Bill Wolf






            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.





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            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.


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            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 together.

            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 short bio.

            The architecture 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 it.





            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 Wolf.


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            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 installation.


            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.




            I 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 image.




            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.




            The doors 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 bang!

            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 customer.

            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 tableau.

            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 and white.

            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 artistically protruding.

            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 all.

            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.


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            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 lots more.




            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 Poetry."


            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.


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            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 these days,.Bill?”

            “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.



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