first published in Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown by Scott A. Shields (London: Scala Arts Publishers Inc., 2023).
Recollections by Matt Gonzalez
included in Breaking The Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown by Scott A. Shields
(London: Scala Arts Publishers Inc., 2023)
I first met Paul Wonner and Bill Brown in the early 2000s at the Potrero Hill home of the gallerist Charles Campbell and the painter Glenna Putt in San Francisco. At the time, I was a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors and had formed a friendship with Charlie while visiting his North Beach gallery, the Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, on Chestnut Street. Charlie was a jazz aficionado and collected art of the ancient Americas, passions we shared.
Charlie and Glenna were gracious hosts and regularly assembled various guests they thought would enjoy meeting one another for lunch or dinner. I was often paired with Bill and Paul, and must have gathered with them there a couple of dozen times. Although I never asked them, I realize Charlie and Glenna had decided that our personalities and interests would mix well, and we came to expect we would see one another at the next gathering.
I learned that Charlie had met the pair in the mid-1960s, when Paul traded a gouache on paper for framing costs at Charlie’s frame shop (the precursor to his gallery); it was a deal Charlie proposed. Later, when Charlie opened his full-fledged gallery in 1972, he started by representing Nathan Oliveira and then reached out to Bill and Paul. Though Bill and Paul were then living in the Montecito neighborhood of Santa Barbara, the timing was opportune, as the Felix Landau Gallery in Los Angeles, which represented both artists’ work, had recently closed.
I particularly enjoyed watching Bill and Paul look at their own paintings, which hung in the Campbells’ home. Charlie and Glenna had a wonderful collection, which included their Bay Area Figurative associates, including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud, and Oliveira. There was something about the way that Bill and Paul studied their own paintings, as if they were discovering them for the first time. They often pondered whether they were finished, and Bill would look at a reclining figure in a composition and question whether he had gotten the line above the knee quite right. I suspect he did not, because he often came back to that particular section wishing he could recompose it.
Once when I was with Paul and Charlie in the living room, among a Neri plaster and paintings by Frank Auerbach and Thiebaud, Paul was staring intently at one of his own paintings, his 1961 Nude with Indian Rug. I was anticipating his disapproval when he said, “This may be my best painting.” Charlie was so excited he went over to the kitchen, asked Glenna and Bill to join us, and made Paul repeat the remark. Whether the wine had already gotten to him, I do not know, as Paul made too many fine paintings in my estimation to call any one of them his best. However, there was in his comment an excitement about engaging with a work from another era. We all enjoyed a hearty toast to the sentiment, however accurate any assessment like that can be.
Bill and Paul’s charming personalities cannot be overstated. They were such lovely people and knew how to live in the moment. Bill’s stories were often self-deprecating, such as the time he was in Georges Braque’s studio in Paris and Braque had to ask him to stop dropping his cigarette ashes in his oil-paint tin. Bill enjoyed explaining how he had mistakenly thought it was an ashtray. Paul, on the other hand, had a quiet and deliberative manner that only partially hid his equally engaging storytelling. I remember him being quite moved while speaking of a painting of plums in a basket by the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.
Paul was also more reserved than Bill. He spoke in a quiet manner and with an almost halting voice. Nevertheless, when he spoke, between pauses, his words were articulate and quite exact. He was thoughtful and spoke only after listening to others first—carefully. He did not waste words, and one could anticipate that something he said would delight because of his mischievous smile.
Bill, who as an artist preferred to be known as Theophilus (there were two other William Browns in the San Francisco art scene of the 1950s), had a contagious laugh that came typically at the end of an amusing story. He liked to share tales of encounters with various notable composers and painters, and no mattered how many times he told a story, it always felt like the first.
In addition to seeing Bill and Paul at the Campbells’ residence, I started to visit them at the San Francisco Towers on Pine and Van Ness, where they had moved in 2001 after leaving their longtime Victorian home on Jersey Street in Noe Valley. At the Towers, the men lived separately but were together every day. Bill’s apartment was decorated with kachina dolls, prehistoric atlatls, two Hopi dance wands, and a Panamanian Coclé bowl I gave him. I do not recall visiting Paul’s apartment while he was alive, but I did see it later. He collected vases and ceramics of Japanese and Chinese origin. I understood he had acquired a love of Asian art while teaching in Hawai‘i and discovering examples at what was then the Honolulu Academy of Arts. I still remember Paul also owned a lovely six-by-eight-inch Cézanne-like watercolor depicting bathers, which Bill had painted.
At some point, Bill and I started making collages together. He had started in 2001 when he accidentally pulled some dried paint from his peel-off palette, leading him to begin cutting and reconfiguring the paint swatches. I started collaging with found paper in late 2005, after experimenting with painting. Initially, we worked at my apartment on Hayes Street and, later, at Bill’s California Street studio. We gathered most weekend mornings and finished by five o’clock, thereafter enjoying fresh oysters at the local Bar Crudo.
I recall both artists telling me how they met in the University of California, Berkeley graduate art program in 1952. Bill had traveled to California from New York City by train, stopping to visit his family in Illinois. Bill and Paul were registered in two of the same classes that semester. Bill liked to tease Paul about how Paul initially thought he was a snob. Once they came together, their friendship soon developed into an intimate relationship that lasted their entire lives.
