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.
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.
Important Art by Christopher Wool
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
- Kelley Walker
- Wade Guyton
- Josh Smith
- Dan Colen
- Seth Price
- Robert Gober
- Richard Hell
Useful Resources on Christopher Wool
- Christopher Wool: East Broadway Breakdown (2004)Our PickBy Christopher Wool
- Christopher WoolOur PickBy Katherine Brinson and Suzanne Hudson / Exhibition Catalogue from his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
- Christopher Wool: 9Th Street Run DownBy Christopher Wool and Hand Werner
- Can Your Monkey Do The Dog @ The Michele Didier Gallery - 2007By Josh Smith and Christopher Wool
- Psychopts: Christopher Wool and Richard HellBy Christopher Wool and Richard Hell
- Can Your Monkey Do The DogBy Vera Kotaji / Exhibition Summary / Michele Didier Gallery
- Wandering the Night Away Along Baleful City StreetsBy Ken Johnson / The New York Times / July 2, 2004
- Christopher Wool, Richard Hell: The Abstract Painter and the Rocking Writer Talk About Their New Collaboration (PDF)Interview Magazine / May 2008
- Writing on the WallBy Peter Schjeldahl / The New Yorker / November 4, 2013
- Reviews: Christopher Wool - Solomon R. Guggenheim MuseumBy Achim Hochdörfer / Artforum / March, 2014
- We Can Talk But You Can't QuoteBy Cornelius Tittel / BLAU / May, 2015
- Christopher WoolBy Mark Prince / Art Review / October, 2017