artists at the time, moved to New York City. While there he studied with Theodoros Stamos at the Art Students' League and met Norma Neuman, the love of his life. According to Norma, at that time Bill lived in an apartment on East 9th Street—a fifth-floor walk-up that had a bathtub in the kitchen and a toilet in the closet. Bill soon moved to Westbeth, and Norma eventually joined him there.
As Norma’s close relative, I visited the couple often at Westbeth, where they lived amongst a tight-knit community of friends. Bill worked for the City of New York teaching art to seniors in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn and, when that program ended, to unhoused people. Despite his day job and demanding painting schedule, Bill always made time to meet me at a museum, and he often shared his archive of newspaper clippings, which he kept organized into neat files in his apartment. I also remember Bill inviting me to smoke (against the rules) in his studio so he could get a “contact high,” and cautioning me, as I began my PhD in Art History, that academic publishing was like “horseshit and should be measured in inches.” As these anecdotes suggest, Bill consistently challenged doxa. Another example: as a young man Bill was a member of a radical Democratic club; later in life, however, when surrounded by progressive artists, he took to wearing a patriotic flag pin on his lapel to irritate his friends (I think). Bill was witty, generous, loyal, and delightfully irreverent. In his art, as in his life, he sought to humanize the art world by exposing its snobbish conceits while cherishing the artwork’s ability to shed light and tickle.
Early in his career Bill developed his distinctively lumpy figures, which he devised after watching his first-year art students make classic drawing mistakes. His first publication, A New Approach to Figure Drawing (Crown, 1965) is based on this premise. It offers “how to” lessons for drawing figures that break all the rules. Bill would hold to these figures faithfully throughout his career. Reviewing Bill’s 2002 exhibition at Dorfman Projects, Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “In scrawly pencil lines, he outlines figures that look like sock puppets with oversize heads and sausage-shaped limbs.” With his sharp satire and pornographic references, Bill used these awkward figures like poison darts to lampoon famous artists, including Ingres, Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, and Fragonard, as well as moderns Lichtenstein, Warhol, Hamilton, and Rauschenberg. Leo Steinberg succinctly described Bill’s work as “incisive social commentary in the delicious disguise of incompetence.” Robert Rosenblum, in a 2004 article for Art News, skilfully described some of Bill’s scenarios, such as “catching Pollock dribbling paint on the floor while a cranky and jealous Krasner looks on; witnessing a symposium of intellectuals at loggerheads; or confronting an angry young artist whose thought balloon reads, ‘Thanks for your honest opinion, goddamn you!!’” While Rosenblum found Bill’s work to be humorous, Johnson claimed that it was a kind of “art criticism and art history” (which might explain why art critics enjoyed writing about his work). In the end, I find Bill’s work to be more akin to Rosenblum’s assessment, offering “welcome comic relief.” Still, his work relies upon a prior knowledge of art history. It’s satire, but intellectual satire.
Aside from targeting masterpieces and the art world, Bill painted battle scenes. Some of his most complex paintings feature airplanes, rendered with WWII “Kilroy” enthusiasm, clashing mid-air. He also painted images showing Hitler apologizing or otherwise attempting to escape the consequences of his acts. Another series features satirical renditions of dime-novel covers and movie posters, and yet another, takes aim at religion. Bill’s 1978 Bible Stories feature some of the more violent and grotesque scenes from the Old Testament. "This is the first Bible I could understand,” blurbed Andy Warhol on the book jacket. George Plimpton called it "weird and wonderful.” In all these series, Bill takes aim at the presumption of authority, his droll scenarios serving to reduce power to its puerile impulses.
Over the years Bill crafted an iconographic universe, and his memorable figures eventually entered his own compositions as background. Art critic David Carrier keenly observed, for example, that Bill inserted miniatures of his own paintings into his rendition of Matisse’s The Red Studio and Richard Hamilton‘s 1956 Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing? In the latter, Bill cleverly placed some of his signature imagery—his canary yellow smiley face, WWII airplane, bare-breasted woman, and a cropped image showing a couple’s legs while fucking—into Hamilton’s collage. He also included his own personal emblem—a boyish man sporting glasses, a tie, and knickers. In such works Bill insinuated himself into the art historical canon while making himself a target of his own satire. No mean feat.
After years of work and dedication, Bill’s art found favor, particularly in Northern Europe. It is currently represented by the Thomas Rehbein Gallery in Cologne, the Stalke Gallery in Kirke Saaby, Denmark, and the Corridor Gallery in Reykjavik, Iceland—where he traveled with his nephew Graham Anthony on the occasion of an exhibition, only months before his death. His work is held in museums abroad and in the U.S., including the Smithsonian, Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Morgan Library. The Bobst Library at New York University and the Archives of American Art hold information as well.
Bill will be missed. He was a rare bird, a unique human being, and a staple of the downtown art scene. He refused to compromise. He loved art. He was a devoted husband and friend. A kind soul.
Thank you to Norma and Graham Anthony for sharing thoughts about Bill. Thank you to the Westbeth community for helping Norma recover from the tragedy.