Christopher Wool - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Photographer, and Sculptor
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.