A Critics’ Roundtable on Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim
David Cohen, Nora Griffin, David Rhodes, and Joan Waltemath exchanged a flurry of emails about the Christopher Wool retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (on view from October 25, 2013 to January 22, 2014). Thankfully we all remained friends after revealing our innermost thoughts on abstraction, painting, the presence of the art market, the power of art history, and memories of New York City in the good old bad days.
JOAN WALTEMATH: The Guggenheim provides special challenges to painting, but also provides unique opportunities, one of these being the ability to see the work from different angles and distances as you move up or down the ramp. In Wool’s case I think it works to his advantage insofar as you can really see the surfaces of the paintings. Photography gave us a standard that there should be no glare in a photograph of a painting, over time I think that has conditioned the way we see and think about surface. Are these works lit to be photographed, or seen? There was one piece, untitled 2009 AIC gift where glare on black is lighter that the neighboring white enamel, and so from one angle that hot spot jumps forward and then shifts back again spatially as you continue to walk by. For me all these kinds of formal acrobatics are really uninteresting unless you get the sense that they are tied to some train of thought or awareness on the part of the painter, so I’m always trying to find how to make an interpretation that ties the formal to the philosophical. In Wool’s case I read all this shifting around as indicative of an interest in the transient world, its mutability. I had the feeling with his various moves that Wool was trying to keep his work open and mutable in and of itself.
DAVID RHODES: The issue of reflection in Wool’s paintings is a direct result of his use of enamel paint. But he doesn’t ever, for example, employ a totally reflective surface. by using glass or a mirror as does Gerhard Richter. The effect of the reflection is to both enhance the surface as a physical presence whilst at the same time complicating the reception of the image because of the way lighting and the presence of other objects are manifest on the surface. This oddly encourages movement in front of the painting in order to ‘see’ the painting, not see it better as an image necessarily, but in order to respond to its physical properties. Perhaps this makes for a more kinetic and immediate experience as opposed to a meditative delayed experience.
WALTEMATH: As a result of this, David, I noticed how thick the stretcher bars were, and how in that specific dimension he was able to locate himself vis-à-vis other historical periods and concerns. Though we are talking about his painting’s material properties, we are not in the realm of painting as object, and for me the stretcher bar thickness was what made that clear.
NORA GRIFFIN: Surface was definitely at the top of my mind while looking at Wool’s paintings, and also in the theater of the Guggenheim, watching others look (or more often “pose” for iPhone photos with the work) around me. I have to say, I was repelled by much of the art with the possible exception of the rice paper drawings, which seemed like a perverse conflation of delicate and raw materials, and thus mildly interesting. David R, interesting what you say about the slick enamel surface encouraging a more “kinetic” experience of the viewer in front of the painting — I agree, and actually had trouble standing for more than a few seconds in front of each one, and only when I caught glimpses looking around the Guggenheim’s ramp did I really observe the paintings. But I think this is ultimately not work that is meant to be “seen”; it’s meant to be bought and sold, accruing value, and hung in palatial mansions and museums throughout the Western world. Certainly, it is work that can be thought about, as we are all doing here, but it is a kind of thought that is separated from an organic viewing experience, that I find distasteful and dehumanizing. Joan, I like that you bring up photography too. I definitely think these paintings are locked into a relationship with media that we can only begin to guess at. There’s a kind of proto-digital look to the early enamel paintings that I can imagine at the time of their first exhibition must have seemed new, and possibly exciting.
DAVID COHEN: Christopher Wool is a closed book to me: I have never been able to fathom how his work garners the critical attention and auction price tags that it does. When I learned of the Guggenheim retrospective and that several of my regulars wanted to write about him I thought now would be the chance to see him in depth and in the company of astute commentators, that maybe the blinkers would drop and an “aha” experience would ensue: that the Wool would fall from my eyes. Well, seeing the show hasn’t done it for me. On the contrary, I have to describe it as one of the most enervating and dispiriting museum exhibitions I’ve seen in a long while. The text works have none of the humor or the indignation of, say, Richard Prince or Glenn Ligon, and I’m no Prince fan, believe me. The near absence of color is not a reductive gesture in the mode of Reinhardt or Ryman, it seems to me, so much as just a stinginess of spirit, part and parcel of the nihilism that seems the only feasible explicator of his dreary, aimless, pedantic, pretentious and self-satisfied oeuvre. Look at those photos he took traveling around Italy and Turkey etc. To be in a room of Islamic carpets and bring back a desultory black and white snapshot that you’ve had printed from a crappy camera and then Xeroxed.
