It's been 40 years since painter Christopher Wool moved to New York, and during those years the city has seeped deeply into his work. Now, the Guggenheim gives Wool, 58, his first major museum retrospective a few miles north of the downtown scene that first inspired him (today through Jan. 22, 2014). Organized by Guggenheim associate curator Katherine Brinson in close partnership with the artist, "Christopher Wool" includes nearly 100 paintings, photographs and drawings that tell the story of a young artist who transformed Gotham's images and sensibility into large-scale, museum-ready artworks, the best of which retain a streetwise edge.
After growing up in Chicago and studying at Sarah Lawrence College, just north of New York City, Wool enrolled in the New York Studio School. There, he and his studio mate and lifelong friend, the artist Joyce Pensato, found themselves, in Pensato's recollection in the Guggenheim catalogue, up against moth-eaten still lifes. "[We] had no connection to that," Pensato recalls in Brinson's curatorial essay. "So we had to search for our own subjects, then and for the next forty years. And I think we both started with the street."
At the Guggenheim, Wool's earliest paintings repurpose images of downtown life. One allover picture finds Wool using the same paint rollers incised with floral patterns that workmen used to paint his downtown building's hallways. Another piece incorporates the curlicues of decorative ironwork. Soon elements of graffiti and sign painting appear. With rare exceptions, these early works are a monochromatic drum roll of black and white using Flashe, enamel and acrylic on fabric or aluminum.
The best known of Wool's mature works, the paintings and drawings of words and phrases, look great at the Guggenheim. Their black block capitals shout across the museum's open rotunda-all punch and sass. The earliest text-based paintings upset the rules of punctuation by breaking words at intervals to disrupt communication and change meaning. Trouble (1989), spelled without its vowels, seemingly anticipates our Twitter-abetted obsession with economy of language. If You (1992/2005) comes off as a painting with Tourette's: tease out its message and it turns out to be an expletive-laden insult. ("IFYOUCAN/T TAKE/AJOKEYOU/CANGETHE/THEFUCK/OUT FUCK/OUTOF OF/MYHOUSE.") That Wool has patched over sections of the text and painted back over them only underscores the painting's stutter.
Though not as well known, Wool's photography is here, too. The first series, "Absent Without Leave" (1993), presents 68 of 160 photocopied images from Wool's travels to Europe and Asia; it's a visual travelogue of anomie. Another group, "Incident on 9th Street" (1997), intended as documentation for an insurance claim to Wool's studio after a building fire, has the macabre curiosity of a police blotter.
Wool's more recent works include elements of silkscreen, spray paint and erasure, often with looping graffiti elements. Floral motifs from his earliest paintings are recycled in new ways, and the palimpsest effect of the early works is deepened. As Brinson told A.i.A. during a walkthrough, this is typical of his process. "Wool gives birth to images and puts them through the ringer," Brinson says. "They come back in new guises."