New York

Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool initiated his cautious, self-conscious investigation of painting, and more specifically, of abstraction, in the mid ’80s. Starting from a conceptual ground zero, Wool initially employed chance techniques, including Zen-like pours and allover Pollock-like drips to combat creative inertia. Next he introduced decorative motifs applied with patterned rollers, and later stamps. These paintings evoked wallpaper in their uniformity, yet despite the mechanical nature of his techniques, Wool’s paintings revealed imperfections that evidenced his touch. In recent years, he has incorporated text into his work, presenting words or phrases stacked and divided in ways that thwart their immediate legibility. Exercises in perception, the text paintings leave the viewer to vacillate between abstract and linguistic readings, promoting a questioning of the limits of the categories of pain tting, abstraction, and language.

Most recently Wool has furthered his ongoing investigation by incorporating the figure into his work. This show includes 22 “drawings” (all works untitled, 1989) in black alkyd paint on white rice paper, in which two motifs—a heraldic bird that seems derived from a coat of arms, and a thick, fear-stricken, running figure—are subjected to a variety of permutations. The bird and running figure never appear together in a drawing, but rather singly or in groupings. As in Wool’s past works, these images are rife with minor imperfections, and their arrangement is cryptic: single birds appear several times, in different positions, followed by several sets of figures in various groupings. Wool’s trademark dialectic between abstraction and representation animates these drawings, which recall Georg Baselitz’s upside-down figures in spirit, and perhaps intention as well. One tries in vain to discern some logic in the combinations of motifs, but is left instead with a progression of empty signs.

This show appears to be about making choices. Wool long ago elected to act as an artists’ artist, and the strategic decisions he makes about subject and medium are as much the focus of his oeuvre as are the objects that result. His choices in this show—what to paint, how to vary each composition, how to arrange the works—seem overtly self-conscious. Wool has stamped out and arranged his images like so many cards in a game of solitaire, with an element of chance determining the outcome. The works that result seem to demonstrate that they could just as well have gone another way. The drawings themselves are visually exquisite, but somehow hollow in the context of such a deliberate theoretical game. A study in tactics, this show is aimed at a highly sophisticated audience that waits for news of the condition of painting, the only context in which so subtle a project could conceivably sustain itself. The black and white text drawings, each stenciled with the word FEAR provide a clue to Wool’s point about the painter at a time when it seems that everything has already been done at least once.

Jenifer P. Borum