Art design

Christopher Wool on what brought a ‘Sunday painter’ back to life

When the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum organized a retrospective of paintings and photographs by Christopher Wool in 2013, the artist found himself a few months in advance without doing any new work or looking into exhibition models. Instead, he had completely decamped from New York to live near a small printing house in VeronaItaly, spending 12 hours a day on press for two weeks to ensure the show’s book hit the precise feel he wanted.

“No other artist I’ve worked with has done anything like this for a museum catalog,” said Katherine Brinson, the exhibit’s curator. “In fact, I’ve never heard of another artist doing anything like this.”

The other day at Wool’s rambling studio in Manhattan’s East Village, half-full of new paintings and other pieces slated for a major exhibition opening on June 2 at the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels, Wool was eager to show some of the new work, much of it done over the past two years in a concentrated period of pandemic isolation. But he was more excited to reveal something about a table that wasn’t quite a job for the show but again, in his opinion, not not a work either—his latest book.

Titled punk-comic “Bad Rabbit”, it is the fifth in a series of volumes of impassive black and white photographs by Wool which he has released over the past five years, a project that has come to consume more of his obsessive energy. More than any other primarily abstract artist of his generation, Wool fed his painting ideas from his photographs and the books he made of them – photos of the world around him, photos of his own paintings, photos of ‘other photos and photos that blur all that precedes, sometimes in a baroque way.

As he approaches the final stages of a famous career, he seems determined to point out that the three endeavors – photography, bookmaking and painting – are intertwined in a way not yet fully grasped by an art world that primarily appreciates his painting (and lately, it seems, painting above all else).

“I think of it all as repeating layers: this on top of that on top of that,” he said. “The books are also about commemorating a group, keeping it together. The paintings come out into the world on their own, to be seen in isolation, but they must also be seen together, as they were made, in series.

Over the past decade, the reception of Wool’s work, as well as that of many of his peers, has been conditioned by the stratospheric prices his paintings have commanded in the hard market – in 2015 one sold for nearly $30 million at Sotheby’s, and even with a recent cooling in its auction ranking, as figuration has taken center stage, major paintings are still changing hands for many millions. Wool, 67, mainly opposes questions about the effect market machinations can have on an artist’s life and work, saying tackling them inevitably risks feeling ungrateful for success.

But he adds: “Sometimes you not only feel like you’re in a car you’re not driving. It’s like you’re strapped in the back of the car and no one even tells you where you’re going. For this and other reasons, he said, the pandemic – that he and his wife, the painter Charline de Heylspent mostly on their own in Marfa, Texas, where they started living and working on and off in 2007 — ended up being a crucial reset.

“I used to joke that I was a Sunday painter because I was so busy with career stuff that Sundays became the only time I actually had time to paint,” did he declare. “I was really at my wit’s end at the start of the pandemic. I had been on the treadmill for so long. And then suddenly, I felt like I could be an artist again. I just did some work.

Raised in Chicago, the son of a psychiatrist (his mother) and a molecular biologist (his father), Wool moved to New York in 1973 to attend the Studio School. to more speculative forms of painting. Over the years he has accepted relatively few interviews, in part because of a deep mistrust of language’s ability to understand what art does in a way that doesn’t seem mortifying. (His friend, writer and musician Richard Hell, once, instead of talking with him, wrote a magazine article titled “What I would say if I were Christopher Wool.”)

But during a long afternoon studio visit in April, wearing a snap-button Levi’s shirt and a long, graying ponytail he’s grown out during the pandemic, he was cautiously chatty about himself. himself and his work and intensely engaged as he explained the labyrinthine process of its making.

The time for himself in Marfa, he said, was partly about deepening a relatively recent foray into sculpture that began with his early travels in West Texas; wandering through ranch land and high desert brush, he set about picking up little tangles of discarded fence wire that appeared to him to be ready-to-use three-dimensional scribbles of the kind he was doing in half dimensions. A few tracks he left untouched (“I couldn’t see any way to improve on them”). But most of the others he manipulated into frenetic little sculptures, many of which he has enlarged over the years by casting them and having them made in bronze and copper-plated steel.

