25th October 2013 – 22nd January 2014
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
(Question and answer guidelines can be found here)
It is clear from this collection that Christopher Wool was strongly influenced by the culture, urban environment and social scene that surrounded him when he settled in New York City in the 1970s when the gritty punk scene and new wave were at their peak. It is also apparent that the world of underground film and music played a significant role as inspiration to him, this is demonstrated through his use of words from films and music albums in his artwork. Wool has established himself as a highly influential abstract artist drawing influence from movements such as Abstract Expressionism (1950s), Pop Art (1960s) and Conceptual Art (1970s) and yet he continues to develop on these movements seeking out innovative ways to experiment and create something fresh and new. The Guggenheim, New York, states that “he has approached each new work as a site of open-ended experimentation in which images exist as volatile entities that are subject to an array of disruptive processes”. (Anom, (2013a))
With black and white featuring as the main colors in this exhibition, the Guggenheim provided the perfect silhouette of white and black shades highlighted through the shadowy effect on the white spiral walkway of the impressive Frank Lloyd Wright building. The odd pop of color dramatically makes rare appearances throughout this exhibition.
Much of the exhibition consists of Wools word paintings, graffiti inspired artwork and motifs (such as cartoonish flowers) that are prepared on silkscreen. A large selection of his photography is also on show. His work often features over-painting of scribbles and spray-paint creating a haziness and vandalized effect. Replication and digital manipulation is also used on much of his more recent work. It is interesting to note that in the book ‘Art and Today’ it states how sometime in the early 1990s the “sense of unification suddenly collapsed, leaving us in what some commentators call a state of pluralism and others a reign of chaos” (Heartney, E (2008), pp. 8-9). Eleanor Heartney continues on to advise of the “crisis in criticism” as critics attempt to deal with the vastness in diversity and direction since the 1990s and Heartney discusses how currently “art curators and other art professionals struggle to distinguish art that is meaningful from art that is not”. Wool would definitely be considered in these terms as his experimentation is quite chaotic and often forces the audience to question what it is that a ‘painting’ should be.
Wool began to create his word paintings in the 1980s and is thought to have been influenced in this direction after seeing graffiti on a brand new white truck. “In the late 1980s he was inspired by the words “SEX and LUV” spray painted on a truck outside his studio, and he embarked on a series of bold text-based works known as “Black Book” paintings.” (Anom, (2013b)). His environmental surroundings form such a force and driving factor throughout his work that it is interesting to consider how different his work may have been if he had not made the move from Chicago to New York.
Obviously some of his critics question the art in his scribble like graffiti and sole use of words found in much of his work, however, it is clear that this type of art has hit a nerve with its audience; proven by his immense popularity and the large monetary demand to purchase his work. Wool has done what I feel a great artist should do; be innovative, arose emotion, create excitement and conversation, question the definition of art and the meaning of a painting and experiment with non-standard techniques.
There is no denying the boldness and harshness in his work, the immediate sense of anxiety and aggression in his bold black words and the layering of strong bush strokes erasing out previous powerful strokes. Also, there is a confrontational aspect in his work; his punk graffiti like pieces and strong stenciled words, on a clean white canvas, arouse an immediate emotion within the viewer forcing them to pause and ponder over the meaning that Wool is trying to ‘shout’ out to them in his large capital letters. I believe that art should make its viewer stop and think and Wools work encourages you to take a second stare in order to contemplate the meaning of the work. This thus creates a confrontational element to his work. The graffiti aspect to his work also insinuates the idea of a rebel, vandal, intimidation and in a sense you feel that he is fighting to have a statement declared through his art.
Wool often uses alliteration and abbreviation in his word paintings, removing letters such as the vowels, and we are forced to repeat the word over to fully understand it and one can almost feel the urge to say the words aloud in order to comprehend them. We frequently see the use of run on arrangement in the spacing of words when Wool chooses to avoid conventional spacing and he instead uses unexpected breakdowns of the correct system of form and order. This assists to the disruptive reading of a piece. It also helps to captivate the audience further into that sense of anxiety and the feeling of immediate urgency that is encapsulated in his art. It is fascinating to note that in all of his work, Wool is somehow able to shift from spontaneous and disconnected order to a perfected gridline order technique (this can even be observed throughout the same painting) and yet still provide that same sense of urgency, anarchy and anxiety. His work can sometimes become so stripped back, to almost a state of extinction, that we are left with pure emotion and a feeling that we have been given a brief intimate visit to Wools inner mind.
The words can be dark and haunting; a prime example would be in ‘Apocalypse Now’ which uses words directly from the horror film of which this work is named after. A lot of hype surrounds Wool in regards to the banking ability of his artwork; this hype was further highlighted at the time of his Guggenheim show, in November 2013, when art dealer Christophe Van de Weghe bought ‘Apocalypse Now’ for an impressive $26.4 million on behalf of a client at Christie’s New York (Silver and Tarmy, (2014)). Also, last year an enamel-on-aluminum painting bearing the word “Fool” sold at auction for £4.9 million ($7.7m) (Budick, (2013)). However, some critics have argued that there is a sense of pretentiousness to his artwork and that it is created with a media friendly aim of marketing and selling trendy and overpriced art aimed at being expensively sold to hang in large mansions. The LA Times went as far as stating (in a review of Wools exhibition in The Museum of Contemporary Art) that it was “an exhibition of unrelieved dullness” (Knight, (1998)). Also, in relation to the ‘depth’ of his work, Christopher Knight stated “That’s not a word that sits comfortably in the vicinity of such razor-thin art”. Wools Guggenheim show was met with a mixture of reviews – with the New York Times, Roberta Smith, stating that “Generally, however, this exhibition is an elegant experiential treat, one that can teach a lot about pictorial power, the act of looking as exploration and the simple physical innovations that are basic to painting’s evolution.” (Smith, R (2013)).
