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Christopher Wool Photo

Christopher Wool

American Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor

Born: 1955 - Boston, MA
Movements and Styles:
"I think of myself primarily as an abstract painter, but I find that in making paintings there is a little bit of investigation into what abstract painting can be."
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Christopher Wool Signature
"These other mediums [photography, artist's books, painting, digital work] kind of loop back on each other in the work."
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Christopher Wool Signature
"Painting is a visual medium, and they're to be looked at. Like listening to music, it's an emotional experience."
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Christopher Wool Signature
"The tools have changed and the ways of exploring visual things have expanded. But it's not a paradigm shift, it's the same old paradigm."
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Christopher Wool Signature
"If you're not fearless about changes, then you won't progress."
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Christopher Wool Signature
"I am interested in visual language."
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Christopher Wool Signature
"With Basquiat or Picasso, the fact that they could do it so easily is what makes the work so great. They had absolute fearlessness."
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Christopher Wool Signature

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.

Biography of Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool Photo

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.

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

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Christopher Wool Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church
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First published on 24 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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