Like it or not, Christopher Wool, 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 aluminum 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 Museum 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. His stencilled repetition of those words, on paper, is among the earliest works in the new show. A cutely vandalized truck would seem a pretty humble epiphany, as epiphanies go, but it inspired a way of painting that quietly gained authority, while more ingratiating styles rose and fell in art-world esteem. If you are put off by the harshness of Wool’s rigor, as I was, it means that you aren’t ready to confess that our time admits, and merits, nothing cozier in an art besieged by the aesthetic advances, as well as the technical advances, of photographic and digital mediums. Once you stop resisting the gloomy mien of Wool’s work, it feels authentic, bracing, and even, on occasion, blissful.
Wool was born in Boston, to a molecular-biologist father and a psychiatrist mother, and grew up in Chicago, enthralled by art. In 1972, he entered Sarah Lawrence College, where he won permission to take two exacting studio courses, in painting and photography, promising that he would buckle down to required courses the next year. Instead, he dropped out, moved to Manhattan, and enrolled in the New York Studio School, the diehard academy of Abstract Expressionist technique and style. That training served him well. In a fine catalogue essay, Katherine Brinson, the curator of the Guggenheim show, notes a standard emphasis of Studio School instruction: the rendering of forms in charcoal by partial erasure. (Wool’s later paintings do wonders with passages that are thinned, rubbed, overpainted, or wiped away.) Meanwhile, he plunged into the emerging East Village scene of punk rock, underground film, gallery graffiti, performance art, and up-all-night dissipation, as immortalized in the photographs of Nan Goldin. His friends and sometime collaborators included the painter James Nares, the writer Glenn O’Brien, and the poet-rocker Richard Hell. Wool briefly studied filmmaking at New York University, but by 1981 he had settled into painting, at first producing gawky abstract shapes that were influenced by the sculptor Joel Shapiro, who employed him as an assistant.
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