Now 58, Christopher Wool emerged fully formed onto the New York art scene of the late 1980s with black-and-white compositions that featured wallpaper patterns created with the sort of textured paint rollers used to decorate tenement hallways. He also stenciled paintings with cryptic four-letter words, such as TRBL (Trouble, 1989) or FOOL (Blue Fool, 1990), composed in a brute foursquare format that echoed but ultimately rejected the refined elegance of Robert Indiana’s Pop Art icon, LOVE, (currently enshrined at Indiana’s Whitney retrospective). Along with phrases such as HELTER HELTER (Untitled, 1988) or SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS (Apocalypse Now, 1988), Wool’s use of language seemed to encapsulate a collective mood of foreboding and unease brought on by the Reagan administration and the various disasters —the AIDS crisis, the 1987 stock market crash, the savings and loan scandal—it left in its wake.
As compelling as Wool’s word paintings may have been, however, the Guggenheim’s mid-career survey demonstrates that much of the rest of his career followed from his earlier, quasi-abstract pattern pieces. Their readymade imagery of scrolling curlicues or schematic vines, applied in black enamel on white grounds, jibed with the strategies of appropriation art, while their resolutely un-slick surfaces, full of accidental incident, appeared to point a way back to painterly gesture. In the early 1990s, the artist began to silk screen generic, found images of flowers onto panels, employing his already signature style to pay homage to both a subject and technique of Andy Warhol’s (though Wool changed things up a bit by sometimes defacing his botanical studies with wide brushstrokes or looping squiggles of spray paint). Later works essay other reproductive technologies, singly and in combination: blowing up his motifs into large rubber stamps; photographing his own paintings and drawings, and transferring them as silkscreens, sometimes greatly enlarged, onto new panels; and, in recent years, feeding such images into Photoshop to be manipulated and then turned into further paintings. Extremely, almost hermetically, self-referential, Wool’s art is notable for its copious palimpsests and endlessly recursive motifs.
The exhibition’s labels and catalog argue that Wool’s practice has opened up new avenues for painting, and also make the case that his “glitches”—the streaks, blots, drips and inexact registrations in his work—create emotive effects. Yet the overwhelming impression here is one of blankness, an outright refusal of feeling or of entry for the viewer. Meanwhile, his strictly delimited means actually seem to deny or foreclose the possibilities of painting. Wool’s is a bleak, impoverished, melancholy view of art, and of the world, a weltanschauung further evinced by several series of his photographs, such as “Absent Without Leave” (1993), a set of grotty photocopies of his European travel snapshots that picture art treasures, abandoned shopping carts and stray dogs—all with the same offhanded nihilism.
In the early 2000s, Wool began taking a turpentine-soaked rag to his canvases, wiping out the spray-painted or printed marks with broad swipes, in a round robin of gesture and erasure. The resulting layered, washy “gray paintings,” often more than ten feet tall, are among the largest of his career, and harken back to the size and appearance of Abstract Expressionism. They also stand, curiously, as some of his most engaging, even exhilarating works, as if involuntarily proving that the trace of the artist’s hand—no matter how dispassionate, ironic or evacuated of meaning—stubbornly remains abstract painting’s most compelling message.
Despite a creeping awareness produced by the exhibition that Wool’s oeuvre possesses a pronounced, nearly monolithic (and monochromatic) sameness, his works often come across as authoritative and magisterial. Their widespread influence has been undeniable, not only in the reproductive practices of younger artists such as Wade Guyton and Josh Smith, but also is the abstract paintings of contemporaries such as Jacqueline Humphries and Wool’s wife, Charline von Heyl (the ongoing artistic conversation between the two probably merits its own museum show).
The exhibition’s culminating room features the most recent works, four large paintings from 2011–12 based on blowups of the same drawing. Subjected to all of Wool’s reproductive and transmogrifying tactics, the four blobby compositions impress with their massive scale and complexly indecipherable facture, but they share with much of the artist’s work a palpable lack of affect, and a sense, intentional or not, of painting’s diminishment. And that seems to suit the artist just fine.—Joseph R. Wolin