I’ve been coveting a piece of Alex von Wolff’s artwork ever since I first experienced it months ago at Aperto, my neighborhood Italian restaurant. Vintage matchbook covers blown up to over ten times their original size depicted Shadows on Telegraph Hill, Playland at the Beach, Hippo hamburgers, Bimbo’s 365 Club, and many more venerable San Francisco venues. They were apparently printed on canvas, then stretched onto a frame. The interior of the matchbook was reproduced onto the edges, transforming a small piece of ephemera into a significant object.
When I learned that von Wolff had an exhibit at the Triton Hotel downtown, I eagerly went to see more of his work: a plastic elephant-shaped key from the San Francisco Zoo, Zim’s, broiled hamburgers “Be Cool, Be Gay on San Francisco Bay – visit Treasure Island,” Golden Gate International Exposition, “World Famous DiMaggio’s on Fisherman’s Wharf,” and others.
I couldn’t put my finger on what made his work so appealing. They seemed rather straightforward, maybe even silly. Were they actually art? They nevertheless haunted me. I contacted the artist, who invited me to his studio, but somehow I never quite made it.
I did identify with his artistic statement: “Lately I find myself working on the ‘Vintage Expansion Principle’ – a habit of taking little artistic relics of the past and giving them new life, larger than life, on canvas. Current subjects include matchbooks, lighters, postage stamps, vintage B/W photography and stills pulled from 8mm film from the 60s.” I don’t quite understand how these small cardboard artifacts offer a window into another world, of cigarettes and rotary phones, men wearing hats and women gloves, of a San Francisco that no longer exists.
Finally, my boyfriend and I arranged a visit, and met at von Wolff’s converted garage space the walls of which were covered with his wonderful artwork. I was validated that Allen immediately shared my enthusiasm for the blowups. And Alex was extremely affable, spending over an hour chatting with us. I thought about the matchbook covers I’d amassed over many years, which I finally discarded a couple of years ago. I’d carefully sorted through them, picking out the San Francisco-related venues and donating them to the San Francisco History Room at the San Francisco Public Library. Not knowing what to do with the rest, I bagged them up and took them to Goodwill.
Knowing that I could ill afford even a moderately-priced piece of artwork, Allen suggested he buy me one as an early birthday gift. I gratefully accepted his generous offer, but then I was faced with the dilemma of how to choose from amongst all the colorful canvases? I finally settled on the Cliff House image. It was the first place I remember from a trip to San Francisco with my family circa 1962. For years my father had extolled the Top of the Mark cocktail lounge, Emporium department store, and the City’s many fine dining establishments. On our visit we had enjoyed a Crab Louis salads at the famous Cliff House, and I had ever since been bewitched by the odd edifice at the end of the city, seemingly at the end of the world. Through its checkered career, it seemed to echo my own in the city since 1972. Alex offered to produce the image in the size we wanted, and have it ready by the following weekend, when he’d be hosting open studio. Now it hangs in pride of place in my kitchen, where I admire it throughout each day.
Alex’s next exhibit will take place at Moby Dick’s, a gay bar just a block or two from the GLBT History Museum where I have incorporated matchbook covers into an exhibit about San Francisco “gayborhoods” as lost urban landscapes. Alex is creating canvases of vintage gay establishments specifically for the venue. I look forward to more of his irresistible images of San Francisco’s lost past.