American Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor
Summary of Christopher Wool
Christopher Wool is an enigmatic abstract painter whose formal experimentation and satirical subversion has left him both commercially successful and acclaimed by some critics, whilst condemned as banal or superficial by others. His public persona is reserved, and he carefully monitors the boundary between his personal and private life.
Wool's work is grounded in an investigation of abstract painting through a postmodern repurposing of signs and symbols. Familiar images, including stark black and white patterns, shapes, and particularly words are repeated, manipulated and erased. His most famous works, the 'word paintings', are large canvases silkscreened with phrases that suggest graffiti slogans, lines from movies or tv shows, or other recognizable material. The framing of such works as abstract paintings is designed to question what painting is, how it should be produced, and how an image can incorporate multiple layers of meaning that are revealed by the viewer's attention.
- Wool deploys recognizable or familiar forms (patterns, words or even classic expressionist painting techniques) to question the medium and a viewer's ability to divine meaning from it. By making words seem strange by placing them in a grid system and disrupting their ability to be read, for example, he asks that the viewer sees them as both an abstract shape and as something that conveys direct meaning. This causes the viewer to question their aesthetic attentions and how they perceive the world around them, as well as any formal preconceptions about abstract painting.
- Wool's work brings the outside world into the rarified and perhaps remote sphere of abstract art, particularly through his photography. This work is often expressionistic: using focus, perspective, or the frame of the image in creative ways, but taking as its subject the street or city that surrounds him and his studio - grounding his work in everyday life.
- Whilst abstract images, his paintings, and particularly the ones which include text, demonstrate influences from other artforms, whether pop cultural allusion or graffiti-esque slogans that evoke narrative. Apocalypse Now (1988), for example, is a formal rendering of a line from Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film of the same name - 'Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids'. This implicitly questions the notion of 'high art' or 'pure expression', suggesting that even abstract painting is informed, influenced and inspired by mass media and everyday encounters.
- Wool maintains an air of mystery around his personal life and reveals little about his processes or intention, which relates to his emphasis on individual experience and interpretation. This also echoes other artists and artistic movements, most notably Warhol, who famously claimed that his painting revealed anything a viewer might need to know about him.
Progression of Art
This work is a decorative black pattern, made with incised rollers on a painted aluminum white background. It is one of Wool's earlier surviving works and exemplifies his exploration of floral and 'grille-like' patterns through a style often associated with wallpaper. During this time Wool was also experimenting with various types of rubber stamps, which, just like the rollers, were incised with repeating motifs and patterns of vines or trellises, exploring the same sense of repetition and seriality.
By using paint rollers or stamps that are traditionally used to give walls a 'wallpapered' appearance, Wool brings in more 'ordinary' and commonplace visual signatures into the frame of conceptual art. Following the legacy previously defined by Andy Warhol, the work twists the very conception of painting as something unique and singular. By rejecting color and composition, it makes an attempt to define a new type of painting, devoid of all the traditions of the past. In fact, the work carries within itself a profoundly post-conceptualist approach to painting, aiming to 'clarify' that art does not need to carry an inherent meaning within itself, but rather act as a bearer of an ongoing experimentation and dialogue within a larger artistic paradigm.
The work also possesses an inherent "humour of their absurd efficiency", as claimed by art critic Peter Schjeldahl. From this perspective, the work takes on a satirical nature, one not only derived from the rejection of art history, but also by the fact that the very creation echoes the traditional wall patterns that adorn American households.