The next imperative turn in thinking about the sculpture, he said, was to photograph it and make a book out of it. “Bad Rabbit” – its title was inspired by the crafty rabbits of West Texas and Wool’s recollection of hearing about a CIA operation by that name – consists of just 92 deadpan, high contrast of tiny wire sculptures, set on the rough wooden floor of an old marfa house and turned straight and low, as if from the perspective of a passing mouse.

For any critic (and there have been a few) who complains that Wool’s work is too cold and austere, offering what Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight formerly called “unrelieved boredom”, the pictures of the sculpture will probably settle the matter. But, if only out of sheer compulsiveness, the book accurately elucidates the now considerable arc of Wool’s engagement with photography for herself and to catalyze the rest of her work, a process reminiscent of the enigmatic phrase that EM Forster once quoted approvingly of writing: “How can I say what I think before I see what I say? »

In 1993, Wool published her first photography book, “Absent Without Permission” very grainy shots of urban scenes in Europe and other places he had traveled to, the photos run through a photocopier to render many almost unreadable.

This was followed a decade later by “East Broadway Outage”, drawn from thousands of mostly uninhabited photographs Wool had taken between 1994 and 1995 of this Lower East Side street and surrounding area at night while walking between her studio and her home in Chinatown. In their apparent abjection and casualness, they showed affinities with post-war Japanese photography. But they were highly individual and showed how Wool’s urban visual landscape of 1990s New York—spills, stains, black trash bags, glare headlights, chain-link fences, graffiti scribble, stenciled words—infused the paint.

“Chicago, where I grew up, had some of that look, but New York was, especially back then, just a gritty, gritty place, and I was visually interested in all of that,” he said. declared.

Curator Anne Pontégnie, who organized the Brussels exhibition and who was the first to exhibit Wool’s photographs extensively alongside his paintings in 2002, told me: “For more than 30 years that I have known him, I found photography at all levels. of what he does. His abstraction is never purely formal. It is an abstraction that says a lot about his life.

She added: “His devotion to books, I think, does two things. It puts a greater distance between making art and looking at art; every gesture becomes highly processed. It’s also a way for him to keep control over what he does and maintain a sense of ownership. Books are a very democratic means of circulating the work in the world outside the circuits of the market.

Leo Fitzpatrick, who runs the gallery Public access on Henry Street on the Lower East Side, recently held an exhibition of dozens of photographs from “East Broadway Breakdown” presented not as photographic prints, but as book pages; Fitzpatrick simply carefully dismembered a copy of the book and pinned the pages to the walls, which he felt was the perfect way to show off the work.

“To me, it always seemed to me that his photography influenced a lot of people who came after him, younger photographers who paid attention to it when maybe not a lot of others were in the 90s, Dash Snow for example,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the American artist who died in 2009. “I think his photos stand on their own.”

Hell, whose music and looks with the bands Television, the Heartbreakers and Richard Hell and the Voidoids helped define a pivotal era of aesthetic life in downtown New York, says Wool’s photographs of the city have accomplished more than documenting the streets and supplying water for painting. .

“I don’t think these streets looked like this before Christopher,” said Hell, who collaborated on a 2008 book, “Psycoptes” with wool. “What he got is everything that we consciously or unconsciously find under notice or even contempt and suppression. It is through his photos that we become aware of it, as we think of it now.

Since beginning to spend much of his time in the empty expanses of West Texas, Wool has had to shift from his primarily urban aesthetic fascinations. But in a way, he just applied those fascinations to different topographies, traveling much further afield to photograph the landscapes and the things that humans do there and for them: piles of crumbling tires, cinder blocks, abandoned cars, overgrown weeds and plastic patio furniture. , as well as a particularly desperate cow seen from behind and a tumbleweed rolling down a soggy street.

“I don’t know where I will go next with the sculpture,” he said. “I mean, I’ve pretty much fished every found yarn I can find in West Texas. That might not continue to provide me with new ideas, so maybe I will have to start working in a whole new vein.

But one vein will continue to be mined, at a disorienting depth. Looking at his studio’s brand new works which consist of sinuous oil paintings created directly on old book pages which themselves present images of already complex abstractions, he smiles and says, “Now I will having to photograph them and make another one. book – of course.

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