In those days Kevin
Rooney was driving an old 1950s Chevy sedan, a real classic with a
big, distinctive grill, and round shape and dark blue color. It was
greatly admired and kept running pretty good most of the time. I
always liked it alot. Well, about then he happened to acquire
another Chevy of the exact same model and color, which he bought
cheap, mainly, I guess, to have spare parts for his first car if he
needed them. Well, the second car didn’t run but he had it parked
in the driveway of his and Rachel’s house in Santa Cruz. He’d pull
his first car in behind it and the two identical cars would, of
course, elicit double-takes from passers-by.
“They look like
bookends,” said Kevin.
So, he got the idea to
do a “photo-tableau,” always casting about for new Triple-A projects,
and did a little sketch of his two cars holding up a collection of
giant books, cardboard, of course, on his front lawn.
We all thought it was a
riot and headed to Santa Cruz one sunny Saturday in the spring of
that year. He had gathered a bunch of used cardboard and we went to
work constructing some flimsy “volumes,” painted in bright colors
and propped them up between the cars, all our favorites:
“Huckleberry Finn,” “Fanny Hall,” and “All About Annuals.”
It was a silly stunt
and not much came of it except a great photo, which we reproduced
over the years and of which Kevin was always proud.
* * *
Then, too, in San
Francisco there was a lot of comment in the press and such about the
“Manhattanization” of San Francisco, and a certain amount of
movement to limit the size and density of new buildings going up in
the financial district downtown. I, of course, always had opinions
about everything and came up with the idea to write and publish a
simple tract about the esthetics of the architecture of the day. I
called it “To Whom It May Concern.”
My thesis was that the
new buildings were not TOO TALL, they were TOO UGLY! And I filled
the little book, about 24 pages, with drawings and sketches of what
I thought was more “esthetic” architecture. I came up with all
kinds of extreme and silly looking modern architecture which I
claimed would be a big improvement.
One of the ideas was to
ADD ART to the buildings. To show an example, we decided to stage a
photograph using some tall flats from Ready Set which we made look
like one of the “glass box” boring buildings downtown and then we
attached to the top a giant replica of one of Frank Stella’s
“protractor” paintings which I had painted for one of the pornos we
had done. Well, we hauled the whole contraption downtown to a
vacant lot one Sunday morning and set it up to look like part of the
skyline of San Francisco. It looked great and we always considered
it another of our best photo-tableaus.
Well, the little pamphlet
grew and I did a lot of drawings for it and printed up a couple dozen
which I gave out to friends and a few of the friends I had in City Hall,
like Tommy Ammiano, of course, and then one day I tracked down Sue
Bierman, a long-time favorite of mine, at that time head of the Planning
Commission, and put one in her very hands.
The interesting thing, though, a couple
years later the city began passing laws that any new building had to be
something different than a square box. They were called architecture
“esthetics” laws and set up a board to rule on the esthetics of any new
building. Some people called them the “Funny Hat” laws because every
building that was built from then on had to have a funny hat on top.
I felt vindicated.
* * *
Like I say,
I never actually printed my “open letter” but I kinda enjoyed playing around
with the format, which became like a four-by-six inch booklet of
about thirty pages and then I started to experiment with another..
I decided to pull out
and recycle the big black images from my paintings in the old hotel
in Los Angeles. I called them “Recent Paintings” and reproduced
them one per page, solid black images and titled them all “Untitled”
and made up imaginary sizes like 35 x 56 inches and dated them all
1982. On the last three pages I included “The Making of a Recent
Painting,” from rough draft to detailed drawing to finished work.
Finally, I closed with a photo of myself and a short bio.
It was going to be a
Xerox book, I thought, as photo-copies were just then becoming cheap
and common. But the quality of the copies was very poor and my nice,
pure black images came out all streaked.
“You’re really asking a
lot from this machine,” the guy said. Well sure, I thought.
So, I took it to an
offset, my old standard which I’d done a lot, and they came out
perfect, of course. I printed a hundred and people liked them a lot
and that was my first book, “Recent Paintings” by Bill Wolf. I
still have a few.
