Bob Wade is a Texas artist whose 40-year multimedia career ranges from the ridiculous out-size sculpture of a pair of giant ostrich-feather boots at a San Antonio mall, to the sublimely hand-colored postcard images of wild-west cowgirls. Of course, art on that kind of scale needs lots of Texas-sized space, and a larger-than-life sense of dedication to promote. True to the adage that you can't keep a good man -- or a giant iguana -- down, one of Wade's most recognizable creations has a new home in Fort Worth, far from its once-lofty perch observing the skyline of Manhattan over the Lone Star Cafe in the 1980s.
On June 1, after eleven years in semi-retirement, Wade's giant sculpture of Iggy landed on the roof of the administration building at the Forth Worth Zoo. (As the Austin American-Statesman reported, "an iguana airlift? You know Austin is involved."). It's just the most recent adventure for the artist and his roaming creations, who have crisscrossed the country for decades in outlandish and eye-catching ways. But then, Wade has always been doing things in a big way.
Inspired by the exploding pop-art scene of the 1960s and stints at the University of Texas and Berkeley, Wade returned to Austin and discovered that "the Austin counterculture had finally taken off": the funky mix of artists and musicians that the city relishes to this day in its unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird.
Wade's 1995 book Daddy-O: Iguana Heads and Texas Tales (St. Martin's Press) is a careening ride through the artist's Texas hill country and the even wilder art scenes of New York and California that followed. His early experiments were funded more by bursts of inspiration and civic pride than business sense: as Wade puts it, "I took on the persona of artist turned Texas-style land developer wheeler-dealer." The Bicentennial Map of The United States was a huge 3-D project, three hundred feet wide:
"We mailed a letter to every state chamber of commerce asking them to send anything we could associate with each state. Louisiana and a bunch of others sent flags, which waved in the breeze. One business agreed to build us an outhouse and asked us where to put it. Since we had nothing from Arkansas we put the outhouse there. Soon after, we received an irate letter from the Arkansas chamber of commerce. I told them to send a check for $1500 and we'd move the outhouse to Oklahoma."
The next year there was the Texas Mobile Home Museum exhibited at the 1977 Paris Biennale: a rolling, chromed Texasmobile stuffed with cultural artifacts and tricked out with a pair of steer horns mounted on the front.
Wade's self-made career -- the Texas wheeler-dealer with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- has been a succession of larger-than-life commissions and personal visions. His website contains a section simply labeled "Weird." But he is far from beyond passing up a chance at promoting simple civic boosterism or outsize advertising, Texas-style. The Biggest Pair of Cowboy Boots in the World, originally an installation in an empty lot three blocks from the White House, were eventually purchased by the Rouse Company to grace the North Star Mall in San Antonio.
Then there is Wade's giant iguana, forty feet long and twelve feet wide, that found its way to a New York rooftop. From its perch overlooking 52nd Street at The Lone Star Cafe, the iguana saw a large part of the Austin scene as it made its way to New York. Because the Parsons School of Design was directly across the street from the Lone Star (and several floors above the sculpture) the iguana became a favorite sketching subject. Of course, as with many extraordinary things in New York, the forty-foot iguana became a cause for concern.
"The city of New York finally declared the Iguana to be a sign, and as a sign it broke various codes to which signs are subject -- not attached properly, incorrect permits, and flammability. This went on even though I appeared in court as 'the artist' as opposed to 'the signmaker.' Numerous 'art' experts appeared in court, including a former member of Art Park's advisory staff and a curator from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. ... On November 4, 1979, the judge found in favor of the Lone Star Cafe, declaring the Iguana not a sign but a bona fide work of art."
"It was in the Texas towns of Waco, Beaumont, Galveston, San Antonio, El Paso, and Marfa that I learned the ways of the 'Texas Myth," Wade says. "Gigantism, outrageous humor, and exaggerations still play a big part in my life." The book is a continual succession of outrageous "can you beat this?" bar-room tales.
No doubt Wade got a kick from the jacket copy to Daddy-O, which features quotes from Willie Nelson, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and Prince Albert of Monaco. And somewhere Wade's giant Iguana -- once the toast of the Lone Star, then eventually banished from sight in yet another city litigation -- was just taking a well-deserved nap, getting ready for his next appearance.
All of this attention has made Wade and his art a continued feature in festivals, books, and films, and his website contains photos of new art created in 2010. Too High, Too Wide and Too Long is a Texas-style road trip documentary of Wade on a book tour in his 1956 tricked-out Airstream trailer, an "iguana's-eye view" of the artist filmed in 1995 by Karen Dinitz. For more information and a gallery of Bob's "cross-pollination of border-town kitsch, commercial roadside eyesores, and sideshow curiosity," visit Daddy-O's site: www.bobwade.com. As the Texas Kid would say, "If it's fer ya, it's fer ya. If it ain't fer ya, it ain't fer ya." You decide.