The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College and the author. Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College is presenting the exhibition Masquerade and Revelation: A William Wolff Retrospective, which will be on view March 16 through April 21, 2002. An illustrated catalogue containing this essay may be purchased through the museum's bookshop. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College directly through either the following phone number or web address:


William Wolff: Themes and Motifs

by Art Hazelwood


William Wolff is an anomaly. In an age of revolving art fashions he has shown an allegiance to a modernist tradition in both theme and style. He has lived his entire life in San Francisco and has always been engaged in the Bay Area art world, through his association with seminal Bay Area figurative painters, as well as through his connection with printmaking organizations. He has been involved with artists and writers, as a friend, as a peer, as a portraitist. But despite these associations he has remained apart from the general direction of this art world. At a time of decreasing interest in artistic tradition he stuck to a belief in the importance of subject matter as well as to a stylistic approach that draws its inspiration from the modernist artists of the first half of the twentieth century.

His work was never engulfed by the tidal wave of art movements during the period of his greatest activity, from 1950 to 2000, and he has continued to nurture the artistic traditions in which literary knowledge provides the subject matter and themes for visual art. Biblical imagery, Commedia dell' Arte characters, classical and Shakespearean motifs, inspirations from poets and writers such as Antonio Machado. John Steinbeck, Rafael Alberti and portraits of authors (including Antonin Artaud, Wilfrid Owen, and Lawrence Fcrlinghetti) constitute some of the references in his work. These references and others show his allegiance to a cultural history that is steeped in literature,

In William Wolff's work we find an art that comes from a literary and literate mind. But one might ask whether contemporary viewers, who often lack this basic literary knowledge, have the ability to appreciate such themes. This question points to the value of the modernist visual tradition, for he borrows not only from the themes of culture but also from the stylistic language of modernism. And the forms of modernism give a new and potent meaning to the older themes.

His etching of the once commonly illustrated story of the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) is a good example. The etching, which uses the Biblical verse as a title ("Then Herod Sent Forth And Slew All The Children That Were In Bethlehem"), through its use of rough and uncertain lines gives an immediacy that the more composed and often monumental paintings of past ages no longer have for us. He is not updating the images. He never puts historical characters in contemporary dress, nor is he at all concerned with historical accuracy. His concern is to update the expressive form of the tradition.

Perhaps his study with Max Beckmann at Mills College in 1950 had a decisive effect on Wolff's link to the expressive language of modernism and the value of traditional themes. He has said that Beckmann was the "last of the heroes" with whom he could study. Certainly the visual language of many modernists who employed the language of art in the pursuit of ideas and not purely of sensation had a profound influence on him.

This modernist language can be seen in his use of geometric forms to represent faces, his exploration of the structure of things through an underlying network of line, his simplification of the human figure for symbolic content, and his use of the gesture of the human figure to impart meaning. For although Wolff took an active part in the world of the Bay Area Figurative artists, (he shared a studio with James Weeks, one of the central figures in that movement, from 1949 to 1955) his approach to the figure was essentially different from that of the Bay Area Figurative school in which the human figure was portrayed as color and shape integrated into the surrounding world. In Wolff's work, the human figure always stands out as a force of meaning.

In his paintings from about 1942 to 1956, the human figures are portrayed in a simplified but realistic way, whether he is painting a portrait or a boxing match or a courtroom confrontation from the era of McCarthyism. From this loosely realistic approach Wolff moved in the late 1950s to a more expressive and personal style. These later paintings suggest an ancient Mediterranean world, and people are depicted in various activities ranging from arguing to war. What is notable about these paintings is that they manifest for the first time the expressive line that Wolff employed throughout his career to give structure to the human figure.

With his introduction to printmaking in 1960, a new direction opened for Wolff. Printmaking was the medium that allowed the full content of Wolff's expression to flower. Perhaps it was the relative speed of printmaking, or its more modest scale compared with his paintings that immediately appealed to Wolff. In printmaking he was able to focus on the figure to the exclusion of all else, and many of his early prints are of a single figure with no suggestion of a background. And perhaps this graphic quality of print was the most appealing of all to the artist. In his painting, the picture plane had gradually become flattened, and in retrospect it can be seen that printmaking was an obvious next step.

Wolff began with woodcut, and has focused on it throughout his career, though later he also took up etching, silk-screen and lithography. With printmaking, Wolff found a medium that allowed for expressive line work and a graphic boldness that could express both his themes and his rough modernist style.

In pursuing prints to the gradual exclusion of painting, Wolff developed and broadened his themes and vocabulary. The maturity of his style dates from about 1968, when he is confident in his technique and is working for a time in several print media.