Then I was looking
around for another book to do and I remembered I had always hung on
to a series of big “lobby paintings” that I had done years before
for the play “Wolves” which we had done in Seattle and I had painted
these big sloppy, fast black-ink studies of wild-eyed wolves; six of
them. I had always liked them and others did too, but they were on
faded and torn pieces of big newsprint and were hardly holding
So I had Russell take
photos of them each, nice clear reproductions and I had half-tones
done of each one. Well, the half-tones came out perfect on the new
Xerox machines and I packaged them into a short art book with a nice
title page and all, and another photo of me and short bio. It was
called “Wolves” by Bill Wolf. It was my second book.
So, then too, I had all
the drawings of ridiculous buildings I had done for my
never-published booklet, “To Whom It May Concern.” They quickly
became a small book called “New Architecture” by Bill Wolf. It
included the photograph of the building with the Frank Stella
“protractor” painting on its top. It ended with a photo of me and a
studies also included the plans for a building we informally called
the “bent building” which showed a normal “glass box” but all
crumpled at about the thirtieth floor and then continues up at a
sever angle. Well, people thought it was funny and Maria always
liked it and, I guess as a surprise for me, she made a quite
impressive model of the building, crumpled floors and all, set in a
modern street plaza. Well, I had the model around for a long time
and it appears in numerous photos of us sitting around seriously
discussing architecture and such. Much later, Russell had to clean
out the old studio and throw out practically everything and well, a
bunch of the neighborhood kids who always liked our art studio, were
given the model if they wanted it and they were very pleased and
Russell took a great photo of the kids proudly displaying their new
“architectural model” for the camera. That was the last we saw of
Much later, Bill Wolf
was noted as the author of “New Architecture- 1982” and referred to
as an “urban expert” when the Oaxaca, Mexico, newspapers printed my
ideas about where to put the roving food stands in the center of the
city. But, as I say, that was much later.
So, I was looking
around for a forth book so I could call them “Four Books” by Bill
* * *
Those days, the studio
was a busy place and lots of work but kind of a mess, lots of junk
or stuff and long unpainted and kind of depressing. So somebody
comes up with the idea to really fix the place up and paint it nice
and what we needed was, of course, money to buy the paint and such.
So, we thought, the best thing would be to do a small benefit party,
and make a little stage and bring in chairs and have a show. We
called it the “Fix-Up-The-Studio Benefit Party.”
Joy was the MC, which
she liked a lot, using some of my old schtick from the Intersection
days, and Rightous Raul, Bermuda, and Matthew Perry singing, and
Tommy did more of his stand-up, and it was a great party; lots of
people came. I think we charged two-fifty or so. A few people,
Steven Matlaga and some of Jeffery’s hangers-on, came dressed in
their coveralls with the hammers, thinking it was going to be a
“fix-up-the-studio” party. Our group!
So, we had a little
money and we fixed up the studio real nice, emptied everything out
and organized the back room, took down (finally!) the overhead,
flourescent lights which Bermuda had always hated, cleaned off the
front windows and painted the whole place a nice, pure white, the
floor dark brown. From the outside, at night, with the lights on
inside, the place looked great. I was ready to do another
I decided to bring out
again my big, black painting from Los Angeles and from my book,
Recent Paintings. I designed another poster for the show.
would paint the rough-edged black image to cover the whole back wall of
the studio, up to about two feet from the edges all around, painting
over the old wainscoting and the back door, a part of the black
Lit up at night the image floated in air and glowed from
within. We took some nice photos of it and publicized it as “on
view 24 hours” and got some good ink from the papers.
locked and the lights on all night, it was up for about a month and
I never could really go into the studio, except in back, and a lot
of people came to see it and cars driving by slowly all night long.
We later heard comments that taxi drivers would take their fares by
and point it out.
