William Wolff
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William Wolff
My Work with William Wolff - Art Hazelwood 1/14/08

In 1996 I met William Wolff for the first time. Roy Ragle, an artist and mutual acquaintance, introduced us, thinking that as fellow woodcut artists we should know each other. We spent the day going through the huge stacks of loose prints scattered throughout the living room of Bill’s house. A while later I came back to buy a print and then to help Bill in hanging some artwork at a show he was in. That day Bill’s wife, Marguerite, asked me if I would help organize Bill’s work.

Bill was in poor health even then, suffering from Parkinson’s disease. His wife was also ill and died in 1998, but she was able to set up the template that enabled me to work with Bill from then until his death in October of 2004.

For a period of eight years I came to visit Bill once a week, usually on Tuesdays. During my visits if he was able to talk I would ask him about his work and life. I would arrange visits by collectors, curators and friends. I organized, cataloged and documented all of his prints. I spent years getting him to sign every single print he had done. There are about 800 prints in his entire oeuvre. Early on I organized a sale of his most damaged work in order to begin the revival of interest in his art. Bill had been unable to be active in the art world in later years but he still had a great reputation and on the day of the sale there were people lined up outside his door before we opened.

That first sale event was followed by small group shows and then a one person show at the Fetterly Gallery in Vallejo. The curator there, Dan Robeski, gave Bill what amounted to a retrospective in 1999. That show was seen by Louis Girling a collector living in San Francisco who wrote an article about Bill which was published in the California Printmaker, the publication of the California Society of Printmakers. In turn that article sparked the interest of Julie Armistead, registrar at the Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. Julie and I arranged for a large donation of Bill’s prints to the Hearst Gallery collection and a subsequent retrospective there in 2002.

Soon other fans of Bill’s work gathered around him to form what we facetiously called the Friends of Bill or FOB. In addition to Louis Girling and Julie Armistread, print dealer Larry Warnock became interested in Bill’s work and writer DeWitt Cheng, and fellow artists Anthony Ryan and Alice Gibbons joined the group as well.

Over this period I organized donations of Bill’s work to many institutions. Most notable among the curators was the enthusiastic David Kiehl curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He immediately saw Bill’s work as important and powerful, and we arranged a donation of fifteen of Bill’s woodcuts to the museum. Additionally I organized donations to the Achenbach, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library among several others.

In the last year or so of Bill’s life the FOB worked together to document Bill’s paintings. Bill had a basement studio and it was filled with large paintings on masonite. Many of these paintings were much too large for a frail old man to lift in order to look through them. As I would bring painting after painting to show Bill in his living room he expressed a kind of joy as in unexpectedly seeing an old friend. Each painting brought back stories of the times when he was working on the paintings, and inevitably would lead to stories about sharing a studio with James Weeks in the 1940s and 50s.

In 2003 Bill insisted on going to see the exhibition of James Weeks paintings at the Charles Campbell Gallery. This was quite an adventure for a man in his condition but he made it up the stairs to see the show and in the process generated the interest of gallery director Steve Lopez. Steve came to see the paintings and was interested in seeing more, the dark cramped basement being a difficult place to view these large dynamic paintings. Finally in 2007 the Charles Campbell Gallery presented an exhibition of William Wolff paintings, most, if not all, of which had not been seen since the 1950s.

Shortly after the show at the Charles Campbell Gallery went up I had a dream in which Bill was fine, unaffected by the ravages of Parkinson’s. I interpreted the dream to mean that now he can take care of himself, that his artwork is able to take its place in the world.