Bob Wade, sculptor of the outlandishly large, dies at 76

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Bob Wade, sculptor of the outlandishly large, dies at 76
In a photo from Will Larson, Bob Wade with his cowboy boots sculpture in San Antonio in 2014, when it was certified by the Guinness World Records. Wade, a Texas artist whose 40-foot-long iguana sculpture once perched atop the Lone Star Cafe in Manhattan and whose 63-foot-high saxophone lured patrons to a blues nightclub in Houston, died on Dec. 24, 2019 at his home in Austin. He was 76. Will Larson via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Bob Wade, a Texas artist whose 40-foot-long iguana sculpture once perched atop the Lone Star Cafe in Manhattan and whose 63-foot-high saxophone lured patrons to a blues nightclub in Houston, died Dec. 24 at his home in Austin. He was 76.

His wife, Lisa Wade, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

For more than 40 years, Wade — who was known by the nickname Daddy-O — built whimsical, outsize public art that nodded to Texas’ culture of bigness, gaining renown for his uninhibited style but also drawing attention as a serious artist in some circles.

Like most of his creations, his iguana, which he christened Iggy, could not be ignored.

Inspired by a stuffed iguana a friend had brought him from Mexico, Wade used wire mesh and polyurethane foam to fabricate the work, a ferocious-looking monster with an open, spiky-toothed mouth, knife-like spines running down its back and an impressively large dewlap.

“I know for sure that Texans are fascinated by critters — all kinds of critters,” he said in a 1999 documentary film about his work, “Too High, Too Wide and Too Long: A Texas-Style Road Trip,” directed by Karen Dinitz.

In the movie, which follows him around the state to view his artwork, Wade and friends tow his Iguana Mobile, an Airstream trailer that he customized with a fiberglass iguana’s head in front, a tail in back and a saddle on top.

Iggy wound up at the Lone Star, a Texas-themed honky-tonk, in the 1970s after Wade had shown the iguana at an exhibition in western New York, near Niagara Falls. Impetuously picking up the phone one day at 2 a.m., he called Mort Cooperman, the club’s owner, and asked him if he would like to install the sculpture on the roof of the Lone Star building, at Fifth Avenue and 13th Street. Cooperman said yes, agreeing to pay Wade $1,000 a year for Iggy — the deal was originally for five years — and $1,000 a year for his bar tab.

“It had this confident, cocky, regal kind of look, derived from all that earlier stuff — dragons and dinosaurs,” Wade said of the sculpture in an interview with The New York Times in 2010. “In a place like New York, it could hold its own.”

It did. Iggy remained in place for most of the 1980s, looming over a banner that proclaimed, “Too Much Ain’t Enough,” and surviving a lawsuit filed by residents who objected to the sculpture as grotesque. Wade became a favorite of Mayor Edward Koch’s.

But when the Lone Star went out of business in 1989, the sculpture was removed, leaving it without a permanent home until the Fort Worth Zoo acquired it in 2010 to promote a new herpetarium there, full of reptiles and amphibians. (Iggy arrived suspended from a helicopter.)

The iguana was Wade’s opening act; there would be many more gigantic, kitschy installations: A sextet of 10-foot-tall dancing frogs and an alligator made of Altoid tins. A New Orleans Saints helmet made largely out of an old Volkswagen. A hog-shaped motorcycle made from salvaged Harley Davidson parts. A colossal pair of simulated ostrich-skin boots. (They’d fit a cowboy with size 500 feet, he estimated.)

The boots, made of polyurethane foam and supported by steel skeletons, were commissioned by the Washington Project of the Arts; Wade built them in 1979 in a space near the White House, with swaggering Texas politicians like President Lyndon Johnson in mind.

“I said, ‘You know, there’s always a precedent here in D.C. for these Texas guys blowing in and flouting their boots, so maybe a giant pair of boots would be perfect,’” he told The Texas Standard, a news radio show, in 2017.

A few years after the boots were disassembled and moved to a mall in San Antonio on three flatbed trucks in 1980, Wade got a phone call from the mall’s manager. A homeless man had found his way into one of the boots and cooked his lunch there. The boot was on fire.

“It was the size of a small apartment, kind of a nice spot, and he was cooking lunch with cans of Sterno, and smoke was emerging from the top of the boots,” Wade said in “Too High, Too Wide and Too Long.”

The work, rising 35 feet 3 inches, was certified in 2014 by the Guinness World Records as the tallest cowboy boot sculpture in the world.

Robert Schrope Wade was born in Austin on Jan. 6, 1943. His father, Chaffin, was a hotel manager who took his family with him as he moved to various properties around Texas. His mother, Pattie (Womack) Wade, was a department store clerk and a cousin of cowboy entertainer Roy Rogers.

Bob showed artistic talent as a boy, painting flames on a toy car and then on a Vespa scooter. He loved hot rods, and when he showed up with one at the University of Texas, Austin, where he studied art, a fraternity brother nicknamed him Daddy-O.

After receiving a master’s degree in painting from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966, he was an art instructor at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas; then director of the experimental art institute at what is now Northwood University in Cedar Hill, a suburb of Dallas; and finally a professor of art at Texas State University.

Near the end of his time at Texas State, Wade created “Bicentennial Map of the U.S.A.,” a 300-foot-wide earthwork in Dallas that included miniaturized billboards and skyscrapers, a telephone booth and an Old Faithful-style water fountain from Wyoming. After People magazine wrote about the map, La Biennale Paris, the venerable art fair, asked Wade to submit a project.

His submission was the “Texas Mobile Home Museum,” a 1947 trailer coach that he filled with Texas artifacts: stuffed armadillos, white cowboy boots, a pair of longhorns, a taxidermied two-headed calf and a bucking bronco (mounted upside down).

“We were trying to send this little freak show museum to Paris and blow the minds of the French,” Wade told Alcalde, the alumni magazine of the University of Texas, in 2017. “They loved it.”

He won a prize of $1,000, but it wasn’t enough to cover the costs of bringing the exhibit home, so he left the trailer behind.

Most of his projects were too immense to lug back to Austin — like the 63-foot-tall blue saxophone that he and a crew made in 1993 for a Houston nightclub, the Billy Blues Bar and Grill.

“The sax is an interesting-looking contraption,” Wade told Roadside America, “and I knew I could probably get away with having all kinds of weirdness.”

He used an upside-down Volkswagen Beetle for the bottom curve of the instrument, a surfboard for the reed, hubcaps for the keys and beer kegs for the mouthpiece.

After the nightclub closed, the saxophone was donated in 2013 to the Orange Show Center for Visual Art, a folk art organization in Houston.

Wade had a second artistic pursuit: creating photo emulsions in which he transferred images of the Southwest from old postcards and photographs onto canvases and painted and enlarged them. Some of them were exhibited in 1973 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Wade married Lisa Sherman. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Rachel Wade and Christine Codelli; and three grandchildren. His previous marriage, to Sue Immel, ended in divorce.

Writing in Texas Monthly after Wade’s death, author W.K. Stratton recalling an observation by art critic Dave Hickey, noted that Wade’s wildly imagined public installations were reminiscent of extravagant homecoming parade floats.

“Bob’s sculptures and paintings are taken seriously by his peers,” Stratton wrote, “yet they are also as much fun as any parade. His fans include legions who have never read a word of art criticism or set foot in a gallery. That was fine by Bob.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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