Christopher Wool’s decorously aggressive exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris spreads out across a curved main-floor gallery that’s been divided into three sections. Comprised mostly of large white canvases covered with silkscreened marks, the paintings are distanced reproductions of sprawling painterly gestures recycled and recombined in a variety of sizes and layers.
Now in his late 50s, Wool is widely exhibited, and an art-market favorite (his auction record is a little over $5 million, set in 2010). In New York, he has remained loyal to Luhring Augustine since 1987, while showing with Gagosian Gallery in Rome and Beverly Hills. He was included in the 1989 Whitney Biennial, had a solo show in 1998 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (accompanied by a prodigious catalogue), and even exhibited a series of black-and-white nocturnal photographs of debris on the Lower East Side at MoMA PS1 in 2004. A full-scale retrospective of his works is slated to open at the Guggenheim Museum in 2013.
Wool is one of our leading postmodernist painters, whose works manage to combine Jackson Pollock aggression with Andy Warhol cool. Wool studied at the New York Studio School, a bastion of Abstract-Expressionism where students learn to draw in a style involving multiple attempts to situate subjects in Cubist-derived space. In the mid ‘80s, he blasphemed against his early training with brutally ornamental paintings done in black-and-white enamel, made by dragging commercial paint rollers with floral and arabesque wallpaper patterns across the canvas.
In Wool’s celebrated text paintings, black letters stenciled across white canvases turn negative areas into stark simple rectangles and curves. The pictures all but shout out the macho phrases with which they are inscribed: “sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids;” “fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke;” “run dog eat dog;” “hole in your head.” Phrases sometimes break off in the middle of words, undermining their meaning while accentuating their graphic presence.
More recently, Wool has been preoccupied with silk-screening photographic images of graffiti-esque scribbles, wiped out areas of paint, and blots, undermining the appearance of accident with calculated mechanical reproduction. Thus, for example, some paintings in the Paris show’s third section riff on a quick tangle of black paint that resembles a line by a tagger who’s testing his spray can before writing his name. Initially a disruptive, anti-esthetic gesture, these paintings now can function as pure pictorial decoration, like an abstraction that stands in for a pot of flowers.
In The Flam (2001), this image has been divided into four imperfectly placed panels. A slight space left between the top two panels results in a slender white gap, while the faulty registration on the left two panels interrupts the continuity of the fuzzy-edged black line. On even closer inspection, the entire image breaks up into dots, although a few actual splotches of black paint suggest that Wool’s silk-screening process is as messy and toxic as the gestures he represents.
A more recent work made in 2011 hangs on a freestanding wall. In it, an unprinted empty area turns a large white splotch into a blot made out of emptiness. Conversely, in Untitled (2009), which hangs on the wall’s opposite side, layers of silkscreened sprayed lines are obliterated by a final swipe of thicker white enamel that from a distance resembles a final pass of paint-thinner that has dissolved the painting’s image. In Wool’s work, representations of accumulation, destruction and disappearance are constantly changing places.
Silkscreens on canvas inevitably bring Warhol to mind; it is as if Wool is depicting the ink left behind on the floor after Warhol has finished printing, or the swipes left by removing the remnants of ink that remain on the squeegee. By continuously shuffling his traces of violent defacement with the distance of mechanical reproduction, Wool purposefully drains the belligerence from his gestures.
“Christopher Wool,” Mar. 30-Aug. 19, 2012, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.