Yesterday, the Guggenheim Museum held the press preview for their new show "Christopher Wool." Covering Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda are large-scale canvases, mostly in black and white, that span Wool's career in a loosely chronological order. The show begins with paintings using mass-produced rollers to create patterns across a canvas, moves on to his gridded text-based works, and then finishes with his digitally composed silkscreens.
Wool, who lived in Chicago in the '60s and then moved to New York in the '70s uses a distinctly urban aesthetic. Relying on the generic imagery of rollers during the ‘90s, his canvases, "derive expressive moments of power from small failures that interrupt the codified patterns," as Katherine Brinson, the curator of the show, eloquently describes his work.
Wool’s text-based works also open a limited system (the alphabet) to a range of meaning. Wool spells out "Trouble," "TRBL," leaving us to stich together what the characters mean from their disparate parts. Only after that can we try and figure out what the trouble actually is. In others, he paints over phrases and squishes letters together so they are hard to decipher, making understanding a slow and patient exercise.
Roberta Smith, in her review of the show for the New York Times, points out that Wool is playing with the death of painting, an impulse that follows in the tradition of AbEx painters. She writes that his work is like the "hands-off tradition initiated by Jackson Pollock’s dripped canvases and Andy Warhol’s silk-screen images." While these artists were playing with the mass produced to rid their work of the artist’s hand, Wool has the benefit of working in the digital age. Instead of simply silk-screening his works, Wool renders his paintings digitally and then silkscreens the result, allowing him to move one step further from directly painting on canvas. Smith writes, "With Mr. Wool, the recurring question becomes not only ‘Is that a painting?’ but also ‘Is that actually painted?’ And the answer often is: No, not strictly speaking."
Besides his silk-screened works, Wool also plays with spray-paint, creating shaky loops like a "freshman graffiti artist." He uses the spray can, which he claims is more similar to drawing than painting is, and then wipes away his strokes with a rag doused in turpentine, an act of "self-negation," as Brinson puts it. This impulse to clear his canvas again creates layers that break up the chain of artist-to-canvas.
In her review, Roberta Smith doesn't like inclusion of so many photos, which she thinks overstate Wool's urban background, but the black-and-white photocopies are certainly arresting. The Guggenheim show includes three sets of photos, one that captures the aftermath of a fire at Wool's studio, one taken during his walk home from the East Village studio to Chinatown, and one from his travels in Europe. The shots are printed with ink and look like poor quality images you would find in a zine. Next to Wool’s coolly calculated paintings, these photos infuse something more impulsive into his work.
"Christopher Wool" is on view at the Guggenheim Museum until Jan. 22, 2014.