Ann Wilson (1931–2023)
Ann Wilson, a member of New York’s influential Coenties Slip Group in the 1950s and early ’60s, died at her home in Valatie, New York, on March 11 at the age of ninety-one. Wilson was known for works in which she employed quilts as canvases, painting abstract forms upon their surfaces and thus bringing a form typically associated with craft into the realm of fine art. She was the last surviving member of her fabled cohort, who included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Lenore Tawney. Drawn by the promise of cheap, if crude and unheated, workspaces offered by disused sailmaking factories huddled beneath the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, the group came together as the first wave of Abstract Expressionism had crested and Pop art and minimalism were about to reshape the art-historical canon.
Wilson was born Ann Marie Ubinger in Pittsburgh in 1931. The only child of erudite parents—her well-read father was a steel-factory publicist and her librarian mother an accomplished painter—she gained an interest in art as a child. After studying at Carnegie Tech alongside Philip Pearlstein and Andy Warhol (“possibly the only student at Carnegie Tech that wore a baby blue corduroy suit to graduation,” she told the Smithsonian Institution’s Jonathan Katz in 2009), she moved to Philadelphia, where she graduated from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Following a two-year stint teaching art history at the University of West Virginia, Morgantown, she moved to New York, where she was collected from the Greyhound bus station by collagist Ray Johnson, a friend of her future husband, William S. Wilson.
Through Johnson she was introduced to various members of the New York AbEx scene, whom she found too aggressively masculine and dismissive of women. Hoping to meet other artists, she attended an event hosted by the teachers of the Coenties Slip Drawing School, among them abstractionist Jack Youngerman and sculptor Robert Clark, who a few years hence would change his last name to Indiana. The latter took a liking to her and notified her of an upcoming vacancy at the Coenties Slip warehouse where he rented a studio alongside Kelly, Martin, and others. Wilson, who was then teaching at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and living in the West Village across the hall from poet ee cummings and a few doors down from modernist literary pioneer Djuna Barnes, moved into the space, and within a short time, as she later told Katz, the number of her art-world acquaintances “mushroomed.”
Wilson was already using the quilt as a substrate; while at Coenties Slip, she created perhaps her best-known work, Moby Dick, 1955, a five-by-seven-foot found quilt striated with acrylic paint (“Completely new information for me,” wrote Roberta Smith in these pages in 1974). Wilson continued to mine this vein into the 1960s, when the Coenties Slip scene began to fragment owing to the pressures of gentrification. Moving her studio uptown to Canal Street, Wilson grew involved in the Happenings and performance art then taking place there. She dumped the raw poultry, sausages, and fish on the performers of Carolee Schneeman’s iconic Meat Joy (1964). She became a close collaborator of Paul Thek, with whom she worked on installations, and with the experimental director and playwright Robert Wilson, contributing works to his productions. And she mounted her own performance projects, among them 1977’s “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” and 1981’s “Projekt Faust.” Concurrent with her artmaking, she taught all over the city—at Pratt, at Cooper Union, at Hunter College, and at Parsons School of Design. Her experience in this realm depressingly predicted modern art-school conditions. “I was one of the subway teachers,” she told Katz. “You know about them in New York? They never give you tenure.”
As the twentieth century drew to a close, Wilson moved upstate, where she taught at Dutchess Community College while continuing to make work and to explore forms both new and ancient. Her work is held in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Kunstmuseum Luzerne.