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Wool painting installation at Luhring Augustine
Wool painting installation at Luhring Augustine

Everything out in the open: The Wool installation at Luhring Augustine

Christopher Wool is the New York painter West Coast critics love to hate—and I mean hate. This became clear to me while I was boning up to write on Wool’s current Luhring Augustine show. Wool was the subject, or more accurately the victim, of one of the most brilliantly damning negative reviews in recent memory—a two-page carpet bombing of a Wool survey at L.A. MOCA by Dave Hickey in the October 1998 Artforum. I never saw the show, but the review stuck with me. It whacked Wool’s work as “the wrong art, in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” reprimanded him for “marketing trendy negativity . . . and an academically palatable brand of designer-punk-agitprop . . . to collectors,” and leveled the ultimate insider’s attack at Wool, calling him “so ten-years-ago.”

It turns out that Hickey did not act alone. Two other West Coasters have been just as nasty about his work. The usually reliable L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight lambasted Wool’s survey as “the most forlorn exhibition MOCA has offered to date,” and called Wool’s work “banal,” “impoverished,” and “startlingly conservative.” Shortly thereafter LA Weekly critic Doug Harvey got in on the act, writing, “Wool’s work benumbs with rote repetition,” and is “marked by its intellectual and sensual niggardliness.” Two months ago, reviewing an exhibition Wool wasn’t even in, Harvey struck again, calling his work “pedantic crap” and “shtick crippled.”

I’ve been a big Wool fan, on and off, since 1988, when, in a breakthrough move, he painted the phrase “Sell the House. Sell the Car. Sell the Kids” in black blocky letters on a stark white ground (the words are from Apocalypse Now). His work has always been a disconcerting but alluring combination of resistance, intelligence, and graphic flair. Paintings can look alike and lend themselves to icky academic clichés like “They’re about gesture and reproduction.” Even so, I relish the way Wool stakes everything on a painting being so totally in the present that it is eternally what it was the first instant you saw it: starkly declarative and always on. I also like the complex ways Wool does by undoing, as well as the ways he unpacks the problems of modern painting without being negative, decorative, or arch. Nearly every time I see a Wool I’m hit with a bracingly specific retinal buzz, something brash and beautiful. Even when I don’t care for a piece, far from seeming “so ten-years-ago,” it retains a vampiric Warholian aliveness.

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