Though some of his work may only be of one or two words in length, it was interesting to observe how the audience in the gallery stopped and viewed the work for such a long time. Even more interesting to consider is how each viewer is likely to experience a totally different reaction, meaning and thus visual in their mind than to each other viewer - due to the fact that the words do not promote a definite story or meaning. An example of this would be in the below work 'Untitled (You Make Me), 1997'. The stripping down of the words creates a rawness and an intimate feeling of Wool baring his soul to the audience through his chosen words at that moment in time.
Another strong feature in Wools work are his repetitive patterns and motif designs; especially that of flowers. Many of these pieces evolved from his experimentation with rollers, stamps and silkscreen. Here, yet again, Wool manages to create a unified order through common patterns and an almost obsessive form of repetitive work. It is interesting to observe how the work can still shift to an accompanying sense of spontaneity, disorder and an angst vandalism style which is incorporated through the use of blemishes, repainting and disruption to the mundane technique. He often smears and wipes out lines that he has just finished and then repaints more of these patterns and designs throughout the piece. This again creates a sense of anxiety and presence to his work; you are seeing a moment of truth in the artist and you can almost feel that you are living in that moment of harsh brush strokes and gestures that Wool determinedly overwrites. Unlike the majority of artwork, Wool has allowed for errors as part of his finished work and this assists in providing that sense of anxiety to his work. In regards to Wools use of rollers to apply decorative patterns he is quoted as saying “I became more interested in ‘how to paint’ than ‘what to paint’”. (Anom, (2013b)).
His paint rollers, with floral and geometric designs and patterns, can appear perfected through a gridline structure and ready-made imagery but yet they remain disruptive through how Wool allowed for mechanical failures to remain in the work. Also, in the structured word paintings he still manages to confront the audience by encouraging them to think about what the harsh words mean and you can also sense somewhat of an anxiety through his use of dissonance. Katherine Brinson, Associate Curator of The Guggenheim, states how in Wools work “these acts of sabotage and self-negation express the position of doubt and insistent questioning that has underpinned his work from the beginning, and that continues to drive him forward in search of new ways to create a picture” (Brinson, K. (2013)).
Many critics often refer to Gerhard Richter as an inspiration to Wool (Richter was also influenced by Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art). In the book ‘Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That’, Susie Hodge refers to the fact that Wool was inspired by Richter when she examines Richter’s painting ‘Untitled (grey)’. Hodge’s states how the piece “was created to investigate feelings of loss and hopelessness, and express hidden truths that Richter believes are exposed in painting by chance” (Hodge, S. (2012)). Similarly, Wools audience may somewhat feel that they are gaining exposure to the hidden truth of his chaotic mind as his gloomy words and paintings insinuate a sense of loss, solitude and sullenness. This is especially apparent in much of his photography. Another artist of whom Wool is often compared to as possessing similarities, such as his dripping technique, is Jackson Pollock.
Just like in all of Wools artwork, there is a stark, dark, eerie and haunting feeling found in Wools photography. He often uses photographs of his own paintings as sources for new paintings; taking images of particular gestures and transmitting them onto aluminum or linen grounds through silkscreen (either alone, on a surface or in a combination with enamel). His use of silkscreen and motifs may be partially due to the inspiration he gained from Pop Art, in particular by Andy Warhol’s silk-screen images. ‘East Broadway Breakdown’ again examines his urban space and surroundings. Gloom again exists here in this work, demonstrated through the dark night time photographs of Wools solitary walk home on the streets between the Lower East Side and Chinatown. ‘Absent Without Leave (1993)’ hit me strongly as I felt an immense sense of solitude, loneliness and alienation in these photographs taken on his travels.
The show featured quite a large selection of his black and white photographs and I would agree with the New York Times review stating how “with three series of dark, grainy photographs that make the gritty urban sensibility behind the work explicit but don’t need five bays of wall space to do so” (Smith, R. (2013)). There were so many photographs on display that I ended up drifting by, and not examining all of them in detail, as I longed to continue forth to the large bold word pieces that lay in front of me.
I see Christopher Wools work as containing a message to his audience and that message is to think in the present, to question, to experiment without fear, to rebel and not to overthink. In the future, it will be exciting to see how Wool continues to develop the art scene and to further force the audience to question what art is and the possibilities that can be reached through an ongoing experimentation of it.
Illustrations (All photographs taken by myself at The Guggenheim Museum, New York)
1: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
2: Christopher Wool, Untitled (Riot) 1990
3: Christopher Wool, Untitled 2001
4: Christopher Wool, Untitled 1987
5: Christopher Wool, Untitled (you make me) 1997
6: Christopher Wool, Untitled 1995
7: Christopher Wool, Untitled 1994
8: Christopher Wool, Absent Without Leave 1993
2: Christopher Wool, East Broadway Breakdown (1994 – 95 / 2002)
Citations in Text and Quotations
Anom, (2013a), Christopher Wool Introduction, Available here on Guggenheim official website
Anom, (2013b), Christopher Wool, Available here on art space
Brinson, Katherine (2013) Christopher Wool, Available here from Guggenheim official website
Budick, Ariela (2013), The Christopher Wool Retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, The Financial Times - see the article here
Heartney, Eleanor, (2008), Art and Now, Phaidon Press Limited, pp. 8-9
Knight, Christopher (1998), ‘Misstep in Mid-Career MOCA Show’, The L.A. Times. Available here
Silver, Vernon and Tarmy, James (2014) The 350,000 Percent Rise of Christopher Wool’s Masterpiece Painting. Bloomberg Businessweek. Available here
Smith, Roberta (2013), Painting’s Endgame, Rendered Graphically, New York Times. Available here