Contemporary Art

The Rise of Christopher Wool

Abstracted Forms: The Art of Christopher Wool

In 2013, the Guggenheim Museum mounted a prodigious exhibition devoted to the art of contemporary artist Christopher Wool. In it, Wool unabashedly asserted himself against the pristine, white rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright's mid-century interiors with his graphic, high-contrast paintings, which state, in no unapparent terms: “hypocrite” “absurdist” “mercenary” and - most beloved of all - “if you cant take a joke you can get the fuck out of my house.”

The canvases confronted and shocked viewers, albeit attracting a renewed interest in his unique style. At the time of the monumental exhibition, the artist had turned 58, still rising in popularity after exhibiting a blockbuster collection of works at Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Installation view: Christopher Wool, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, January 22, 2014. Photo: David Heald. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

In fact in only two years, Christopher Wool's iconic works were the sole subject of three considerable museum exhibitions, from the Musée d'Art Moderne and the Guggenheim to another at the Art Institute of Chicago. As a result, leading collectors and museums began acquiring in earnest. Today, Wool is found in museum collections around the world, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Centre Pompidou, MCA Chicago, SF MoMA, LA MOCA, and Tate Modern. The American renegade remains active, though the clamor for his bold, text-based works has only grown more intense since his early exhibition debuts.

This fall, Sotheby’s will offer not one but two masterpieces by the artist in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction: FUCKEM from 1992 and Feet Don’t Fail Me Now from 1995, both of which have resided in the private collection of Norah and Norman Stone for over twenty years.

The Paintings of Christopher Wool

“I think of myself as an abstract painter, but I find that in making paintings there is a little bit of investigation into what abstract painting can be.” - Christopher Wool

Installation view: Christopher Wool, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Photo: David Heald. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Born in 1955, Christopher Wool was raised in Chicago. As a teenager in the 1970s, he relocated to New York City to embark on his artistic career. 1970s New York offered a surplus of artistic influences - lasting impressions from the New York School of the 1950s, the Pop Art mania of the 1960s, and the counter forces of Minimalism of 1970s. There seemed to be an artistic revolution at every corner – indeed, Wool arrived just as performance art and feminist practice were burgeoning. Still, Wool set himself apart. By the early 1980s, his individual style would be notorious, synonymous with his name and the brash, bold, confidence of Manhattan in the '80s.

Art of the 1980s and 1990s

Christopher Wool, Riot, 1989/92, enamel on aluminum. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © Christopher Wool © 2018 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). All rights reserved. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Wool created his first graphic artwork in the 1980s. Influenced by the silkscreen prints of Warhol and the drip paint canvases of Pollock, Wool combined techniques to develop a unique aesthetic style. Wool created massive paintings, such as the work pictured here, that featured repetitive patterns, a fractal repetition achieved with the use of paint rollers, each incised with floral and geometric designs. His abstracted forms, always monochromatic, were a stark emphasis employed throughout the remainder of his career. However, Wool was not precise in his technique; the artist would intentionally accentuate the drips of paint and slippage of the roller in his final pieces. As a result, the artificial patterning jousts with impurities of pattern for the viewer's attention, revealing the artifice underneath it all and, as a result, recalling some of the teachings of Pop Art.

For all his reflections of artistic influences, Wool nonetheless distinguished himself in absolute terms toward the end of the decade. In 1987, he shifted aesthetic priorities and began to create his most-recognized graphic work – the bold, sizable, and confrontational masterpieces that read as slogans.

Christopher Wool, If You, 1992/2005, enamel on aluminum. Collection of Margaret and Daniel S. Loeb © Christopher Wool © 2018 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). All rights reserved. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

These works not only showcase the phrases, but the canvases serve aesthetic purposes as well. Much like Wool’s previous patterns, his stenciled words are ready-mades, albeit messy ones. Wool ignores conventional orthography rules; the words are condensed, reworked, and fractured. With this effect, the words are no longer significations of ideas – but rather abstract shapes themselves. The phrases are difficult to understand, which the Guggenheim curator noted “is like learning to read for the first time all over again.” As a result, we see in these words an intentional play in semiotics: sign becomes signifier, subject becomes 'a subject'.

Christopher Wool, My Act, 1988, enamel on aluminum. Private Collection © Christopher Wool © 2018 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). All rights reserved. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Christopher Wool Today

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 2009. Silkscreen ink on linen. Private Collection. © Christopher Wool © 2018 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF). All rights reserved. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Wool has undergone another aesthetic shift in his painting practice in recent years. Responding to the rise of the digital era, Wool is revisiting the potential of his artworks by altering them using technology. Much like David Hockney's newfound love of the iPad, Wool is experimenting with Photoshop; he photographs his early paintings and mutates the images using software. Wool digitally combines multiple original pieces, distorts the motifs, and recolors the works.

“The tools have changed and the ways of exploring visual things have expanded. But it’s not a paradigm shift, it’s the same old paradigm.” - Christopher Wool


To learn more, visit Sotheby's feature on Christopher Wool.

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