The Saturday night art crowd packing the free Guggenheim night for the last weekend of the Christopher Wool retrospective was drinking in the cool, edgy dissonance of this savvy, art-world action artist. Check it out in person before January 22, or download the new free Guggenheim app and take the tour on your iPhone.
Gazing down from the third or fourth floor, the smooth rungs of Mr. Lloyd-Wright’s spirals punctuate tiers of Mr. Wool’s own spirals, splatters, wipe-outs, word art, and grids of gritty photos. The massive crowd of locals, tourists, and moms with tweens provided a lively audience for work originally germinated in the rough-and-ready Lower East Side during the days when NYC was not-so-nice.
Just up the ramp in the two-story mini-gallery, the curators hung pieces that sum up Wool’s lifetime achievements – large-scale enamels on aluminum using gigantic, ironic gestures and banal advertising-art flowers; channeling the down-and-out feel to 80s New York with cool word-and-letter art evoking graffiti; and appropriating phrases from revolutionary texts that seem to be about one thing but are actually heady philosophical and literary references that only super-smart people would “get.” The work is stunning.
Then a slightly more chronological journey begins through the rest of the museum. Wool began appropriating rollers used by painters to paint tenement walls and halls to apply decorative patterns methodically across his own giant canvases – taking a bit of the decision making out of the act of painting. At the time, it was an in-you-face comment directed toward more lyrical, or expressive gestural painters. Of course, he would screw up the pattern just a little to add a little extra dig at the current scene. Oh, yes, he mostly kept the color palette to black and white. Smack!
By 1987, he injected letters, words, and texts onto the white canvases and began collaborating with other artists in the “no wave” Downtown scene, which was rife with 8mm filmmakers, performance artists, and musicians reacting against the more commercial artists emanating from CBGB or other clubs. He collaborated making books, always an ephemeral, revolutionary choice.
In the 1990s, the street was used as a start point for both his own photo books, which were shots of lonely urban areas that he photocopied over and over to obtain the I-don’t-care-about-glossy-quality look of the published work. When accessing the iPhone audio track in front of the 1990s photo piece, East Broadway Breakdown, Mr. Wool and the curators pretty much knock your socks off by blasting the superb Nation Time by Joe McPhee right through the earbuds. Thanks to them, you can hear the masterwork music that inspired Wool at the time, jolting you back the mean streets of Chinatown and East Broadway that sparked so much creative juice.
The top rungs of the show are gorgeous, even though that was probably not the original intent – cool, monumental works that are layered, blotted out, white-washed, and splattered over. If a line is blotted out, do you still see the line? If you do your painting on rice paper, is the end result different than when you do it on a canvas?
When you get to the final gallery way, way up top, Wool has digitized fragments of many of these earlier gestural images and silkscreened them onto the giant pieces of stretched linen. Very, very cool and covered in micro-dots from the silkscreen mesh. Check out the works on the Guggenheim website.
If you don’t know Wool’s work, using the iPhone guide provides a valuable context, showing you the works while you listen to the audio and watch other artists talk about Wool. Access some samples here.
But most of the people we saw on Saturday were standing in awe before the gigantic gestural canvases without the aid of an interpretive guide. Thousands of people were examining the curator notes, and moving forward and back within Mr. Wright’s bays to take it in from all angles…the kind of slow, deliberate, thoughtful face-to-face encounters that Mr. Wool likely treasures from cool admirers.