Chicago

Christopher Wool

Robbin Lockett Gallery

The contemporary art scene is so frantic that young painters must feel as if the ground opens up beneath their feet every time they try to stand still a second to collect their thoughts. They have one foot planted in the past, and with the other they are trying to keep a toehold on the future. Meanwhile, the present is a bottomless chasm over which they are suspended and into which they are trying not to fall; sweat beads break out on their foreheads as they do impossibly wider and wider splits. Almost all seem to be trying to hang onto their own place in history, attempting to bridge a gap between incompatible styles and between irreconcilable esthetics.

Christopher Wool, a native Chicagoan now living in New York. Wool’s recent exhibition here consisted of only five paintings, all predominantly black. They immediately reminded me of a remark Gustave Flaubert once made. “What I should like to write is a book about nothing,” Flaubert said, “a book dependent on nothing external . . . just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support” Wool appears to have similar ambitions, and I felt challenged along the same lines myself. Finding something to say about so small a show of such reticent work would be a tour de force. I liked that. I asked for some slides to take away, as visual notes to write from. The ones I was given were just a bunch of black rectangles. They were totally useless. I liked that, too. To make work that’s this hard to reproduce and publicize is to be a bit of a “refusenik,” a rebel, in today’s art market.

Wool’s paintings are a cross between a Jackson Pollock and a Formica countertop. The material on which he works is not cahvas but metal, 6-by-4-foot sheets of it, over which he dribbles and splatters black and silver enamel. He builds up many layers, some of them having a silvery base that he exposes by apparently wearing away the surface. The result is an imagery that looks like a field of stars, like a remote galaxy dimly charted through radio telescopes. The aspiration here is to span the distance—which sometimes seems intergalactic—between Expressionism and Minimalism.

While the allusion to Pollock is unmistakable in the basic conception of this work, the execution goes in the opposite direction, away from that feeling Pollock’s canvases have of a personal intervention in both the painting itself and in art history in general. Besides being black where Pollock’s works are particolored, Wool’s pictures. never let us have a sense of the gesture with which the paint was laid down. They purposely avoid having the force of character, the muscularity, of Pollock’s. Even their worn-down quality does not appear to have come from usage so much as just time and oblivion.

Wool doesn’t go in for anachronistic heroics: he remains true to the time in which he is living. He tries to make his art out of a feeling of drift and directionlessness.

Post-Modernism, so far, has been an age of superficialities. Wool tries to turn this to his advantage by doing works that are all surface. His effort is to make mere texture and sheen into a profound experience. Like Richard Avedon’s mammoth new photographs, Wool’s paintings invite you to stand close and examine all the pores, dimples, and bumps. When you do so, you are struck, as you are in Avedon’s work, by the humanity of the image. For all its dourness, this work has something bright and cunning about it. At the same time that it’s very serious-minded about painting, it’s also a form of black humor.

Colin Westerbeck