Punk painter Christopher Wool: ‘I make a lot of mistakes – and I keep them’ | Art and design
‘I was born without any talent,” says Christopher Wool, with a ponytail, a flannel shirt and 67 years old. He smiles kindly. “So I had to work on it.” We are in Brussels, at the Xavier Hufkens gallery where the post-conceptual, postmodern, post-neo-expressionist abstract artist imbued with a punk sensibility is taking a moment. Wool’s first major European survey is drawn primarily from a recent creative bloom in the Texas desert. “I was liberated by the pandemic. I could do art 12 hours a day,” he says.
The show is a gloriously austere affair, featuring twisted pieces of barbed wire, photographs of abject trash, and four large paintings done in his New York studio that initially look like redacted text. Thick layers of oil paint obscure the earlier working layers of these paintings as if, overwhelmed with anxiety and doubt, Wool sought to disfigure them.
Earlier this week, a visitor to the Louvre in Paris spread cake on the Mona Lisa. Wool does not need such help: he self-destructs his works, repaints them until they are erased. He mentions a phrase he and his wife, painter Charline von Heyl, like to say: “When you leave the studio and think you’ve had a good day, you probably haven’t. He explains: “For me, it was never about making masterpieces. That’s what postmodernism means to me, the end of this modernist idea that the artist makes perfect works. I make a lot of mistakes but I keep them. I use them and recycle them.
Like a hip-hop musician, he samples old material, but with a twist. The source material is more and more his own – re-doing old paintings and photos, disfiguring, deconstructing or just messing around. “I don’t make masterpieces but I make works of art that can be strong in other ways. It’s like the difference between the Beatles and the Sex Pistols. Or maybe that’s not a good comparison.
In the Xavier Hufkens Gallery, there are baseboards displaying pieces of barbed wire that Wool found while living in Marfa, the artists’ colony in the West Texas desert made famous by the television adaptation of I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, which starred Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn. Some he twisted into new shapes. He blasted one, with the help of an obliging smelter, into a monumental 10-foot bronze that hangs menacingly from the ceiling.
But some discarded pieces of yarn are simply presented as found objects, as if something thrown into the desert by a ranch hand was as aesthetically important as anything cast by the artist’s hand. Anne Pontégnie, curator of Wool, thinks there is a sense of self-mockery in her work. She’s right – with anxiety, self-effacement, self-sampling, and a gleeful disregard for making complete masterpieces. In fact, his works are never finished: they remain open texts that he can, if he wishes, disfigure even more.
What isn’t on display, however, are the acerbic text paintings that made Wool rich and famous. His contemporaries Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer created satirical textual works on consumerism. Kruger: “I shop therefore I am.” Holzer: “Protect me from what I want.” But Wool’s work was more laconic and enigmatic. Arranged on three decks, one said: “TROJNHORS”. Another – split across five decks, breaking up the words and echoing a line from Apocalypse Now said, “SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS.
Even better, a work had “FO” on one line and “OL” below. It was called Untitled (Fool) (1990). According to one reviewer, the piece was able “both to confront and to satirize the viewer’s quest for meaning”. Fool sold at Christie’s in 2014 for $14 million to a private bidder who, presumably, is satirized daily by the purchase. A year later, the similarly configured Untitled (Riot) (1990) went for a staggering $29.9 million.
Wool makes these auctions look like violations: “You don’t just feel like you’re in a car you’re not driving,” he once said. “You feel like you’re tied behind your back and no one even tells you where you’re going.” When I quote those words to him, he says, “I don’t remember saying that, but that sounds good.” When he talks to me about those sales, he doesn’t focus on the millions he made, but on his annoyance that selling Riot meant he couldn’t be exhibited in an exhibit he had at the Guggenheim. . “Money is not what he talks about,” says Pontégnie, who has worked with Wool for 20 years. “He is in love with painting.”
Wool was bred in the 1960s in Chicago. “It was a fabulous place,” he says. His mother was a psychiatrist, his father a molecular biologist. “They were interested that I saw stuff when I was young.” At 11, he attended a show by the artistic collective The Hairy Who. Later, he saw Roscoe Mitchell, leader of the iconoclastic afrofuturist jazz combo the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Both gave him an idea of the subversive power of art.
In 1972 he was in New York. “I was young and ready to rebel against everything. The possibilities seemed endless. Everyone was creative, even if the creativity didn’t extend beyond, say, three chords. There was a DIY aesthetic that really spoke to me. He didn’t want to paint initially. “I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I realized that I was not a collaborative person. With that typical self-mockery, he adds: “Painting was the least adventurous thing to do. So I became a painter.
One day, he had an epiphany while watching his landlord paint the hallways of his apartment building using a roller that left a floral pattern. The glitches and misfires resonated deeply with Wool. He loved the way a scroll or silkscreen left poignant smudges and imperfections. He once spent hours with a photocopier feeding an image, then copying it over and over again, layering it with increasingly garish colors. “I’m interested in reproductive accidents,” he says.
While other members of the Pictures Generation, such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, raided advertisements for the raw material, Wool breathed new life into the painting with her poetry of mistakes and mishaps. He focused on abstract painting rendered by artificial means, building up layers to create aesthetic distance. The critic Walter Benjamin feared that the era of mechanical reproduction – photographs, discs, films – would destroy the aura of the work. Wool seems to subvert this, using such mechanical techniques to bring aura back to art, something long thought dead and buried.
He uses photography extensively, documenting the stages of his paintings as well as creating material to sample, but he also enjoys capturing his nocturnal walks in the footsteps of corpse-hunting photographer Weegee through the streets of New York. East Broadway Breakdown, a book of cliches taken in the 1990s, is like Weegee without the corpses.
Scenes of depersonalized abjection—urban waste, views of nothing much—echo Martha Rosler’s early conceptual Bowery photographs, where street drinkers were off-camera but their discarded bottles took center stage. Wool raises her hands and arranges her fingers to simulate a rectangular photographic frame. “Everyone takes a picture of that,” he says. Then he lowers his hands a little. “I’m taking a picture of this.” His eye goes where others disdain to look.
At the Brussels show, Wool’s photographs of the Texas desert echo those he took of New York in the 90s. Using a low camera angle, he depicts not the grandeur of the desert , but its downsides: empty, rutted roads, an abandoned bed frame, tire spins. What stands out is the aridity, the loneliness and the emptiness.
Texas was simply inspiring. “The openness of the landscape,” he says, “looked like it was intended for the sculpture.” Indeed, being at Marfa has changed the way he works. “I started sculpting but, being a novice in sculpting, I don’t know how to do it.” There is still this self-mockery, this feeling of having no talent and having to overcome it. Wool smiles and adds, “I’m working on it.