For William Wilson, the former Los Angeles Times art critic who died Saturday at the age of 78, art was a childhood refuge, a teenage survival mechanism, and, finally, a career that saw him chronicle the city's rise in art-world stature from his first byline in 1965 to his retirement in 1998.

"He grew up under really rotten circumstances, and was just a self-made person," said Diane Leslie, a novelist who was a close friend.

Another longtime friend, artist Don Lagerberg, said Wilson died in his sleep at a Los Angeles care facility from Alzheimer's disease, which had been diagnosed about four years ago.

Wilson, born July 5, 1934,  never knew his father and often talked of hard times growing up in Los Angeles with a single mother who was given to radical mood swings and who fell to her death in an apparent suicide when he was 18. Among his boyhood memories, Leslie said, was eating a great deal of canned tuna — and noticing that sometimes the can had a picture of cats on it.

He often spoke of how his mother took him to the library, where he would pore over picture books.

"With that kind of reality, why would he not want to draw pictures, write stories, act in plays and be in some other reality?" asked Lagerberg, a UCLA classmate and art professor emeritus at Cal State Fullerton.

From those beginnings, according to Leslie, Wilson made himself into a man who was smitten with and tried to live as if moving through the elegant, aesthetically charged world of pre-World War I Paris that novelist Marcel Proust captured in his epic fictional sequence "In Search of Lost Time."

He was a dapper dresser, sometimes favoring velvet jackets, and himself a creator who made films and began sculpting in bronze after asking noted Los Angeles sculptor Robert Graham to give him a studio demonstration.

Wilson befriended artists such as Graham, Richard Diebenkorn and Peter Alexander while probing for feature story quotes from the Andy Warhols of the world, and charting the rise of the Los Angeles art scene beginning in February 1965, the month before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened.

At Polytechnic High School, then in downtown Los Angeles, the smallish, wiry Wilson later recalled, he used his drawing ability to turn potential threats into friends. "It was a very rough neighborhood ... but he'd draw indelible ink tattoos on their arms and everybody admired him," Leslie said.

When his mother died, Wilson was acting in plays directed by Los Angeles City College theater professor Norman Mennes, who took him in and became a surrogate father. Wilson had no immediate survivors.

He earned a degree in design at UCLA in 1963 and continued with graduate studies in art history. Meanwhile, he supported himself as an advertising designer and illustrator, and began to contribute pieces to Art Forum magazine.

Henry Seldis, then the Los Angeles Times' art critic, liked his writing, and invited him to contribute to the newspaper in early 1965. Soon Wilson was eliciting the views of Alfred H. Barr Jr., legendary founding director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, during Barr's first visit to Los Angeles to see the newly opened Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"I had no idea there was so much out here," Barr told Wilson. "I favor the artistic independence of Los Angeles to create a balance and distribution of ideas and talent…. She will be a healthy counterforce to the New York schools."

When Seldis died in 1978, Wilson became the lead art critic and held that chair until 1998.

Wilson liked to deploy a playful wit. Commenting on LACMA's 20th anniversary in 1985, he wrote that its opening two decades earlier had "seemed to leave little doubt that Los Angeles had arrived, or was about to arrive, or soon would make an excellent approach to arriving at fully caparisoned civic civility and artistic maturity." Twenty years on, he noted with tongue somewhat in cheek: "It is still crystal clear that Los Angeles is on the very brink of growing up…. Is it truly true that Southern California and all of its creations are suspended in a state of perpetual adolescence?"

While on his beat, Wilson was nothing but business, recalled longtime Los Angeles gallery owner Jack Rutberg. "When Bill Wilson walked into the room, it seemed like a shield went up. You knew that he wasn't there to chitchat.... He really wanted to be able to convey his own journalistic response. He had no agenda, and in my view it was always a very honest read."

Leslie has fond memories of Wilson taking her to the opening of a 1970 Warhol exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, and employing extreme politeness — addressing the artist as "Mr. Warhol" — to win his cooperation.

But her most cherished memory, she said, is rooted in a visit with Wilson to what is now the Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park. He had taken refuge there as a boy, when it was the Los Angeles County Museum, housing art as well as scientific displays.

"A guard walked over to him and said: 'You used to come here when you were a little boy, didn't you? I remember you. You looked at every painting so hard.' "

mike.boehm@latimes.com