His most encouraging line, almost I guess his trademark, is his lethargic though insistently anti-lyrical loop paintings. Alzheimer de Koonings denuded and bleached, they make one realize that his nihilism leaves forebears in the dust: Thinking of Rauschenberg as a formal and perhaps attitudinal forebear, Wool is too deskilled even to erase – smudge being his preferred MO. Actually, they are not riffs on late de Kooning so much as early Charles Cajori who probably taught him at the Studio School (his resume usually cites Jack Tworkov – when the School isn’t omitted altogether). One lasts angry squeak, if I may: It says something about a contemporary abstract painter that their work actually makes Robert Motherwell look fresh and relevant.
RHODES: David, I think dismissing an artist on assumed intentions, as well as failing to address the qualities of individual works, is too easy. Humorous comments like “too deskilled to erase…smudge being his preferred MO” raises a laugh, but there isn’t anything to discuss. It’s on the same level as saying “Cézanne was too lazy to paint up to the edges of his canvas.” Witty maybe, but an opinion to engage with, no. Try describing why none of the paintings have anything to do with line and space, he’s not “riffing” on de Kooning so much as using line as painting, to make and move space around, “Alzheimer de Koonings” as you call them, by the way are often tremendous. In my opinion, take a look at the paintings at Gagosian on Madison Avenue (don’t look at the price tags though.) As to your saying that he is nihilistic: Skeptical, angry, intellectual, lyrical, a lot of things, but nihilistic? There is way too much work and engagement for that. The photos of his studio after a fire, look for something redemptive in destruction, and they have a beauty, they look for something not entirely wasted in scenes of abjection.
COHEN: I think whatever the artist’s intentions, if you occupy the space of a certain kind of painting then you must stand comparison with the forebears or contemporaries that you evoke or to whom you bear striking formal resemblance. Then of course there are outliers who don’t seem to connect to people to whom they stake some claim of connection – Cézanne and Poussin for instance – and time tells whether the connection seems valid. Wool is unquestionably in the same ballpark of intention as Albert Oehlen with whom he shares an ability to produce big, commanding decorations while somehow remaining fully committed to an anti-expressive attitude. I’m perfectly open to a painting that eschews cohesion or compelling gestalt in favor of something more radically abstract, in the way that free improvisation departs from more traditional jazz. But if the tropes and flourishes echo the jazz greats then it has to stand comparison to them. Yeah, like Motherwell, the problematic late de Kooning looks better – after Wool. In a way, though, perhaps Wool is influencing late de Kooning, in the sense that de Kooning insisted that HE influenced the old masters. The unwilled late works, with the scale and colors chosen by others, look more contemporary thanks to Wool and company. I think that Wool is also an enabler to artists like Wade Guyton.
RHODES: David, when you say Wool and Oehlen are committed to anti-expression are you quoting their intentions or implying that you regard them as incapable of expression. Wool is a far more fluent painter than Motherwell though they both show their cubist roots in a collaging or piecing together of imported parts, take Motherwell’s Figure with Blots from 1943, also on view at the Guggenheim, it presents a collaged rectangle of paper with black blots that finds its space compositionally despite being such a relative foreign body in the painting.
WALTEMATH: The late ’70s and 1980s in New York City were especially exhilarating years in many ways. I lived through those times, and if I can ruminate a bit, perhaps I can shed some light on what I remember as conditions, concerns and the climate that made some of those decisions that seem desultory, remarkable. I found the photos from the ‘70s some of the most surprising and revealing works in the show. The randomness inherent in the environment due to the absence of routine maintenance at that time, gives a unique chance to look at the aesthetics of decay, entropy. This move towards chaos – how a thing hovers on its edge – was a concern of Smithson and other artists in the generation that came before Wool. Barry Le Va for another example, examined the relation between determinant and indeterminate forms. New York at this time was an incredible place to study the coming apart of things in that period before “development” filled in all the blanks. So many of the shots focus on liquids moving, spilling, spilt and urine running out of corners which was a ubiquitous sight in those days. A splatter on one brick wall is reminiscent of Richard Hambleton’s scary black shadow figures from the ‘80s, which was even grittier.