I wanted to follow that
with something that would bring in lots of people and came up with a
“walk-in tableau.” I built, with Ready Set flats, of course, a
perfectly square, white cube in the middle of the space with a small
square opening and a sign that said “Walk in.” Inside I built a
carefully constructed replica of one of the tattered, flea-bag hotel
rooms of my old, early days in Pioneer Square in Seattle, with its faded
wallpaper, old iron bed, bureau and crook-neck lamp. Through
the torn window shade the dim lights of a street at night and a
blinking neon sign shown down on rumpled bed clothes, where, on the
sheets and covers, on the bureau, congealing on the worn, linoleum
floor, and splattered violently across the rusted headboard, lay an
enormous pool of dripping, fresh red blood. Otherwise, the room was
empty. I called it “Crime of Passion.”
I wanted the blood to
be fresh and liquid-looking and we had announced a month run, so it
was a bit of a question how to do it and make it last a long time
without drying out. Russell went to Janet, who had long done props
for Ready Set and was in the process of starting her own prop
company. So they worked on it and she came up with a mixture of
paint and very wet corn starch, and it stayed wet a long time.
I remember about three
quarters of the way through the month, Russell said, Bill, it’s
looking a little tired in there, dusty and well, sticky dry, you
know? You should do a big revamp, spruce it up and go out with a
And so we did; we took
off the bedding and washed it, cleaned the place and splattered the
whole thing with fresh blood. It was a great idea and I felt good
about how the show looked. I’ve often remembered his words and have
been inspired to give the show my all, right up to the last
I thought Janet was
quite clever and a big help. Much later she would devise a special
prop for “Aqua Clara” in Mexico, where I needed a whole bunch of
shit poured on one of the actors, costume and all, and which would
not stain his clothes for the following nights’ performances. She
was again very helpful, but, as I say, that was much later and I’m
getting ahead of myself.
“Crime of Passion” was
a little complicated to run. We had advertised being open a month,
from the 19 of September through the 18 of October; this was 1982.
I put our hours on the front window and kept both front doors wide
open. I also had a sound track running, some kind of late night bar
music, and lights on the white cube inside, so the place had an
“open” look to it. I didn’t want to be seen, sort of sitting there
minding the gallery, you know, but I wanted to let people know there
was someone there, watching the place. So, I pretty much hung out
in back, making myself imaginary reasons to go up front or cross the
back every few minutes, clearing my throat and making a little noise
back stage. It was a long run.
But I loved hearing the
people go in and out, and I was very close to them, there in the
back room. The sound track, too, freed them somewhat to be verbal
and gasp or what ever. Many people stood a long time, silently,
shocked, thinking. Others would barely stand one look, say Oh, God!
and walk out immediately.
But the best were the
Mexican neighbors and families from the area. They’d always liked
my stuff, if never really understanding what exactly this Bill Wolf
was doing. But with this one, I hit it! They got it right away.
It was to scare you! Boys brought in their girlfriends, older
brothers their little siblings, and the whole family pushed in their
terrified grandmother, against her will, screaming at the top of her
lungs and everybody just dying of laughter.
I was terribly pleased
and have heard continued comments about it over the years.
It also lent itself to
the camera. Russell set up and shot an impressive close-up of the
scene on color film. We sent it to the annual photo contest in
Photography magazine, and it won honorable mention, which, of
course, over the years I’ve shortened to “annual photo contest
winner” for my resume.
Then, too, in the back
of my mind, I guess, I knew I was building the set for another
tableau which I had been imagining for a long time; it was a photo-story.
It, too, recalled back from those magic first days in old Pioneer
Square in Seattle, and my life among the winos and Indians and
artists under the grey, dripping skies of the Northwest. It tells
the story of an old guy, maybe a salesman, living in a flophouse
hotel, lying in bed, playing solitaire on his lap on thread-bare
blankets, a bottle of whiskey by his side and a Gideon Bible, when
suddenly an unseen figure steps through the door and prepares to
fire a gun into the room. The guy has only time to reach
desperately to his side for protection, half-blindly grabbing the
Bible and raising it to the shooter. The gun is fired and the
shooter runs off leaving the guy prostrate across the bed. He
slowly opens his eyes to find the bullet firmly lodged in the Bible
now fallen across his chest. I saw it as an about fifteen-photo
So at the end of Crime
of Passion, we cleaned up the set and got rid of the blood and set
up our scene. Russell would play the guy, I’d always seen him as
such, and Jonathan, in big overcoat and hardly seen, the shooter.