Theater and Masks

An interest in theater pervades Wolff's work: Actors, masks, clowns and Shakespearean characters abound as do images from the Commedia dell' Arte. The Commedia, a form of street theater dating back to the Renaissance, had been important to modernists in the early twentieth century such as Stravinsky, Cocteau, Satie, and Picasso. It was brought to Wolff's attention by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which modeled for his figure drawing group in theatrical dress. The Commedia and mime itself experienced a brief rebirth in giving voice to political protest during the Vietnam War. That non-conformist theatrical style which is the counterpoint to scripted theatcr exerted a powerful pull on Wolff. The rough-hewn actors of the Commedia which represent both a tradition and an anti-tradition are in perfect alignment with Wolff's work. The Commedia combines traditional characters with freeform plots to create contemporary theater on controversial issues much the way Wolff uses the historical form of modernist esthetics and the tradition of literary sources to speak to the present moment.

The Commedia is essentially a theater of the mask, and masks for Wolff are a recurring theme. Wolff's mask prints suggest that the reality of the mask is greater than that of the actor. In several prints the actor behind the mask is represented as merely a simplified head. All the drama -- indeed, all the life -- is in the mask itself. And the mask is not a festive reality. In woodcuts such as "War Nuke," "Prisoners," and "Human Map," the mask is the force of militarism or brutality or the nature of reality itself:

From 1990 to 1992 Wolff collaborated with a group of artists associated with the Graphic Arts Workshop in San Francisco to produce Shakespeare: The Printmakers' Folio, a set of twenty-one prints accompanied by text. Wolff's affiliation with the Graphic Arts Workshop, a print studio cooperative, dates from 1969 and continues to the present. This collaboration is one of several Wolff` worked on that involved literary themes: A poetry folio from 1964 pairs a woodcut of Wolff's with a poem by Andrew Hoyem, founder of Arion Press, and the year 2001 saw the completion of a book of poems by James Joseph Campbell accompanied by fourteen of Wolff's woodcut prints.

Theater was always a passion for Wolff, and he took classes, attended lectures, and kept abreast of the theater world. In the early 1970s he began work on several animated films, the most complete of which is The Art of War. These films explore his themes in a medium that provides an insight into his style. In his prints, repeating and overlapping lines define forms, faces and limbs are often seen more than once and from different angles. This portrayal of action in his static work becomes clearer after viewing his animated films.

Myth and Resurrection

The ancient world, both its mythology and its history, has long fascinated Wolff. An image that has particularly obsessed him was the meeting of Odysseus and the princess Nausicaa. Odysseus, the cunning soldier, washed up on shore, his ship and entire crew lost, meets the princess Nausicaa playing on a lonely beach. This encounter of brute force lost and alone in an alien and hostile world, at the mercy of beauty, playfulness, and love was explored by Wolff in several media in thirteen prints.

Orpheus and Eurydice are another couple whose story is explored by Wolff. He portrays Orpheus leading Eurydice from Hades. In the woodcut titled "Orpheus and Eurydice" he captures that moment when the couple is briefly reunited before Orpheus loses Eurydice once more. Orpheus, the embodiment of artistic power over life, is still unable to save his love from death. In the woodcut "Orpheus," the poet is clearly associated with Christ, as the name Orpheus and the early Christian symbol for Christ appear in Greek characters on the print. The resurrecting power- of Orphcus/Christ and the theme of death and love is accentuated. These themes are explored throughout Wolff's work.

From mythological couples one can turn to Wolff's treatments of lovers from the late 1980s, a series to which he gave the Spanish name Amantes. Wolff's mother was Guatemalan, and his command of Spanish gave him access to a vibrant culture that has always been significant for him. Many of his prints bear Spanish titles. The figures in the Amantes series seem both sensual and involved in a ritualistic act. In one woodcut, "Embrace I" the male character seems to carry the stigmata, suggesting that even in portrayals of sensual life the artist was cognizant of his themes. Love, death, resurrection and sensuality are brought together in this print. The embracing couple exists in a star filled space where limbs and hands suggest entanglement and motion.

The Amantes series from 1988 was created during Wolff's second marriage. His first wife, Helyn Lum Wolff, had died in 1981, and the suggestion of an extra leg in "Embrace I" is perhaps significant in a psychological sense. The extra limbs in this print could be viewed as suggestive of another's presence in the moment of love and therefore of the resurrecting power of love.

Biblical Themes

A Biblical story that carries the theme of death and resurrection is that of Lazarus, which Wolff portrayed in two woodcut versions. In one, " Lazarus Come Out," Christ is represented only by a pair of hands, one tinged on the fingers with red, perhaps suggesting the blood of the dead or the life giving blood emanating from Jesus. Lazarus is swathed in cloth but his face and hands are visible. A third hand in Lazarus's sarcophagus suggests movement and a coming to life. Movement is further suggested by the pattern of the hands of Christ and Lazarus as they form a circular dance of life overcoming death.