This was the time, too when body fluids began to be recognized in a new way for their deadly potential in carrying disease, so there is a deep undercurrent here in Wool’s preoccupation, that might seem on the surface like a fascination with messes or attraction toward demise as Peter Schjeldahl puts it. The consistency of those photo compositions with the later paintings gave me to believe that there were genuine concerns that were being worked out in them. The darkness in these photos works much like the wipes in the later paintings. One wire screened door glass that’s been wiped with a dirty rag gives a gauze to the stairwell beyond and reads like a pretty direct precursor to the later paintings in this context.
Loose Booty is a beauty and shows the edge between patterned repetition and an inflected over compositional structure. One medium blob to the right makes this point. I maintain this is what he is interested in. Everything in the earlier work points to an interest in abstraction devoid of expressive or emotive content, which is not to say one doesn’t feel things in looking at them, but that this is not how the intention behind them is framed. From across the room the patterned flowers take on a kind of all over character, loosing their more decorative aspects to the overriding gestalt. That gestalt is consistent with the photos. I think anyone living downtown at that time learned to see all that chaos and debris as extremely liberating and not abject as it reads today. It was freedom and makes today feel like living in a straightjacket.
The painting called Rotation Collision was an important moment for me in this show in so far as it is a rare moment where Wool steps over the line and one could say over determines visually – he strives here which is surprising–Usually he strides a beautiful line between chance and intent, random and determined that calls into question the limits of making. If life is a negotiation between what happens and what you want to happen Wool provides the analogue, a deal, which gains clarity as you ascend the circular ramp of the museum.
COHEN: Joan’s historic context with its personal reminiscences is quite fascinating. I saw the show with a group of students and a visiting artist from California all of whom seemed as depressed by the experience as myself. One kid made an astute observation: that the graphics of punk, presented by the curators as the dominant cultural reference at his arrival in New York, entailed grainy black and white tabloid press headlines and reproductions relevant to Wool. I tend to relate fine art to other fine art usually, a limitation and a result of my training I guess, so this observation was revelatory. Unlike Vivienne Westwood there is no romanticism at the end of his punk tunnel. The damaged studio shots, made for an insurance claim, as redemptive? I’d love to see it that way with you but simply can’t. I guess I just come from a very different sensibility. We can open the book and still not be on the same page.
WALTEMATH: Right now it seems a long way off but during the 80s there was a tendency, when money started to pour into the art world, that people would set up a kind of historical raison d’être for their work. By carving out a niche for oneself in relation to the grand art historical narrative, you set up something to bank on. I see Wool’s approach as a product of this era, although now its not necessarily being seen in these terms. What interests me about Wool is how, at a time when painting was not on the map, he really did the nuts and bolt work to find a way to make it possible to get back into that grand narrative. The focus was on Pictures Generation, appropriation, Jenny Holzer, Art and Language. The one thing the scene didn’t give permission for was a kind of formal language in painting. Wool mines the past and brings forward all these tropes, devices, ideas, anything that will work as part of his vocabulary and connect him into that narrative. That is what I see in the installation of his work at the Guggenheim. On a formal level I think he’s trying to find a way to come to terms with the grid in these paintings and the importance of what minimalist aesthetics gave us. He takes the readymade roller patterns and has a link to Duchamp, whose position truly dominated in the ‘80s when those stencil paintings were made. I sense there’s a lot of anger about not being able to paint, I mean if you were a painter and you came to NY in those years, there were very limited means you could use and have a shot at having any kind of public voice. I also remember those days being filled with a lot of confusion about the relation to the past. It was often seen and/or talked about as the post-historical period and while there was a recognition that the avant guard was over, the desire for the new wasn’t. At the same time this historical filling in the blanks game was going on as artists jockeyed for positions.
