William Graham Anthony, ironic icon (1934–2022)

William Graham Anthony at work in his Westbeth studio

William Graham Anthony died on December 24, 2022, of complications suffered after having rushed into a fire in his Westbeth apartment a week earlier.

Born in Monmouth, New Jersey, on September 25, 1934, Bill grew up during World War II, along with his older brother Bob, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Tacoma, Washington. Before her marriage to Bill’s father, his mother, Martha Armstrong from Ohio, had owned a gift shop in Honolulu. His father, a late-nineteenth-century Croatian immigrant born Emile Pierre Antonovich (later Anthony), was a UC Berkeley-trained architect and became a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, serving in the war and overseeing the construction of two large military bases. Although his parents had reservations about his becoming an artist, his irrepressible métier was visual art.

William Anthony, Harem Girls after Ingres, 2014, Öl auf Holz / oil on wood 50 x 47 cm (via Thomas Rehbein Galerie)

Having taken art classes in San Francisco, he studied modern art at Yale with Bauhaus co-founder Josef Albers. Interrupting his studies at Yale, Bill served in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s, stationed in Germany. He visited many of the surviving art museums and cathedrals of Europe while on furlough and never forgot what he saw. This deep fund of knowledge would inform his art and his life; his eventual Yale undergraduate degree was in European history. In the early 1960s he moved to New York City, initially living near St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, where he met Norma Neuman, whom he would marry.

In 1970, Bill became one of the first residents of Westbeth Artist Housing in what is now known as the West Village, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. Most of his artistic and social activities would involve this unique housing community, which he helped to promote, serving on the Artist Residents’ Council. He also worked for Greenwich House, teaching art to seniors through New York City’s Recreation Department. He often introduced his pupils to his artist friends, and helped younger artists.

He studied with Theodore Stamos at the Art Students’ League, cultivating a unique style of drawing from students’ mistakes in perspective and anatomy – for instance, fingers resembling bunches of sausages – that invited viewers to re-experience classical and other famous works of art through satire. He illuminated this evolution in his first book, A New Approach to Figure Drawing, dedicated to his father. Much would follow: exhibitions in New York, Santa Monica, Cologne, Denmark, and Iceland; more books, including Bible Stories (Jargon Society,1978), War is Swell (Jargon Society, 2000),and Deviant Draftsmanship (Stalke, 2021); and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s acquisition of several of his drawings.

William Anthony, 2018 installation view, Thomas Rehbein Galerie, Köln, Germany (Image: Simon Vogel)

Bill gently poked fun at the pomposity and pretensions of earlier societies as well as the contemporary art world. In the foreword to Bill Anthony’s Greatest Hits (1988), his book of drawings, art historian Robert Rosenblum wrote: “His range is broad, and no period of art history escaped his pen: from re-imagining Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delight’ to placing Warhol’s soup can into Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ nothing was off limits.” Leo Steinberg called Bill’s work “incisive social commentary in the delicious disguise of incompetence,” while George Plimpton deemed it “weird and wonderful as gargoyles.” Bill wryly titled one show “Ironic Icons.”

Bill and Norma in the 1980s

Wherever Bill went, people appreciated his warm thoughtfulness, his kind nature, and a bright intelligence that embraced the humor and humanity in every situation; his gentle responses made those around him feel happy. Norma recalls: “Bill was such a joy – so kind to others and a gentle man. Bill and I would have been married 40 years in January. We met in 1964 and were married in January 1983, together 59 years. In that whole time, I never felt his annoyance. If I became upset, he would just call me by my pet name and everything felt fine again. We met at a party for some political candidate, I don’t remember which one, at the Village bar and restaurant, Chumley’s, famous for being frequented by writers since Prohibition. Bill had just signed the contract for his book on figure drawing. He was full of infectious enthusiasm. It was love at first sight and never changed.”

Norma, a retired executive at Wiley Publishers, survives Bill. He is deeply missed by all who knew him, including his first cousins Alison Armstrong, Betty Hartman, Martha A. Phelan, Edward Subler and their many children; nephews Graham Anthony, Peter Anthony and their children Thomas and Charlotte, respectively; and sister-in-law Joan C. Anthony. He was preceded in death by his brother Robert Armstrong Anthony, a professor of international law at Cornell University and George Mason University. William Graham Anthony is represented by Stalke Galleri in Kirke Sonnerup, Denmark; Thomas Rehbein Galerie in Cologne, Germany; and Corridor Gallery in Reykjavik, Iceland.

                                                                                                – Alison Armstrong

One Comment

  1. Alison Armstrong

    Many thanks for publishing this tribute to Bill Anthony in such a lengthy and informative and beautiful way.

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