After the summer madness of its transforming (and transformative) James Turrell exhibition, the Guggenheim Museum has pretty much returned to normal. Which is not to downplay in any way the new exhibition, a retrospective of contemporary American abstract painter Christopher Wool (b. 1955) that opens Oct. 25 and runs thru Jan. 22, 2014.
Wool is given the full-rotunda treatment, and he rises to the occasion, proving himself to be as dynamic, as revolutionary and as inquisitive an explorer of the possibilities of art as anyone who has preceded him in this vast space. But, as a master of black, white and latterly, gray, he does so in monochrome, with only the most occasional use of red, blue and yellow. He also works in an almost exclusively vertical format. With Wool, the Gugg is back to basics, pressing the pause button, if you will, between the colorful tsunami of Turrell and the upcoming dynamism of the Italian Futurists (Feb. 21-Sept. 1, 2014). Art lovers should take this opportunity to catch their breath.
Arranged chronologically, the show reveals Wool to be a tireless experimenter and innovator. Initially, he covered sheets of aluminum with enamel paint, using rollers incised with preexisting floral or geometric patterns. Significance lies in the mistakes/flaws that resonate in these works: the accidental blobs of paint or the irregularity within the rote application of image to surface.
Early on in his 30-year career, language was a prime subject, and Wool’s “word” paintings, such as “Trouble” from 1989 above, captivate. Eliminate the vowels, and the word “trouble” really is in trouble. Here’s the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia, and one of the most thrillingly subversive items in the show, if not abstract art.
Wool has said that creating art is a process of adding and subtracting, as in one of his many “Untitled” paintings (above). See how the artist builds and layers the motif, but at the same takes away, covers it up with white masses that are energetically applied. So, out of destruction comes something new: a method that Wool returns to again and again. At times, it is impossible to tell where the one (creation) begins and the other (destruction) takes over. Lines are blurred. If graffiti and vandalism come to mind, it is good to know that Wool lived and worked in NYC’s East Village and Chinatown. Inkjets of photographs of those neighborhoods are included in the exhibition and show a gritty cityscape. Wool’s New York is desolate, hardly picturesque and not at all pretty.
If there is an undercurrent of aggression or anger percolating beneath the surface, it manifests itself in the recent “gray” paintings in which Wool sprays black enamel paint in swooping lines and with a rag soaked in turpentine erases and blurs the image (above). Other recent experimentations involve Photoshop and digital manipulation. In keeping up with the technology of his time, Wool is fully of his time. What then is art to him? I’ve heard him say a piece of paper, a pencil and an eraser. That about sums it up: another must-see show at the Guggenheim.
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Photos (from top): Christopher Wool, "Trouble," 1989, enamel and acrylic on aluminum, © Christopher Wool; Christopher Wool, "Untitled," 1994, enamel on linen, © Christopher Wool