Rosalind Krauss and the October crowd had pretty much damned the grid as stuck in modernism. I think for a lot of painters at that time, there was a necessity of coming to terms with the grid in some way, shape or form. What I see Wool going for initially as he moved out of the text paintings are these subtle inflections where the pattern of the grid moves off its raster. The paintings Loose Booty or Riot are example of what I am referring to — talking loudly and saying nothing. So I think Wool’s decisions about what and how to paint were based in a historical necessity. There was no chance in those days to create any kind of experiential space. So in my view we cannot critique it on those terms.
COHEN: I’m sorry, Joan, but we must be living in parallel universes. No painting in the ’80s, Wool heroically held out, Bleckner too but others had to go to Europe. Hello? The ’80s were awash with turpentine. You have to be an in-crowd exclusionary critic to say of any period that there was no painting or no possibility for painting etc. when it is only in perhaps your own circle that these attitudes prevailed, or in the pages of the art magazines you allowed to gain hegemony that such a discourse prevailed. What’s interesting to me is not Wool as the lonely last painter, but that Wool actually isn’t in the master narrative that was being compiled at that time. A pretty good indicator of who was really being talked about in the ‘80s is Irving Sandler, the man with his ear to the ground. In his Art of the Postmodern Era, From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (1996) there is no reference or footnote to Christopher Wool. Now he has a retrospective at the Guggenheim and we are attending to his surfaces as if he is Reinhardt or Newman and boy is he not. A footnote regarding Pattern and Decoration: The curators tell us that Wool’s pattern paintings of the ’80s arose from observation of the forlorn semi-demolished buildings in the East Village; maybe, but he was looking at P&D obviously, too. His works are contemporary with Donald Baechler too, right? But for the curators only the likes of Duchamp and Pollock are worthy as referents and comparisons, and they leave out non-superstar sources and affinities, all part of the genius-packaging process that goes with museological apotheosis.
But here is something I would like to hear the aficionados address: scale. Because wandering up and down the Guggenheim ramp I was very struck how essentially scaleless these works are. They don’t reveal different kinds of gestalt at different distances – they mostly don’t have gestalt, indeed work hard not to have gestalt. They kind of click at one distance and that’s about it. He tries out different sizes as he does techniques and surfaces, all to keep busy and I guess fill the world with Wools.
GRIFFIN: Joan, I’m especially interested in your discussion of decaying and abandoned urban spaces in the ‘80s and how Wool pictured this in his photography and paintings. I grew up in the East Village in the 1980s, and remember that sense of openness in the city’s landscape, but also the grossness (trash piled high everywhere) and very real sense of danger and violence amid the decrepitness. For me Basquiat is the poet of the ’80s streets, and from an earlier era, Brice Marden’s oil and wax monochrome gray scale paintings from the 1960s speak to a kind of in-between space, where beauty registers amidst decay. Also Dorothea Rockburne’s crude oil on paper drawings. But perhaps I am just asserting my biases for work made before the 1980s art boom, and also letting in the idea of beauty felt amidst decay. Could it be that the lack of beauty and/or color (for me they are linked) is one of the bottom line problems that I have with Wool’s oeuvre?
I think its cutting Wool too much slack to have to try and imagine the conditions that produced these paintings in the 1980s. For those of us who did not live through that period (and that will one day be everyone) that becomes a kind of academic exercise separate from the viewing experience. Joan says: There was no chance in those days to create any kind of experiential space. So in my view we cannot critique it on those terms. But, not to be too much of a hot-blooded humanist, isn’t “experiential space” the only constant we have to critique and understand paintings? Shouldn’t a painting be able to speak on its on terms through any time period or millennia? I don’t understand Piero della Francesca’s frescos as the believers of his day saw them, but I do still *see* them and they speak to me about humans, space, and art.
