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1- Installation view .jpg


Christopher Wool: See Stop Run
101 Greenwich St., 03-14 to 07-31-2024

By Gwenaël Kerlidou, April 20, 2024

In the early nineteen eighties, several abandoned Hudson River piers slated for demolition downtown were squatted by artists who used their dilapidated cavernous spaces for wild works and wild parties. Most of these artists had no other outlets for their work. This was a period of urban guerilla art, soon to be brought back into the fold of the art market with the emergence of the Lower East Side gallery scene. 

There are whiffs of nostalgia for that era and perhaps a wishful hope of recapturing some of its raw energy, in Christopher Wool’s recent foray out of the gallery’s white box. For this self-funded, self-curated, self-serving vanity project, a museum-sized survey of seventy-two paintings, sculptures, photographs, and a monumental mosaic, Wool and his team rented a full unfinished floor waiting for a new corporate tenant in the Wall Street area. While it’s always good to see a successful artist reclaim control of their work’s presentation, and while it’s interesting to see Wool’s work in New York after a six-year hiatus since his last show at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in 2018, this particular setting raised numerous questions about the choice of the venue, the relationship of the work to the space, and the work itself. 

Looking at photos of the installation, a friend who lived in Berlin at the time was reminded of the kind of art shows that could be seen all over the city after the wall fell. As another European-based artist friend said: “some of us have no choice but to show in such spaces”. Others, who have seen the show, used the qualifiers “gimmicky” and “theatrics” to describe it. 

Seemingly unacknowledged so far by the critical discourse about the show, the questions that inevitably come up in the visitor’s mind even before looking at the work, revolve around what the artist is trying to achieve by displacing his work from a gallery context to a construction site. Is the empty construction site only used as a backdrop? Is this a new kind of trendy slumming?  

Although there is an undeniable synchrony between the works and their unfinished setting, to the point that some viewers may wonder if the graffiti left behind by the demolition crew is part of the work, the show’s staging came across as singularly heavy-handed. Even if the artist took advantage of New York’s commercial real estate current slump, staging artworks on a construction site felt overly theatrical in this case. Perhaps this is reading too much into it. Still, there seems to be some Baroque impulse in this rejection of the white box, no doubt emphasized by the symbiosis of the work with its post-apocalyptic décor, a post-last judgment kind of Baroque.

2- (Not so) Loose Booty, 1995, enamel on aluminum, 84x60 in .jpg
3- Installation view, 3 .jpg

(Not so) Loose Booty, 1995, enamel on aluminum, 84”x60”

See, Stop, Run, installation view

Untitled, 2019, Copper plated bronze, 49”x 29” x 9”

In explaining his selection of this particular venue, Wool mentioned his fascination with the presence of history in the exposed wall substrates of the unfinished space, by opposition to the presumable neutrality of the gallery’s white box. But this feels too much like a history emptied of the socio-economic forces that shaped it, a history turned into a spectacle. 

Only such a widely successful artist so jaded from all the attention lavished on him by the art world and so shielded by privilege from the need to think about the historical forces at work here, could be blind to the whole array of problems attached to such a choice, and think that going back to exhibiting in a raw space at this point in his career, a situation usually limited to artists who don’t have commercial gallery representation, would offer him and his work a surplus of meaning. 

The American Modernist and Post-Modern narratives that Wool’s earlier work addressed have been very adept at claiming the autonomy of their development and isolating themselves from other historical conditions. But, with this instance of an ideological attempt to escape the art market elitist bubble, it would appear that socio-economic contradictions, at least in Marxist terms, might have caught up with the artist and his work. 

But let’s return to the work itself; The title of the show, a play on words based on “See Spot Run”, the name of a popular 2001 Hollywood movie, is a good indicator of Wool’s approach to his work. It shows that the artist has not lost touch with the mordant commentaries about Pop Culture that drove his earlier text paintings. Even if they were an aberration in the artist’s career, which is hard to believe, as Adam Simon suggested in his review of the show for Two Coats of Paint, the much-acclaimed text paintings, that made Wool instantly famous in the late eighties, were so perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times when they appeared, that they became emblematic of the moment and a difficult act to follow. Since then it would seem that Wool has been trying to recast himself increasingly as a sincere and tortured abstract artist, with complicated, rather than complex, strategies of exposure and erasure, by now long-drawn tropes of abstraction.

Despite their size, their mixed feelings of fascination and repulsion for Ab Ex's grand gestures, and their elaborate, Warholian distancing strategies of silkscreen on canvas and inkjet on paper, the paintings in the show sorely lack the caustic humor of the earlier text paintings. The least that can be said is that they feel labored, a bit predictable, and quite unlikely to stop a viewer in their tracks. 

The smallish wire “sculptures”, which to my knowledge have not been shown in New York before, are another story entirely. They are by far the most interesting pieces in the show: Fragments of barbed wire fencing collected during walks around his property in rural West Texas (one can even picture the artist picking them up on land once roamed by Richard Prince’s famous Marlboro Men…), they easily outrun anything else in the show with their raw presence. These are discarded objects imbued with sculptural qualities by the artist’s selective gaze. Besides their affinities with the ubiquitous tumbleweeds shrubs of the Southwest, they summon up hints of Duchamp’s found object – albeit here a kind of polluting agro-industrial remnant, rather than a shiny new one, coming right off the shelves of consumer culture, like a porcelain urinal or a metal bottle rack, of Robert Smithson’s entropic qualities mixed with Steven Parrino’s dark punk nihilism. It’s this unexpected combination of echoes of a natural world gone astray, of a critique of the readymade, of the abandoned and decaying manufactured product, of rebarbative wire entanglements as form, that makes these pieces compelling.

About half of the fifteen found wire pieces in the show are installed hanging from the ceiling, like some messy Ruth Asawa sculptures. The other half is presented on wood plinths. This choice of a hanging presentation not only underlines the shortcomings of the traditional models relying on the relationship of the work to either the wall or the floor, but it preserves the initial untamed energy of the found object without pining it down to a specific frame of reference.

With these pieces, there is a sense that Wool may be onto something, perhaps such as revisiting Alan Saret’s work or rereading Post-War Art Informel, as they evoke three-dimensional renditions of paintings by Wols, the German-born “informal” artist active in Paris in the early fifties, who, incidentally, was also a very interesting photographer.

In contrast, the copper-plated bronze sculptures have their issues, not the least of them being the artist’s predilection for a vertical presentation on pedestals. This urge to pull the idea of the found wire pieces out of the entropic, and to stand them up into the transcendent space of representation articulated by the pedestal, seems singularly at odds with what the rawer found wire pieces are conveying. To get a better sense of what’s missing in these bronze pieces, such as a livelier kind of drawing in space, and an engagement with literal space, just check out Richard Hunt’s early linear pieces of welded tubing exhibited recently at the White Cube Gallery. 

The show is interesting as a symptom of disenchantment with the limitations of the commercial gallery system, but the general impression is that of a knot of unresolved contradictions, so appropriately symbolized by these tangled balls of fencing punctuating the entire display at regular intervals.

Even as one of the lucky beneficiaries of our cultural star system, Wool appears to be more of a romantic idealist as a mature artist, longing for a less fraught state of affairs in the art world, than the cynic that some of his text paintings suggested he may have been as a young man. It would also appear that the ironic doubt and distance conveyed by his early work have now migrated over to the viewer’s side when faced with the work of the artist as a wealthy and socially well-established older man.

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