George Wyllie - A Life Less Ordinary

April 2012

Publication: The Times

GIVEN George Wyllie’s prolific, unusual and popularly accessible artistic career, the title of this show – which also, sadly, marks the final exhibition in the Collins Gallery’s 39-year existence – is apt.


Wyllie – who was born in Shettleston, Glasgow in 1921 – had no formal training as an artist and for many years he pursued a career as an exciseman. Wyllie is a man of prodigious talent with a special ability to communicate with audiences of all levels and backgrounds.  A talented musician, a practical and intellectual joker, an artistic prankster, a jester, an unabashed self-publicist – Wyllie is all of these and more. Yet, underlying his humour, this very Glaswegian extrovert harbours an agenda of high seriousness – moral, aesthetic and political. With typical aplomb Wyllie devised the term ‘Scul?tor’ to describe himself and his approach.   The coinage denotes the questioning that lies, necessarily and literally, at the centre of his work.


Wyllie’s talent lies in his ability to fuse complex ideas (such as the politics of industrial decline, economics, kinetics, engineering and much else) with eye-catching imagery, large-scale publicity stunts and headline-grabbing projects. These have included the very public burning of a life-size straw locomotive suspended from a giant Clydeside crane and the launching of a crewed, scaled-up paper boat in Glasgow, Antwerp, London and New York.  As he sailed into New York, Wyllie bore a copy of Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiment’, the Enlightenment genius’ counterpart to his later work, ‘The Wealth of Nations’.  Smith’s work argues that true wealth lies in the human imagination. In many of his endeavours Wyllie was accompanied and supported by his late wife, Daphne.


As with so many artists in their early careers Wyllie was supported, vigorously and whole- heartedly, by Richard Demarco who included Wyllie in a group show as early as 1966. Under Demarco’s auspices Wyllie met the pre-eminent German artist Joseph Beuys whom Wyllie visited at his Düsseldorf studio and home in 1981. In the same year Wyllie (accompanied by the artist Dawson Murray) helped Beuys install his most significant work made in Scotland, ‘The Poorhouse Doors’.


In 2006 Wyllie donated his voluminous and valuable archive to the University of Strathclyde (the institution has been a long term supporter of Wyllie’s endeavours). It is from this rich and fascinating collection of writings, photographs, artworks, objects and paraphernalia that this show is drawn.


Wyllie’s status is largely under-estimated by many in the ‘art establishment’.  Given his long association with the Collins Gallery and university, it seems perverse and shameful that the university authorities have chosen to close this valuable and highly respected venue (which was set in motion by enthusiastic voluntary idealism in the early Seventies) in a misguided attempt to cut costs. 


It’s an irony that would not be missed by figures such as Beuys, Adam Smith and Wyllie himself.