Peter Schjeldahl said in The New Yorker about Christopher Wool: ‘Like it or not, now fifty-eight, is probably the most important American painter of his generation. You might fondly wish, as I do, for a champion whose art is richer in beauty and in charm: Wool’s work consists primarily of dour, black-and-white pictures of stencilled words in enamel, usually on aluminIum panels, decorative patterns made with incised rollers; and abstract, variously piquant messes involving spray paint and silk screens. Let’s get over it. A dramatic retrospective at the Guggenheim confirms, besides the downbeat air, the force and the intelligence of a career that, according to legend, caught fire in 1987, after Wool saw the words SEX and LUV spray-painted in black on a white delivery truck’. I asked myself what he means by ‘the most important American painter of his generation’ and I think the answer lies in the art market but, again, not necessarily in art itself. It seems that we just cannot differentiate strategy from artistic relevance, anymore.
The truth is that the rigour in Wool’s work is a sign of the times where art seems not to admit anything cozier and also, where the visual strategy of a painter seems to be understood as what is valuable from an artistic point of view. Wall was confronted to two big dilemmas. Firstly, the big question of what painting should do in times of photographic and digital media. Secondly, we must put Wool in the context where he emerges where there were two very clear paths: on one hand, hot neo-expressionist painters like Jean Micheal Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, feeding a vogue that became a market frenzy and, on the other hand, cool ‘pictures’ conceptualists like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Money that instantly favoured the former, eventually got around to the latter. It can’t have been clear at the time that Wool’s middle way, of earnest painterly invention, which was anything but seductive, would triumph. Several other gifted painters -among them Peter Halley, David Reed and Jonathan Lasker- gained success with conceptually alert abstract styles. Those artist now seem a bit dated. Wool doesn’t.
I think Wool has become fashionable lately because his is the art of renunciation. He did not use color, or expressive gesture; their meaning could not be controlled. Nor did he indulge as his friends Robert Gober, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons did, in the easy ironies of adopting themes and images from mass culture. Wool liked the eclat of Pop-influenced art, but not its subject matter. The way he deploys words is aporetic as in ‘HYP/OCR/ITE’ or ‘AN/RCH/IST’ and what happens there is that he creates a difficulty of sorts to draw attention to the materiality of the painting. Honestly, to make the world appear uniformly horrible requires rare discipline. I would say that Cristopher Wool is to art what Bottega Venetta’s Thomas Meier is to fashion. They aim at industrial looking super chic things that would convey a sense of austerity that this times of recessive luxury demand. But if this is the case, this article is not about art criticism but about fashion. Isn’t it? Just a thought.
Wool is at the Guggenheim Museum
until January 22
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