Incised rollers with enamel on aluminium - Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
The painting is a large white aluminum plate painted with black letters that, once decoded, read 'Run Dog Run Dog Run'. The harsh capital letters were stenciled on, following a standardized grid-like spacing system. The composition only allows meaning to be divined on closer attention, when the letters or words are read individually or out loud. This work is part of Wool's wider 'word painting' series that began in the late 1980s and which constitute his best-known and most commercially sought-after body of work. As here, all the works in the series consist of letters and words stenciled, using a similar a grid system or arrangement. This non-standard spacing and break-up of the words often make them difficult to read, whilst at other times Wool removes some or all of the vowels, transposing TRBL for 'trouble', for example. These paintings were first shown at the 303 Gallery in 1988, in a collaborative exhibition entitled Apocalypse Now with Robert Gober. As suggested by this title, referencing Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), allusion to film, television and other art forms is often made through the choice of words depicted. Here, 'Run Dog Run Dog Run' echoes a nursery rhyme or folktale limerick, suggesting again a connection between art forms.
Whilst Wool's word paintings echo Ed Ruscha's portraits filled with words, or the works of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, Schjeldahl suggests that Wool makes the use of language completely new, by merging "the anonymous aggression of graffiti with the stateliness of formal abstract painting", creating a dichotomy between what is 'readable' while still remaining somewhat abstract. In this way, the works also appeal as a sort of 'nonsensical graphic design'. Art critic Achim Hochdorfer similarly adds that these word paintings "say a lot without saying nothing at all", emphasizing the semiotic contradictions that these words contain.
Enamel on aluminium - Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
The work features a series of black marks, patterns, brushstrokes and spray-painted contorting lines, painted over with white paint in sharp vertical lines. It demonstrates Wool's use of silkscreen techniques which he began using as a primary tool from the early 1990s. The work establishes and expresses a series of dualities, especially that of the invisible/visible and chaos/order. Chaos, randomness and intuitive expression are symbolized in the underlying black design, and order, reason, logic and simplicity are emphasized through the white forms. Hochdorfer suggests that this blurs the distinction between polar opposites, between what is visible and what is unseen, taking it's 'blurring as a precondition of perception'. It also demonstrates Wool's ambivalent approach to painting, as it uses both planned pattern-making alongside spontaneous bursts of creativity.
This dialogue between abstraction and form also greatly emphasizes painting as a medium, questioning its autonomy and limits by creating a "border conflict between pictorial immanence and its undoing", as Hochdorfer writes. The underlying expressive gestures of black 'chaos' beneath, by being 'covered up' by white, might also be seen to establish an analogy or a metaphor with Wool's own desire to annihilate expressive gesture from painting. In fact, much of his work is characterized by a calculated, predictable and orderly approach.
Wool's use of silkscreen, a printing technique that consists of masking part of a mesh with an impermeable substance was inspired by Andy Warhol. Wool layers this printing within a painting, "reinvigorating the pictorial composition".
This work also seems to recapture elements of Abstract Expressionism, prompting writer Cornelius Tittel to ask whether Wool recognizes the irony that by including expressionist gestures in his work Wool continues its legacy. This might contradict his own earlier claim towards negation of the formal techniques of painting. Wool is not concerned with these apparent disparities, but suggests that he merely aims to explore painting itself in the contemporary world: either as a denial of the act of creation (through words) or by creating new dialogues derived from existing artistic contexts.
Enamel and silkscreen ink on linen - Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
The Untitled picture features an empty street at night in New York. Captured in a high black and white contrast, it is marked by the bright lights from the traffic lights and from the buildings in the background, and by its strange tilting composition. This work was included in Wool's East Broadway Breakdown (2004) book, a project began in mid-1990s, and finally completed in 2002. The book is composed of 160 black and white photographs, all taken at night with a 35mm camera as the artist wandered the streets between the Lower East Side and Chinatown, the neighborhood where he has lived and worked for 25 years. Other images feature stains on buildings, puddles, abandoned dogs, sidewalks, cars, hallways, trash bins, bags of garbage or patrolling police cars, most of which are out of focus or feature the same strange angles that grant the work a mysterious, random and even "careless" quality.