David and Joy both came over to shoot the photos, David setting up
the shot and Joy pushing the button. It was shot in grainy black
I had wanted to focus
at the end on the bullet in the Bible and thought it was important
to be able to read the verse underneath, but I couldn’t think what
it should say, flipping through and reading some likely verses but
not satisfied. Russell asked his mother.
“Well, ‘Put on the
whole armor of God’ of course,” she said immediately.
And so it was. I
enlarged the words of that one verse, and the following, “that ye
may withstand the Devil” and pasted them into the Bible, the bullet
It was fun to shoot and
we took our time. It looked great. We ended up with a quite small
toy pistol, but we managed a sort of artistic angle and disguised
it; a blurred flash of white at the shot. Finally the Bible has
fallen on the guy’s chest and we come in for a close-up on Russell.
“OK, Russell, this is
where you do your acting,” I directed.
“Oh, thanks! Like,
what have I been doing so far, Bill?” he said.
Russell gave it his
It was a beautiful
series and people liked it a lot and I had my forth book. I called
it “The Armor of God” by Bill Wolf and did a small edition of Xerox
copies and a shiny, black cover.
So, I had my four
books, that is, 100 nice copies of Recent Paintings and only a
handful of the other three and have ended up with a big box of TOO
many “Recent Paintings” and like one of each of the others. Maybe
one of these days I’ll get around to making some Xerox copies at
least. So, then I was working on a kind of ethereal thing called
“The Bermuda Think Tank Participant’s Handbook.” to which I would
return with significant energies several times in the future. But
meanwhile going back and forth to my studio in Los Angeles, notice
how I’m now calling the old hotel, “my studio.” I did love the
place and going down and being alone and, I guess, getting away from
it all, you know.
* * *
Bermuda, along with
Matthew Perry, who was real close to us those days from working on
the sets and such, opened a classy little set of music; they called
it “In a Nutshell,” she singing her songs and he singing his, then
them together, at the Roxie Roadhouse, the sort of restaurant-bar of
a little motel right off Van Ness in the Upper Tenderlion in San
Francisco. I did the poster for them and everybody came, of course,
and they were a good little hit there for a while. They would do
Sam D’Alesandro, a
friend of Jeffery’s and Steven’s and that gang of gay guys, you
know, did a reading of his poetry at the studio to a big house. It
was called "A Depressing Evening of Nasty, Disgusting and Suicidal
And that disease,
which I had learned about at that conference at Brooks Hall last
year, kept being mentioned. And people kept hearing about people
who had it.
* * *
So, you get the picture,
on-and-off artistic stuff, but nothing really big, I felt, and just
lots of set work. Well, I was good at it and it certainly paid well,
to go back and forth to LA and all, but unsatisfying, somehow,
reproducing, realistically, somebody’s quite uninteresting idea that
was supposed to sell some quite unnecessary product. Ready Set was
doing all commercials now. We had left the heady, romantic,
rebellious days of the pornos far behind. I think I mentioned that
my porno-hospital extravaganza “Candystripers” had landed me lots
sets of hospitals and doctors’ offices for pharmaceutical company
training films. AAAAGGGGGHHHHH!
Meanwhile, Maria had
wisely taken advantage of Laurence Sanders’ permanent absence from
his town house on 71st Street in New York, and we talked on the
phone from time to time.
“So, what are you doing
“Oh, not much, you
know, Maria. And You?”
“Oh, Bill, it’s so
exciting here, I’ve been asked to be in a show at the Whitney and
I’m being interviewed for a magazine and ...blah, blah, blah, .....”
Well, she didn’t say
that, of course. But she did say, Bill, come to New York, and I
thought Hell, I’ll go.
* * *