RHODES: I’m interested in Joan’s point about emotion being stripped from the making of the gestural markings. It’s often the case that the making of a painting is not always visible in the viewed work. Think of Reinhardt. Silk screening, however basic and available as a technique, could be seen as a doubling endlessly of an original or as a means to transfer an element from one painting to the other, like de Kooning’s newspaper blottings. Drips within the context of painting are variously signs of process, playful pictorial devises, take Mary Heilmann, or simple acknowledgments of what paint does. Within the context of painting in general that includes house painting, and of course Wool uses decorative patterned rollers and enamel, the significance of drips could well include the German expression in wide use before 1945 “Jude Tropf” or Jew drip, which was applied to house paint that had been applied and accidentally dripped. In other words it was annoying. I don’t say this is actually part of Wools intention, but as we are “reading” the paintings, in more ways than one. I think Wool is working with the tradition of Ab-Ex, but also reaching back to Dada and Surrealism, automatism is central to his painting, particularly the later large scale oil on linen paintings. Surrealism and Dada have been understated as part of the Ab-Ex endeavor in favor of expressionism, expressionism being seen as more noble, and perhaps more known.
GRIFFIN: As I walked through the museum, I kept trying to imagine another context where this work might seem exciting to me. I remembered that growing up I would visit my friend whose father was an abstract painter, and on his studio wall was a poster of Wool’s Cats in Bag Bags in River (1990). It worked beautifully as a poster; was abject, shocking, funny (sort of), and also seemed very “cool” at the time as well. Perhaps the connections between Wool and the punk/rock poster aesthetic can be teased out some more. The thinness and industrial materials he uses already speak to me as paintings as “posters.” I love posters, live with posters, and think they are culturally significant, but they are not the same thing as paintings.
I found the word paintings the most compelling, perhaps because they felt like honest statements (and have the closest affinity to the babble of the “street”). Trouble (1989),Untitled (Sex and Luv) (1987) and Blue Fool (1990), would all shine on their own in a gallery or a group show with other work. I think the Guggenheim’s grandiosity and modernist pedigree really makes Wool’s work look like a joke is being had on us. Some paintings were not meant to be seen en masse in the Guggenheim because they don’t possess the right internal conditions to be seen in that kind of space.
WALTEMATH: I like that we are all coming at this work from so many different angles, it means there is something to sink our teeth into here. And in the end there is no need to concur about anything. The most interesting things embody all manner of contradictions. By experiential space, I meant that some paintings are made to construct a kind of experience that unfolds, and use that manner of unfolding to reveal what they are about and some paintings are using other means to communicate. I think often abstraction works through enfolded experience, but not all abstraction. Wool’s paintings are in some sense following a lineage of formalist abstraction, that is how I am reading them, and yet they use images – of pattern of flowers or words – as their main vehicle.
I’m reading them as taking a lineage of formalist abstraction because of how they take up and investigate problems of seriality, randomness, chaos that I see in the early investigations of Andre, Judd, Smithson, Barry Le Va to name a few. So, no, I don’t see experiential space in Wool’s art- and in developing this term I’m drawing on Wilhem Worringer’s formulation in his book Abstraction and Empathy (1908) as the constant. Rothko might be a barometer for experiential space, and Wool is nowhere near that deep. My point is you can’t evaluate Wool on terms set for painting by Rothko, you have to figure out his (Wool’s) terms.
And yes a painting should be able to speak on its own terms through any period, and if in using the details and circumstances of the time to discover the possible terms, you find that the work doesn’t really function outside that, then there is a clear cut critique and the nays have it. I found this was my only way into Wool’s art, to go into my experiences and memories of the time, and this is born out to a degree by the importance these black and white photographs play in the whole exhibition and how they and it are being received. At the same time, none of these images was the least bit memorable, not that that is the point. What they reveal is a certain compositional strategy on his part or a way of ordering things and that’s where I see the real meat of this show is – that is abstract. So I look to the history of formalist abstraction for precedents.
RHODES: I don’t see any new problems that the architecture of the Guggenheim presents, that is different for Wool, as a classical modernist painter that goes beyond the curve walls and ascending ramp. Wool’s use of vernacular materials and words are consistent with experiments from the early years of the 20th century in France, Germany and Russia in particular, through to Jasper Johns and beyond. Sure, Wool reveled in some aspects of the openness of an unpolished low rent environment that was downtown New York in the ‘80s, but as paintings they don’t break with the challenge of producing vital engaging work, I don’t think the rawness of some of the paintings (imagine Courbet or impressionist painting when it was first seen if you are used to David and Ingres, or Piero?) or by the way in the rectangle format, that for some time has not been a given for painters, indicate bad boy or punk in art, but an affiliation with attitudes of renewal.