This strange perspective makes this work seem to exist in a place between abstraction and representation, a motif that underlies much of Wool's broader photographic work. Despite the variety of themes and subjects, they all seem to portray a sense of desolation, estrangement, solitude and anonymity. For their portrayal of American culture, they could be seen to echo the photographs of Robert Frank, such as The Americans (1958). Critic Ken Johnson emphasizes another aspect when he explains that by showing the least "attractive things imaginable", Wool finds "his own kind of grungy beauty". These works can therefore be seen to subvert established conceptions of beauty by searching for the aesthetic of destruction. Critic Achim Hochdorfer adds that it "appears to represent a kind of primal scene of expressionist art", greatly emphasizing the emotion and gestural content within the body of work. Wool's photographic works, although extremely different to his paintings, suggest some important analogies between both mediums, as he seems to explore the same "gestures", marks, and randomness in both.
Photograph on paper - East Broadway Breakdown
She Smiles for the Camera I
The work is a large-scale abstraction, with complex layers of lines and washes of paint. It represents the shift in Wool's paintings that occured during the early 2000s, when he began to use his own previous work as material by photographing and silkscreening to develop new works. In this group of paintings, commonly known as his 'gray works', Wool further reworks the silkscreens in a complex creative process. Through paint or the spraying of enamel, he adds and combines a series of original gestures, then removing parts of the painting through the use of towels soaked in turpentine. Wool claims that the work "starts somewhere and progresses by reacting on itself", greatly emphasising the push and pull that defines this ambiguous process. Alternating between erasing and drawing, wiping away and adding, the work reveals various cycles of compositions, in a complex game of gestures and 'interruptions'.
In this way, the work can be seen to echo the gestural creations of the Abstract Expressionists artists, just as Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko created works through the push and pull of overlapping layers. Because of this continuous cycle, curator Katherine Brinson claims that in one work, Wool unifies "the traces of multiple past moments of creation, as images return in new guises to be considered afresh within Wool's evolving pictorial investigations". However, with Wool, this approach is more innovative, as it aims to capture not only the process of art as an end result, but the overlapping and juxtaposition of multiple timeframes in one single creation. This work not only expresses issues of process, replication, and digital manipulation, but also reflects the very act of 'self-negation', improvisation and constant questioning that defines much of Wool's work.
Enamel and silkscreen on linen
The work is a photograph that depicts part of an abstract painting. Black lines are drawn over swipes and dashes of paint, and layered canvases. It was created in collaboration with the artist Josh Smith, with who Wool has been collaborating for many years. It is part of a larger body of work entitled Can Your Monkey Do The Dog, which was displayed in an exhibition and published as a book.
It is the unique collaborative process, one that promotes a 'silent' artistic dialogue, that heightens the significance of this work. Through a process of digital imaging and the use of editing programs, the artists create artworks by "four hands". One of the artists proposes an image from their body of work, and the other artist adds to it, reworking it digitally by adding and/or removing elements as he chooses. The image is then sent back to the first artist, who can leave the work as it is, or add a third layer to the work in a similar process. Once both artists are satisfied, the finalized creation is then converted to black and white. Since throughout the whole process there is no painting actually involved, only the digital re-working of previous works through photographs, art critic Vera Kotaji suggest that it explores the viewing of art rather than the process itself. She claims that we understand that the very "idea of a painting means getting closer to its (the idea of its) mode of reproduction". The distant and mechanical approach of using a computer is a denial of the very act of painting, one that places technology at the very center of contemporary art production and redefines traditional conceptions of artistic collaboration.
Photograph on paper - Can Your Monkey Do The Dog Collaboration with Josh Smith, Michele Didier Gallery
This work consists of out of focus words, layered atop each other in the center of the page. Upon closer attention, the words are revealed to read 'impatient' and 'impotent'. It is part of a larger body of work and collaboration between Wool and the author and musician Richard Hell, one of the originators of punk in New York. Developed throughout a year, the artist and the musician gathered once every week in a spontaneous and informal gathering, where they created variations of these word paintings. The series joins similar words, creating dichotomies and contrasts through partial homonyms and contrasts. Other pairs of words include: "incest and nicest", "slave and salve", "anus and stuns" and "perils and penis", all of which merge together in the same blurred manner.