At the University of California, Berkeley, Bill’s faculty adviser, the painter James McCray, recognized Bill’s natural talent. The department chair Erle Loran, however, did not think much of Bill’s work and belittled his peel-off palette, the use of which was still relatively uncommon. Bill returned the disdain. He loved telling the story about a letter that arrived at the art department addressed to “Bill Brown” from “de Kooning” during a period when Brown was away recovering from poison oak. Bill discovered the letter pinned to the department bulletin board when he returned. Given the length of his absence, Bill expected to have to repeat the semester. Instead, Loran, who believed the sender was Willem de Kooning (it was, in fact, from Willem’s wife, Elaine), was impressed, causing him to reassess Brown’s abilities. Bill loved repeating Loran’s question to him the next time they met: “Do you really know de Kooning?” Years later, Bill and Paul told me they ran into de Kooning on a trip to Europe, which they had paid for with proceeds from the sale of a de Kooning work gifted to Bill by the artist himself. De Kooning loved hearing how the couple funded their trip.
I also learned how Bill and Paul’s relationship with Diebenkorn began in a rented studio on Shattuck Avenue, just two blocks from Paul’s apartment on Carleton Street in Berkeley. The building housed a Volkswagen showroom on the ground floor, with artist studios above. One day Diebenkorn knocked on the door to complain, “I’m freezing my butt off,” and asked if they had a heater. This chance meeting led to the sharing of figure models, which led to art-making sessions, most often at Bill and Paul’s studio. From time to time, at this and other locations, artists including Oliveira, Park, Bischoff, and James Weeks, also participated.
Diebenkorn was responsible for bringing a journalist to Bill and Paul’s studio, which resulted in Bill’s Life magazine feature of October 1956. The writer was particularly impressed by a series of paintings depicting football players in an angular and cubist style. Bill drew his inspiration from sports photography in magazines and newspapers, yet he liked to joke about his ignorance of the rules of the game, which was reflected in the final composition and color choices of the paintings. This multipage spread gave Bill national attention and caught the eye of Felix Landau in Los Angeles.
On numerous occasions, Paul talked about his transition to realism. During his New York period, which lasted about five years, he attended lectures with Robert Motherwell and others at the Subjects of the Artist School, which was devoted to Abstract Expressionist painting. Paul was still working in an abstract vein when he arrived in San Francisco, but his paintings began to include subject matter, allowing Paul to depict things he appreciated and that were important to him. Although he incorporated representational imagery in his new work, he was still exploiting an Abstract Expressionist technique, emphasizing an expressive and gestural approach. Even with this shift, he found that he was still only obtaining a generalized representation of the subject, whether it be the landscape, figure, or still life. To him, it was unsatisfying, because others struggled to understand what he was depicting. He later realized he was enamored of seventeenth-century Dutch painting and wanted to achieve greater precision in his own work. He emphasized that he hoped to “talk about” things that captured his attention and that he cared about, which included mundane, everyday objects. For him, even these were things of beauty.
Near the end of Paul’s life in 2008, I accompanied Charlie and Glenna to his studio, which was a beautiful, tranquil space. Most of his recent paintings depicted figures in parks or in the studio. Later, during lunch, Paul shared a story that his father had told him about befriending Pancho Villa when the general was staging raids in Arizona during the Mexican Revolution; Villa even dined with his father’s family on several occasions. I was intrigued because of my own family’s connection to Villa. One of my great uncles was his primary financier and arms supplier, a connection that Paul found amusing.
I was with Bill on the evening of Paul’s death, and Bill told stories about Paul and wept openly. I will never forget him reading aloud Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Waiting for Icarus,” which beings with the line, “He said he would be back and we’d drink wine together.” Bill lived four more years after Paul died, and he continued to make art until the end. In 2011, he also managed to record five short classical songs for piano (“Five Easy Pieces”) that he had composed six years earlier. My brother, Charles Gonzalez, and Tim Vickers, both musicians trained in sound engineering, recorded Bill performing these tracks in his apartment on his nineteenth-century Steinway.
Bill and I shared three dozen oysters the weekend before he died in 2012. He told me over dinner that he no longer wished to live if he could no longer paint. We also talked about his experience in World War II and how he was changed by it, a subject of great importance to him. Having survived several near-death encounters during the Battle of the Bulge, he frequently questioned why he lived and others did not, leading to his conviction that life is precious and should not be squandered. I think it is fair to say that he—and Paul—both lived their lives accordingly.
Breaking the Rules: Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown by Scott A. Shields (London: Scala Arts Publishers Inc., 2023) accompanies a major retrospective exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA (April 30, 2023 — August 27, 2023); travels to the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA (October 14, 2023 — January 7, 2024; and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN (January 28, 2024 — March 30, 2024).
Wonderful essay, Matt. It was great to read how these two artists found their place in the Bay Area figurative school of art. -Guy Diehl
Beautiful piece, very well remembered and well written, it adds to my addition understanding about the lives of these two very talented artist, thank you. I just took in the show at the Crocker yesterday and it is a very fine show indeed. I was really excited about seeing Paul Wonner’s early work from the 50’s, the AB-X inspired work. In particular I enjoyed the two pieces inspired by Picasso’s “Fem au coq” and in fact found your blog by way of Goggle, looking for additional information on that series. I am sure it is a coincidence that they are in this show however given all the events happening around the globe on this 50th anniversary of Picasso’s passing it was exciting and interesting to see them. And to take in all the rest of the work and the development and changes of these two, perhaps under appreciated artist. I would highly recommend that if you are able to see this show that you do so, I know I will be back several times before it leaves Sacramento!