Christopher Wool is obsessed with doing things wrong. In his retrospective at the Guggenheim, comprising nearly 90 paintings, photographs, and works on paper, Wool demonstrates that meaning resides in mistakes (intentional or otherwise), disappointing outcomes, decay, and uncertainty. Appropriately, the show kicks off with a painting called Minor Mishap from 2001. Although in most of the paintings in the show Wool’s palette is limited to black and white, this piece features an ostensibly impetuous splash of red paint. Closer examination reveals that this bright splash is carefully contrived, generated by enlarging an image of an image – which amplifies a half-tone pattern – and then silk-screening the resulting image on linen. The result (or at least one result) of his work is the fusion of the emotional content of Abstract Expressionism with the humor of Pop Art, the reprographic processes of the Pictures artists, and the nihilism of the 1970s punk music scene.
Sometimes labeled an endgame painter, Wool, to the contrary, breathed new life into painting in a time when it seemed weary and under siege. In an epoch when older painters tended to work for forty years exploring the same image, Wool blew willy-nilly through different images, often concurrently, challenging traditional notions about artist identity and branding and paint handling as well as the Modernist notion of progress. Accordingly, the exhibition has a slightly jangled chronology, darting from one date to a later one and then circling back and forth, illuminating Wool’s disinclination to work in a strictly linear manner. With the rise of Minimalism, performance art, feminist art, punk, and related cross-disciplinary influences, many considered painting passé. Rather than embrace a more fashionable medium, Wool incorporated the punk movement’s iconoclastic anarchy and sarcasm into painting. Whatever one thinks of his taste and particular aesthetic, in making abstract painting meaningful when it seemed irrelevant, he was a true champion of the medium.
Yet to Wool himself, this quietly heroic role seems almost incidental. Compelled to paint, he was interested less in preserving painting’s place than in simply employing the language of abstraction to limn the messy contradictions, complexities, and challenges of life. Furthermore, what Wool chooses to paint (flowers, splashes, half-tone dots, images from a how-to-paint-abstractly book, and so forth) isn’t as important as how he uses each image, process, or tool that he gloms onto, incorrectly and haphazardly, the way punks adopted safety pins. For instance, in his text paintings from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wool ignored the traditional rules of typography, defiantly obscuring the words depicted. His transgressions included eliminating traditional word spacing, using odd line breaks, omitting vowels, and aligning the letters on a grid regardless of each letter’s width.
Some critics have suggested that the show seems padded, including too many photographs, too many “gray paintings” from the later period, and not enough early work. And I admit that when I first saw the show, I thought the late work in particular had a grating redundancy to it. Upon revisiting the exhibition, I decided that the late paintings, early photographs, and book projects were central to understanding Wool’s vision. Born in 1955 and raised in Chicago, Wool moved to New York in the 1970s, when the city was collectively despondent and on the verge of bankruptcy. As a product of that gritty milieu, Wool was, and remains, moved by the urban decay and smitten with the Xerox technology of that era. In printing his photographs, he didn’t try to mimic the aesthetic of fine art photography but rather showcased the limited tonal range and the dirty artifacts that Xeroxing created as poignant reflections of a grimy city. The grayed-out palette and the clotty blackness in the later paintings stem from the aesthetic of early Xerox technology. Wool used his camera like a sketchbook, the same way many artists use their cell phones and Instagram feeds, and the scenes he chose to document inform his work.
While walking back and forth to his East Village studio, Wool absorbed visual details that found their way into his paintings. In the 1980s, these included the artless but aggressive graffiti on the walls and subways. While this form inspired his use of spray paint, he neither bandwagoned on the bravura of the street taggers nor kowtowed to reactionary disaffection of the Minimalists. Instead, he relied on accidental spills and drips from indirect processes such as silk screening, stenciling, and rubber stamping to create an equivalent for the dirty imperfection of his Xeroxed images. Wool sprayed knotty squiggles that seemed limp and pathetic, and silk-screened images on top of one another while pointedly leaving unaligned registration marks in plain view. In so doing, he derived emotional and social content from the blight he saw every day – in my view, to powerful effect.
By the naughts, in the early gray paintings, Wool tried to work in a more traditional manner, by applying paint deliberately and directly to the surface. But he couldn’t go through with it. He wiped out the marks he had made using turpentine-soaked rags, leaving big swaths of washy gray and truncated black lines. Eventually, he started coming back into the canvases with white paint in a series of moves that highlighted his discordantly punkish combination of self-doubt and defiance.
Most recently, Wool has taken up Photoshop to alter the images of previous paintings, a strategy that recalls 1980s Pictures artists like Richard Prince and Laurie Simmons. But of course, unlike the Pictures cohort, Wool has always used abstract sources. The last room of the show, at the top of the ramp, includes several mammoth paintings that incorporate images of previous work, silk-screened to large panels. Because Wool continues to mine the oversized half-tone dot, dirty edging, and the mysterious moiré patterns that resulted back in the day when Letraset half-tone film was laid on top of itself, the newer work seems nostalgic. I sense a longing for the old days of the East Village art scene, CBGB, and the days before the market took over the art world. Indeed, one of the paintings at the beginning of the show reads, “The show is over,” and I don’t think he is talking about painting. But even if he means to look back to his creative roots in that way, Wool’s application of new techniques to old tropes make the work more than just a wistful lament for a more vibrant, less vulgar art scene while registering continuity in art and in life.
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