The differing backgrounds of both artists brings out another dialogue between disciplines in Wool's work, here combining Hell's conceptual poetry and art. The use of language echoes and questions the dynamics between art, significance and signifier. Mystifying as much as it reveals, the viewer is only left with an ambiguous and baffling conclusion, one that here relates to the very words being observed: an impatient yet impotent position.
Christopher Wool and Richard Hell collaboration, Psychopts
This work depicts abstract shapes, spattered across the canvas. It is part of a larger body of work that explores random 'stains' of paint, first shown at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Photographs of these 'surfaces' are expanded and silkscreened. By creating these stains and drips, the work represents and plays with the accidents of matter, echoing the Abstract Expressionist tradition defined by Robert Rauschenberg and his 'shapeless' paintings of the 1950s or by Jackson Pollock's infamous drip works.
But these formal abstract 'compositions' also allude to Rorschach's inkblot psychological tests, invented by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921. Since the test sustains that the self will classify abstract forms based on their own perceptual and psychological presets, the work can be seen to mirror this approach, by offering up the forms to different interpretations according to the viewer's own 'psychological' and imaginative whims. In this perspective, they reference the inner world of the observer.
Art critic John Corbett also claims that the "interweavings of improvisation and composition can be seen as dual energy entities", acting each with its own strength, exerting "an influence on the methods and processes used". The improvisation brings the viewer's attention to the unexpected and the randomness of the process, while the composition acts as a 'recapturing' of that freedom. For the critic, it is these interweaving and interlocking methods that further keeps the work alive in a dialectical manner.
Enamel and silkscreen ink on linen
The work is a bronze sculpture, composed of a contorted wire that seems to define a random yet organic shape. Wool creates these linear, three-dimensional visual forms from wire found at his property in Marfa, Texas, a material that is usually used by farmers to fence their herds. In a way, these works are three-dimensional compositions derived from the vocabulary developed in his spray paintings.
Critic Mark Prince accentuates that the sculptures are "teasingly figure-like, but not quite figurative", greatly emphasizing the ongoing characteristic of most of Wool's body of work: that while it reveals something, it also seems to allude to 'nothing', echoing his signature dialogue between figure and abstraction. Prince adds that Wool has always had the ability to "convert this formalism into a statement of loss, the loss of meaning". Some of Wool's works, he adds, "are even less signifying than the words and phrases of his text paintings". In this sense, Wool redefines the very condition of sculpture, as he does with painting: aiming to represent the absence of representation.
The work also raises the question of who is being addressed, creating a 'ricocheting' subjectivity, where the "source and iteration, interior and exterior, seems to oscillate, switch roles, project and recede like an optical illusion", as observed by art critic Achim Hochdorfer. In other words, the work greatly emphasizes the fact that there is no inner dialogue between the self and the sculpture, merely an absence that makes the viewer contemplate his own inability to accept what is presented.
Bronze Sculpture - Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Biography of Christopher Wool
Christopher Wool was born in Boston in 1955 to Glorye and Ira Wool, a psychiatrist and a molecular biologist. That same year the family moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, where Wool was brought up alongside his younger brother Jonathon. In 1959, when Wool was four years old, the family moved to Cambridge, England, where they remained for one year before returning to Chicago.
Education and Early Training
Wool began to study photography and art in high school, and although he rarely references early influences, it is known that Robert Donald Erickson, a student of the Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy, was one of his art teachers. During his teenage years he immersed himself in Chicago's art scene, with an exhibition of Dan Flavin's sculptural minimalist light installations and performances by the Art Ensemble of Chicago being two particularly significant encounters. These were both fundamental influences on his later conceptual approach towards his own artistic practice.
