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.