Biblical themes might be viewed as a literary influence on Wolff. His approach suggests a literary reading as opposed to an emotional one. The tradition of portraying Biblical themes in the Western visual arts could also account for some of Wolff's interest in the subjects he chose to portray. Although Wolff was raised Catholic there is no evident division between his literary and religious feelings in his art. There is no distinction in style nor is there any clear idealization in his religious work. The question of where his beliefs might fit in his art is not easy to answer. To this question the artist has always remained silent. However, it is certainly significant that about a fifth of his more than 700 unique prints are Biblically inspired.

The dominant source of his Biblical images is the Book of Revelation. Again and again he returns to the images of apocalypse. Wolff's emphasis on Revelation connects to his portrayals of Orpheus and Lazarus, as well as to his portrayal of three separate visions of the resurrected Christ in the prints " Emmaus," and "They Gave Him A Fish To Eat" and his etching series Simon Peter Saith Unto Them, I Go A Fishing. The Book of Revelation is a vision of resurrection for the entire world and it is fitting that Wolff would emphasize it. Although the images often portray apocalyptic chaos, one senses a desire to show the new heaven and earth coming into being. The etching "Babylon The Great Is Fallen, Fallen," through a whirl of carrion birds and collapsing buildings, presents both the destruction and the liberating feeling of that destruction. In the Biblical images Wolff portrays, just as in all of his work, there is no romanticism. There is room only for direct expression in his pursuit of eternal truths.

The Human Figure

An important foundation of Wolff's work is his figure studies, which he has pursued for his entire career. Wolff drew from models on a weekly basis for years with a group surrounding the artist Charles Griffin Farr. These figure studies, which also worked their way into his prints, exhibit the only clearly visible relation in his later work to the Bay Area art movements. And yet it is obvious he was taking in through his figure drawing something that, in his prints, served far different ends: an expressive, symbolic or mythical portrayal of humanity rather than a realistic depiction of the human form.

Many of his portraits in woodcut and etching come directly from models. But as with his Commedia dell' Arte prints, which began from actor models and moved away from realism, his portraits also moved towards a more subjective portrayal. He has portrayed friends and family, as well as artists, writers and historical figures. His selection of historical portraits reveals his preoccupation with literature, but his portraits of contemporaries are primarily artists -- those associated with the Graphic Arts Workshop or with the California Society of Printmakers, a printmaking association of which he was president from 1988 to 1990.

Landscapes and Birds

The use of nature themes -- still lifes, landscapes, trees, and birds -- is integrated by his stylistic approach into the body of his work. Perhaps unexpectedly, one finds even here thematic relations to the rest of Wolff's work, as in his woodcut of an owl that refers back to Athena and the classical tradition. The doves
and ravens appearing in many prints may not be literary references but they certainly resonate with symbolic content. A print from 1994," Peace Elements," represents a stylized bird whose meaning is suggested by the title. In this woodcut several important symbols -- the bird, the hand, the mask -- come together in an iconic totem.

The landscape was a theme that Wolff began to pursue shortly after beginning printmaking, and here also there are relations to literature. One print which toured American Embassies around the world in the 1960s and 1970s is titled " Long Valley" after a collection of Steinbeck's short stories. This is not to suggest that everything Wolff created was literary but that everything he thought about reverberated with literary overtones.

The Invisible City

All of Wolff's themes are unified through his style. The figure studies are forms that seem rough and at the same time have great sensitivity to stance, weight, expression, and, above all, energy. The woodcut portraits and scenes of nature are similarly heavy, somber and simple, somewhat formalistic and yet they have a contrasting vivacity and sensitivity that gives them surprising warmth. The figures in his prints often break down, from human forms into abstracted or geometric shapes that become masks of imprisonment or masks of theatrical expression or even masks of hope. As the figures lose their individual identity they become potent with meaning.

A woodcut series titled The Invisible City unites several elements of Wolff's style. The subject matter is obscure. The invisible city might refer to the secret relations that exist among creative people everywhere and at all times -- to the leavening power of creative people in the world. But the relation of the human profiles with the overpowering geometry of the prints suggest, like in Wolff's mask prints, the intensity and constraints of external reality. What is left of our world that is human and natural? What are the limits of our psychological freedom? These stark yet beautiful images seem to pose such questions.

During a period of diminished thematic content in the art world, William Wolff exhibited a tenacity in exploring themes that are essential not only to him but also to Western civilization as a whole. That his work is now being honored with a retrospective is a testament to the value of these traditions and to his ability as an artist of intellectual and imaginative power to keep these traditional forms alive and to breathe contemporary life into the enduring themes of this culture.

The information in this essay is based on conversations with the artist over the past four years.

About the author

Art Hazelwood is a printmaker and editor of the journal of the California Society of Printmakers.

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