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Wool install at Guggenheim Museum
Wool install at Guggenheim Museum

View of “Christopher Wool,” 2013–14. Photo: Kristopher McKay.

THE HOME PAGE of Christopher Wool’s website greets visitors, somewhat cryptically, with a black-and-white photograph of a discarded office chair on a dilapidated sidewalk. Taken with a flash at night on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the photograph has a dramatic immediacy, but seems more than a straightforward image of urban decay. With its atmosphere of isolation and estrangement and its invocation of such classic tropes as the destruction of public space and the loss of interiority, it appears to represent a kind of primal scene of expressionist art. Listing languidly on a broken caster, the chair is clearly a denizen of a world in which, as Walter Benjamin famously observed, the city has become at once exterior streetscape and dioramic intérieur. Inevitably anthropomorphic, it is an allegorical stand-in for a modern subject who has been cast into a liminal zone where inside and outside, expression and stylization, are not easily distinguishable.

The photograph is part of the series “East Broadway Breakdown,” 1994–95/2002, which, along with other photographic works, was an integral part of Wool’s recent retrospective at the Guggenheim, curated by Katherine Brinson. At first glance, Wool’s photographs—as well as his artist’s books, record-cover designs, invitations, and posters—appear to have an ancillary, explicatory function in relation to his painting. In particular, his shots of New York suggest analogies between his painterly gestures and the city’s visual noise, its characteristically dissolute forms and textures: puddles, graffiti, oil stains, scattered garbage, and broken windows. Within the exhibition, the photos served to emphasize Wool’s engagement with issues of painting’s autonomy, or rather, its loss of autonomy. In his work, however, this loss is not an inert given to be commented on. It is an unfolding process, a border conflict between pictorial immanence and its undoing. His paintings are parergonal: They don’t merely blur the distinction between what lies within the frame and what’s beyond it, but take this blurring as a precondition of perception. They cannot be seen as distinct from their contexts. According to their setting—museum, private collection, corporate collection, domestic space—they take on different meanings.

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