BWW Reviews: Guggenheim Hosts a Collaborative, Keen-Witted Christopher Wool Retrospective
The Guggenheim Museum's current exhibition of Christopher Wool's artworks feels very much like a homecoming. Manhattan, as Wool knew it when he was starting out, was a playground for alt culture types, from punk rockers who actually lived like punks to DIY moviemakers who actually did the movies themselves (no Indiegogo, no parents money, nothing). With a little help from film professors and not-quite-extinct Abstract Expressionists, Wool began figuring out his own brand of urbanized cool: his mostly big, mostly black-and-white, mostly clever paintings and his jittery, ornate photographs. That was the 1970s; now, Wool has moved triumphantly uptown. And he's starting to seem like a 21st-century Old Master. As explained by exhibition curator Katherine Brinson, this showcase (simply entitled Christopher Wool) is made up of "paintings, photographs, and works on paper that constitute the artist's nuanced engagement with the question of how to make a picture."
Normally, I'd be wary of praises like these. But Christopher Wool isn't the kind of stale tribute that they serve up often enough in the world of fine art; this time, "nuanced" isn't a platitude or an overstatement. There's an irresistible aura of collaboration to the whole endeavor, starting with Wool's brand-new bronze sculpture in the Guggenheim's entryway, and ending with Wool's freshly-designed cover art for the exhibition catalog. There's also the simple fact that this is one of the best uses the Guggenheim has made of its Rotunda in the recent past, at least since that ravishing David Smith retrospective in 2006. Wool's canvases amid Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture-sure, there's a certain postmodern chic to all that white-on-white. But it's the tension (and the occasional reconciliation) of these two personalities that really hooks you: Wool's wry repetitions versus Wright's curving dynamism, Wool's grit versus Wright's suavity, Wool's looming blobs and doodles versus Wright's air, light, and vertigo.
Instead of beginning at the beginning (that is, Wool in the late '70s, early '80s), Brinson starts off with works from the last years of the Reagan Era. Two kinds of paintings defined Wool's output at this point: canvases covered with stamped-on or rolled-on plant and floral patterns, and black-on-white stencil paintings of short words and sentences. Though the word paintings are famous enough as semantic thought puzzles, they don't succeed on braininess alone. Wool made those simple statements and block letters his signature, and enlivened this kind of signage in ways that, frankly, you have to experience to understand. For my part, whenever I pass through Newark, I make a point of stopping by a LOOK OUT FOR TRAINS sign painted in Wool-style lettering. The art-into-life effect is dizzying; so is the personality that Wool, by some distant and unknowing magic, has bestowed upon that sign. Look out for trains.
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