Christopher Wool is having a moment. Arguably his most famous painting, “Apocalypse Now,” will be offered on the auction block on November 12 as part of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art evening sale, with an estimate of $15–20 million. His retrospective at the Guggenheim, organized by associate curator Katherine Brinson, opened late last month to much fanfare. The Chicago-born artist moved to New York in the 1980s, living on the Lower East Side and studying with famed Ab-Ex painter Jack Tworkov at the New York Studio School before quitting in favor of the downtown music and underground film scenes. What’s immediately obvious, walking through the rotating doors of the Guggenheim, is the ragged energy and raw angst that the artist has projected throughout his oeuvre.
The exhibition starts with Wool’s breakout paintings from the mid ’80s. It’s easy to imagine the artist situated among the derelict buildings and boozy, drug-fueled art scene of that decade on the Lower East Side, coming to grips with the excesses of Neo-Expressionism that made fuddy-duddies like Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl so popular. One can picture Wool making his wry, sarcastic, black-and-white paintings as an irreverent response to his more prosperous contemporaries. These early works co-opted house decorator stencils and engraved rollers, using mass-market design flourishes to inscribe his white enameled and paper surfaces with allover, mundane patterns. The embellishments, flowers, and dots seem to imply mold and entropy. Their power comes from their ambiguity and thinness. They are the truant student who sits in the back of the class; their lack of performance is meant as a grim elephant in the room.
Next up the ramp come the artist’s word paintings from the same decade. Two studies for “Apocalypse Now” are rendered on paper, and both have the full-frontal aggressiveness of the large-scale final painting. Within these works one can see Wool’s true punk spirit. In one piece, “Riot” is anxiously sprayed down rice paper. Others seem to shout from the walls, with phrases like “FUCK EM IF THEY CANT TAKE A JOKE,” “TRBL,” and “FOOL.” Like running through a blender of found-word poetry, these paintings are overwhelming, especially when seen one after the other.
Wool’s patterns from the mid ’80s suddenly rupture and become obscured as the artist exploits the use of screen-printing mediums. Multiplied patterns drift in and out of legibility. Their dissonant surfaces presage the artist’s departure into pure abstraction. His sprayed enamel forms employ the look and feel of graffiti; great looping coils of energetic paint, they would look perhaps more at home on the street than on the walls of a major museum. These works give way to gray fields of color: the artist scrubs away enamel using turpentine-soaked rags. What we see here is a repetitive pattern of production and negation. The artist constructs a pictorial vocabulary, only to obscure, destroy, and reimagine the work as something new. On the last several floors of the museum, virtuosic paintings that read as messy and improvisational are anything but. Wool has found a fertile bed of source material in his earlier paintings. Borrowing heavily from his own abstract imagery, Wool samples and screen prints swirls and splats. In these most recent works, we’re not sure what we’re looking at, whether the hand is present or not. What we are sure of is the validity of the abstract language on view.
Taken as a whole, Wool is a master appropriator. He seems to revel in the tradition of Warhol. But whereas Warhol finds salvation in the mass produced, Wool finds dystopic poetry. He teaches us a new way of looking at abstraction: gone are arguments about “hard edge” or painterly action; we’re happy to simply be able to identify what’s been painted.
Despite all this, there’s something tame and boring about the Guggenheim exhibition. At some point, the works on view stop telling a story and starting existing as just more “important,” expensive paintings on the wall. Three groupings of the artist’s photographs help bring things back into the realm of the crusty and low-fi, but even they seem too similar. The design and conception of the show feel boilerplate. A major retrospective of an artist known for confrontational, edgy work shouldn’t be safe. I suppose I wish there was slightly less work and that it had been curated in a more imaginative way, but more than anything, I’m disappointed at how domesticated it all feels. That seems like a letdown for an artist who has fiercely maintained his countercultural roots.
Christopher Wool is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 22.