COHEN: Joan, I’m fascinated to hear Worringer’s dichotomy cited in relation to Wool – can you amplify that? Wool presumably is the epitome of an urbanite so one would expect on Worringer’s terms an alienation from nature. But his shapes and patterns are surely no less geometric than organic?
WALTEMATH: I referred to Worringer in relation to how one experiences a painting because of his concept of empathy, being the kind of ‘strahlung’ or emanation coming from a work that one feels, like one feels a large red expanse or the energy of certain kinds of brushstrokes, and that this is a way to interpret what the artist is saying -I call that experiential – versus images, which speak in their own way or concepts that are referred to, which are located outside the work, or compositional constructs dealing with form which is where I would locate Wool.
The point for me is whether to read these works as intending to insert themselves into an historical narrative or not. I think a lot of decisions Wool made in his work were about picking up the things from the past and trying to weave them together to get his painting located within a grand narrative. I don’t mean to imply that he was the only painter working in New York at that time. At any given time there are lots of artists working in similar and also very different veins. From the point of view of an art historian I can see how what I wrote makes it seems like I’m trying to claim some primary role for him, but that was not on my mind. I’m not going to argue for Wool’s importance over other painters, or that he was the only one doing this. Or that he “saved” painting or anything like that. I’m just trying to figure out what is going on in these works so we can talk about them — what is Wool basing his decisions on, what’s he exploring.
Initially I think that what is going on in these works is kind of a mystery, because they give so little and are in some ways so self-involved. I want to blow that up in order to get a glimpse of what they are about. I can find a lot of stuff on a formal level that is interesting to me, as the nuts and bolts of formalist abstraction were being overhauled at that moment. I think that is what Raphael Rubinstein was getting at in his show last summer at Cheim & Read. He found 15 artists whose work he felt was making important contributions; he mentions in our interview in The Brooklyn Rail that there could have been many more.
COHEN: Worringer’s opposition usually applies to the maker as much as the viewer, from my recollection; the people who had a rapport with nature produced organic and naturalistic art of empathy whereas those whose outlook on nature was bleak retreated into geometry and abstract patterning. But if that’s not the sense you were interested in we could just drop this point. It would certainly seem that if Wool’s intention were indeed to dialogue with the bigger narrative of abstract painting, or painting per se, then his career success plays nicely into that as once one occupies a position within the canon connoisseurs will look for, and likely find, connections between an accepted newcomer and the masters. I just see more negative attitude towards the possibilities of paint than positive ones in Wool, as his impulses are primarily deconstructive and iconoclastic. Almost anything he touches, regardless of its size or degree of workmanship, seems dismissive of big energy, the creative spirit, any sense of urgency or purpose. And I think this accounts for his success because the system is still so heavily invested in an end-game mentality. It is still an era that privileges Duchamp over Matisse (to use a very rudimentary short hand) at least in the top ends of patronage and scholarship. To those looking for an extension of the Johns/Richter line Wool is perfect. And I have no trouble, by the way, David R., in reconciling nihilism with productivity.
GRIFFIN: To me, Wool is not a “classical modernist painter,” as David R calls him, which is perhaps why it looks funny to see his paintings hanging like icons, suspended in air with no wall behind them as much of the work was in the Guggenheim. I completely agree with Joan that it’s reductive to pit Wool against the masters of modernist painting, and I too try to find out the “terms” that the artwork has set forth. I do like the idea of the image of the city as a device for abstract composition. But the fact that Wool’s photographs are so expressively abject, and visually mottled by their translation into grainy photocopies, makes them an almost too obvious counterpart to the paintings.
I do think there is more fluidity and movement in the post-2002 paintings, where color splashes and a mixture of media creates a slight sense of spatial depth and movement. But I would never call them “lyrical,” to me they start to work only when they can approximate the unintentional harmony of a graffitied wall. To end on a positive note, I do think a painting such as Last Year Halloween Fell on a Weekend (2004), hot pink and black spray-painted snaking lines on a lushly grey wash background, is a kind of perfect little street image. If I saw it all on its own in a gallery, or better yet, If I came across it leaning against a dumpster on the Bowery I think it would start to command some real visual attention.