Christopher Wool @ArtInstituteChi 2014

Christopher Wool (b. 1955) is a contemporary painter who lives and works in New York. He is most famous for a series of works, created in the 1980s, consisting of black text on white canvas or aluminum. During a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York last fall, one of these works, Apocalypse Now, sold for over $26 million. His work is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 11th, 2014.

I’ve seen Wool’s work online and in art catalogues before, but in person the experience is significantly different. The paintings are layered and nuanced. In them you find an amalgamation of references — pop, abstract expressionism, conceptual, street art — and yet they are entirely original.

The references to pop art are strong. The perfect rows of word paintings, each framed, consisting of nine-letter words, reminds me of Warhol’s soup cans displayed in MoMA. Look closely and you start to see Lichtenstein’s dots on some works. There is a series of images done with decorative paint rollers, creating a wallpaper effect, and a canvas with drip marks running both up and down — you can imagine Wool turning the canvas to add another layer, creating the drips in opposite directions. All these deliberate imperfections — tape edges, drips, screenprints, and stenciled letters — act to reveal the means of production, something that at one time was frowned upon in art because artistic works were supposed to be the product of pure inspiration and the artist merely an instrument, and preferably an invisible one, at that. Anything else would leave the realm of art and border on craft. But to see the machination at work adds yet another layer of interpretation.

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In Wool’s work, there also is an element of abstract expressionism, a movement of artists active in New York in the 1940s. The paintings are tactile, and the paint itself has medium added to it, giving it a physical presence like encaustics. Many are on aluminum instead of traditional canvas, which gives them a rigid materialism not unlike Jasper John’s flags, which were often mounted on plywood. Paint runs, splatters, and drops remind you of Pollock in places. The black and white text paintings, similar in some ways to works by Franz Kline, stand on their own as abstract paintings beyond the import of their linguistic meaning.

Conceptual art of the 70s and 80s often used text, and Wool’s text paintings certainly share aspects of Glenn Ligon’s paintings, Barbara Kruger’s mock advertising, On Kawara’s dates, and Richard Prince’s jokes, but what’s interesting with Wool’s paintings is how the text is abstracted. You start with complete abstraction as the words are often indecipherable upon first viewing due to Wool’s line breaks and spacing. You sound them out in your head, your brain switching from visual to linguistic processing. The next time you look at the painting, you read the text — you’ve deciphered the painting…well, at least one layer of it. After that, it’s interesting to go back to pure visuals without seeing the words. You can run this loop over and over in your head — visual to linguistic to visual.

Wool was painting in the East Village in the 1980s, and there is an element of punk or street art in many of his works. Some paintings have been spray painted and appear defaced by tagging (for example, there are a few works of somewhat treacly flowers with lines and swirls spray painted over them), and many of the larger works have grid-like markings (made from the stamps Wool fashioned, the edges of which would hold paint and leave rectilinear marks), creating a paste-up look like you’d find on large street-art displays.

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The use of black and white makes the images stronger, and the little color in the exhibit really pops. There is a beautiful painting with canary yellow over black and white in the back corner. There is a red painting, done in 2001, with a section of smeared paint that hints at Richter with it’s scraping marks. At the end of a long aisle of photos is TRBL, painted in a dark maroon (or perhaps more appropriately, blood red), the only text painting with color — an obviously intentional choice that itself adds meaning to the piece.

The works are physically and conceptually layered. Look up close, and you appreciate the nuance, sometimes even the history, of the paintings — letters painted over other letters and screenprints upon screenprints. And while there are elements of many artistic movements throughout Wool’s work, and many of his paintings do not include text, it is in fact the text paintings that often take you the furthest. For example, Apocalypse Now reads “Sell the House Sell the Car Sell the Kids,” a line taken from a letter briefly visible in the film Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola, a film which is itself an adaptation of the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. We’ve gone from written Conrad, to visual Coppola, to an abstraction by Wool that we eventually decode back to the written word. (And this is before even trying to understand the meaning of the words, why Wool chose them, or the importance of their placement.) Most recently, Wool has taken this a step further, reusing previous images of his own — importing them into Photoshop, manipulating them, and then rescreening them onto new works — another journey now from analog to digital to analog.

There is a series of photographs from New York and some of Wool’s travels that hang in the center aisle of the exhibit. Here again we see the means of production as an element of the art: the photos are actually photocopies of photographs. The images are mostly taken at night with a flash, giving them a dark yet overexposed (both in terms of photographic process and vulnerability) feel. These are lonely and depressing images — an abandoned hotel, its sign reading ironically, “Eden”; many stray dogs; a telephone on a bed; a parked car in a trash-strewn alley; water pooled in dark streets; a solitary string of lights. Like the paintings, these felt like an amalgamation to me — some feel similar to Frank’s The Americans (though distinctly different in their lack of people), others like the phone on the bed and the stray dogs reminded me of Eggleston. The photos would be easy to miss, but the series is good, and the photos, shown together, are effective.

All in all, I enjoyed the Wool exhibit even more than I expected to. I was struck by the dimensionality of his work — something that looked flat on a projector or even from afar, up close showed texture and nuance and layers. I appreciated the links between his work and other artists and movements. I also enjoyed getting a glimpse at the means of production and being taken on a journey through media — from the written word to image and back, from analog to digital and back — by works seemingly so simple as, for example, nine words on a canvas or copies of personal photos. If you have the chance, I recommend stopping by the Art Institute to check out the exhibit.

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