san francisco art magazine archives

Masquerade and Revelation:
A William Wolff Retrospective

Saint Mary's College of California
Hearst Art Gallery
1928 Saint Mary's Road, Moraga, CA 94575

March 16-April 21, 2002
Reception March 17, 2-4pm
Wed-Sun 11am-4:30pm (closed Easter Sunday)
Reviewed by DeWitt Cheng

Sometimes the way is beautiful.
(Title from Rouault's print series Miserere)

Peace Elements - William Wolff

Peace Elements, 1994
color woodcut
Collection of the artist

     Those in the Bay Area fortunate enough to know printmaker William Wolff through his artwork or his teaching over the last sixty years cannot but be delighted with this retrospective. The Hearst Gallery at Saint Mary's College featured several Wolff woodcuts in last year's The Artist And The Bible: Twentieth Century Works on Paper, and has recognized in him a rarity, anomaly, even, in today's art world: a contemporary artist who, like Blake and Rouault before him, finds continuing relevance in religion and literature, and has forged powerful imagery from his investigations. On view here are over 100 works: woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, drawings and paintings, dating from the 1940's to the present. Art lovers just now discovering William Wolff can join us older fans already clapping our hands for joy. Thanks to Art Hazlewood, editor of the California Society of Printmakers, author of the illuminating catalogue essay, and friend of the artist; and Julie Armistead, Hearst Art Gallery Registrar. Besides creating this show, they have added to the gallery's permanent collection a trove of fifty prints donated by the artist, dedicated to the memory of his late beloved daughter Maria.

     A San Francisco native, Wolff has spent his entire career in the Bay Area, studying at the California School of Fine Arts (later SFAI) before World War II, and at Mills and UC Berkeley after his return. He shared a studio with James Weeks and painted from the figure with Charles Griffin Farr's circle; he showed paintings at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in the Fifties and woodcuts at City Lights Books in the early Sixties. Although he studied etching with Gordon Cook and lithography from Richard Graf in the late Sixties, and pastel with Rupert Garcia in the late Eighties, Wolff's best-known works remain his color woodcuts, with their rough-hewn simple shapes and boldly stylized imagery belying their emotional complexity.

"The Man who never in his Mind & Thoughts traveled to Heaven Is No Artist."
William Blake

     It is the emotional complexity, based on Wolff's literary and philosophical sensibility, that separates him from most of the Bay Area figurative painters who are his contemporaries. While their painterly work is fundamentally esthetic, aiming at visual delight, Wolff's work, despite his appropriation of modernist devices (abstraction, simplification, bright flat color, and collage-based composition), has quite a different goal, older, and perhaps impossibly ambitious: the investigation of man's place in the cosmos. Modest enough and bibliophile enough to revere the canons of western drama, mythology and religion, he is also ambitious enough to use them for personal ends -- to engage in a dialogue with them. G.K. Chesterton once described the authentic conservative (as opposed to our current media blowhards) as a man who takes equality so seriously that he does not limit his interlocutors to the living: even his own [artistic] fathers may, after all, be right. In a stylistic/historic sense Wolff's work is conservative, its formal ideas derived from the innovations of the early 20th century. But, like other art that endures, where invention transcends and transforms sources, and creativity sparks matter into life, it is of two natures: partaking of its time (and a window into that time) and timeless. One religious writer (Leon Bloy?) influential when Rouault created his Miserere series ninety years ago opined that the crucifixion and other religious mysteries took place eternally in a perpetual transtemporal present. Good art likewise stays good: why else frequent museums?

"I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create."
William Blake

Sculptor - William Wolff

Sculptor, 1991
color woodcut
Collection of
the Fine Arts Museums of SF,
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts

     Yet Wolff's art, pervaded by the big questions, never becomes sentimental or dogmatic; it never sinks to the mystagogic kitsch of an Odd Nerdrum Wolff's mutely expressive figures, often reduced almost to head and hands (indicative of his enthusiasm for puppetry and theater), enacting dramas of transfiguration and transcendence. Although we clearly are viewing an allegorical or metaphoric world -- the figures belong to no particular period or country, and the buildings and cities are not quite real -- the effects and emotions are felt, and the viewer responds, almost without knowing why. The images strike a chord in us rarely struck these days. They are religious but not religiose, and contemporary viewers haven't learned to tell the difference; or they're uncomfortable with such unfashionable notions in art made after, say, 1800.

     Since the early 19th century, artists have, like much of secular society, struggled with the religious urge and the question of where to direct it* (and aren't religious and artistic impulses both efforts to correct life, to paper over the fissures of reality?). According to Art Hazlewood's catalogue essay, "the question of where his [Wolff's] beliefs might fit in his art is not easy to answer. To this question the artist has always remained silent." Here's the theory, for what it's worth, of a sympathetic artist. Wolff, like many artists, dislikes orthodoxy and fixed hierarchies, and he refuses to put himself and his work into categories defined by others. That he is interested in religion as an artistic concern, that he has religious feelings in the broadest sense, of that there can be no doubt: his generosity, modesty and lack of egotism are bywords. No doubt he would consider it presumptuous and discourteous to impose his beliefs (or doubts) on others. Jorge Luis Borges described one of the friends of his youth, aptly named or nicknamed Almafuerte (Strong Soul) as "a mystic without faith." Wolff would balk at such dramatic terminology, but I believe that mysticism is there in the work. Trends come and go, ebb and flow in the art world, with the Next Big Thing our perfect wave. Bill Wolff has kept at his work, with pencil, paper, graver, ink, and, for burnishing prints, a worn wooden spoon. But the work he has created over sixty years has deep roots, sustains itself in adverse conditions, and is evergreen.

--DeWitt Cheng
     DeWitt Cheng, a Bay Area artist and freelance art writer, is a contributing editor to SFAM.

     *Robert Rosenblum's Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko details the displacement of religious feelings into the painted landscape and eventually into abstraction.