At 17 , he began studying painting and photography with Richard Pousette-Dart at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York, with the promise that he would complete the other courses required to graduate the following year. Whilst Pousette-Dart tried to dissuade him from becoming a painter, Wool had made up his mind, and before the year was over he had dropped out and enrolled at the New York Studio School. Finally focusing his studies on painting, he learnt from Jack Tworkov and Harry Kramer, who offered an Abstract Expressionist-influenced education in technique and style. Wool later referred to the influence that Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in particular had on him for their use of color and sense of depth, as well as Hans Hofmann's theoretical work, which emphasized a continuum in painting. Despite his interest in these techniques, Wool again dropped out after a short time. In a later interview Wool explains that he rejected everything his teachers taught him, and that the only advice he followed at the time was Pousette-Dart's idea that an artist should follow his own path continuously and independently, regardless of any tribulations.
After leaving the New York Studio School, Wool then immersed himself in the underground film and music scene of New York. The art emerging from the East Village punk rock scene was characterized by gallery graffiti, performance art and other mixed-media and multidisciplinary artistic practices. Wool's friends at the time included the painter and filmmaker James Nares and writer Glenn O'Brien. Wool briefly enrolled to study film at New York University, but his distrust of education again caused him to drop out. In 1976, he rented a studio loft on Chatham Square, Chinatown, and began to create his own artistic vocabulary. Between 1980 and 1984 he worked as a studio assistant to Joel Shapiro, and was greatly influenced by Shapiro's sculptures, which in turn led to his own abstract paintings. In 1981, Wool sold his first work to the artist Dieter Roth, who had visited him in his studio. During this time Wool was an avid reader, attended many art exhibitions and tried to immerse himself in the broader artistic dialogue of New York. Wool's uncertainty and experimental approach to artistic development is emphasized by the fact that he later destroyed almost everything he created during this early period.
In 1984 Wool had his first solo exhibition at Clarissa Dalrymple and Nicole Klagsbrun's Cable Gallery, also publishing the book 93 Drawings of Beer on the Wall. Much of his work in the mid-1980s consisted of experiments with repeated patterns, marked on the canvas using rollers and stencils. This had the effect of decontextualizing commercial or familiar print and patterns in order to view them as abstract shapes within the context of paintings. This has remained a consistent theme throughout his work ever since - the repurposing of the familiar (patterns, words, etc..) as abstract visual expression.
In 1987 he began to create the work he is perhaps best-known for, the 'word paintings'. These were originally inspired by an experience he had on a New York street when a delivery truck drove by him with some black graffiti (the words SEX LUV) written on its bright white panels. Drawn to the stark visual signature of the image, Wool began to use a similar language, silk-screening black letters against white backgrounds, often removing vowels to further echo the graffiti. Wool suggested that he was most interested in the way words were changed by their display in a public space - as on billboards, shop signs, graffiti and other advertisements. As well as vowels being removed, words were often spaced in a non-standard manner, broken up or run on from the previous word. Again, this disrupts the usual interaction of a viewer (reading the words as a narrative) and requires extended or close attention to decode the phrase within.
Wool also began his first period of extended artistic collaboration during this time, projects that would be greatly developed in the following years. He worked with the artist Robert Gober, combining Wool's word painting Apocalypse Now, with a sculpture by Gober entitled Three Urinals and one collaborative Untitled photograph. He also collaborated with Richard Prince on two paintings My Name and My Act (1988).
In 1989 Wool began his fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. It is during this year in Rome that he began to take photographs of the urban environments that surround him, which would become an important aspect of his practice. He also published his Black Book (1989) around this time, an oversized collection of 9 of his letter paintings.
In 1991, after returning to New York, Wool relocated his studio to East 9th Street, a neighborhood that would have a great impact in his work. A year later he began a second residency at DAAD in Berlin, before publishing another book - a collection of his photographs titled Absent Without Leave (1993). It consisted of 160 black and white images taken on his travels over the course of four years. These years of travel were extremely important in his development as an artist, as they are marked by his developing use of silkscreen and spray paint, his two defining mediums.
In 1997 Wool married the painter Charline Von Heyl, with whom he still lives in New York (and their property in Marfa, Texas). Wool rarely discusses his private life or relationships in a public context. He is also reserved when talking about his work, and often attempts to avoid interviews. He has claimed to hate being quoted, and distances himself as much as he can from celebratory or social events related to his artistic career.
Wool continued exploring new techniques in the 2000s, including digital drawing and further photographic documentation. In 2004, he published East Broadway Breakdown, featuring photographs taken at night in the streets surrounding his studio. His collaboration with Josh Smith, Can Your Monkey Do the Dog, in which the two artists digitally manipulated each other's work, was published in 2008.
Despite the air of mystery that surrounds him as an artist and as an individual, Wool has discussed being a great fan of abstract and conceptual art. In his studio, he has paintings by Albert Oehlen, Robert Rauschenberg, Hans Hartung and Georg Baselitz, some of which he inherited from his father's collection.
In 2008 Wool collaborated with punk originator Richard Hell, on the Psychopts, a series of word images. The friendship began developing in 1997, when Wool called Hell to ask for permission to use the words he had written on his chest for the cover of the Blank Generation album in one of his paintings. The collaboration also resulted in a book of the same name, featuring 57 pictures created by both artists.
In 2011 Wool helped organize with Joanna Pousette-Dart the East River Studio exhibition, featuring the works of Richard Pousette-Dart, who had been one of his early teachers.
Wool had a significant retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum New York in 2013, featuring works from his three-decade career. It emphasized his ongoing contribution to art by linking him to other significant contemporaries such as Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The exhibition received mixed reviews, with critic Christopher Knight describing the work as 'banal' and 'impoverished'. Jerry Saltz, however, claimed that the work should be seen as a reflection of New York, and that Wool creates a "new order out of all this chaos".
In a rare interview in 2014, Wool claimed to remember sitting with a friend in a bar and answering the question: "What would be the most meaningful things that could happen in your career?". He answered that it would be an exhibition at the Guggenheim and a Sonic Youth album cover, both of which he has now completed after he provided the cover design for the band's album Rather Ripped (2006).
The Legacy of Christopher Wool
When Wool emerged in the art scene in the mid-80's, other emerging artists at the same time included Jeff Koons and James Nares. However, unlike these contemporaries, Wool does not engage in pop or mass culture. Instead he aims to address and expand the very process of painting, becoming part of the larger artistic discourse of the medium. In this regard, art critic Achim Hochdorfer adds that "Wool's combination of intuitive, improvisational strategies and reproductive ones is emphatically not about parodying expressivity by portraying it as Pop or by subjecting it to a conceptual distancing". Rather, the expressive improvisation that greatly characterizes his body of work creates a dialogue of investigation. He expresses and expands interest in the medium of painting by questioning the limits of the medium itself. As Jeff Koons wrote in 1986, Wool's work "contains continual internal/external debate within itself". Tracey Emin's work might be seen to parallel Wool's, as she also incorporates words and photography, aiming likewise to question the boundaries of medium.
Wool's work also questions the established art paradigms, continuing the idea that works of art do not need to possess a significance at all, by incorporating the use of photography, semiotics and computer processing and other types of "objective" techniques. It is also built on implicit satire, criticism and underlying poetics. Ken Johnson suggests his work is a 'post-modernist fusion of black comedy and concrete poetry'.
Wool's analyses of the processes of painting have afforded him a mentoring role for several younger generations of artists, such as Wade Guyton and Josh Smith. Other artists influenced by Wool include Kelley Walker, a New York based post-conceptual artist, Dan Colen, who also creates graffiti inspired works, and Seth Price, whose abstract works echo Wool's later practice. Wool's work is also echoed in the work of Liu Dan, particularly Dictionary (2009), which features a realistic dictionary with blurred letters, using the words as abstract shapes and preventing simple semiotic interpretation.