Christopher Wool is best known for “Apocalypse Now” and other bold, black-and-white word paintings from the late 1980s, which have become icons of contemporary art and much sought-after prizes at recent international auctions.
But just 10 or so of these text-based works are included among the more than 70 paintings and drawings and three sets of photographs in a touring retrospective of Wool’s 30-year career that opens Feb. 23 at the Art Institute of Chicago and runs through May 11.
The message is simple: There is much more to this product of Chicago, who has redefined what a painting can be and how it can look, than those familiar stenciled canvases, in which fractured phrases serve as compositional building blocks.
“It has been nearly 20 years since the last major retrospective of Christopher, so this seemed to me due,” said James Rondeau, Dittmer chair and curator of contemporary art. “I think he is one of the most important painters of his generation on an international scale, and this was a kind of homecoming.”
Indeed, Rondeau was so enthusiastic about showcasing the New York artist’s accomplishments that he broke with the department’s usual practice of originating its exhibitions. This show was organized by the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
The downtown punk and No Wave scenes were going strong when Wool, who was born in Boston and grew up in Chicago, moved to New York in 1973 fresh from high school. The rebellious spirit of that time has influenced his work since, starting with his early stark, monochromatic compositions and continuing with his untidy patterns (“Loose Booty,” 1995) and graffiti-like bursts (“Untitled,” 1995). Working at a time in the art world when the “heroic” nature of abstraction had been discredited and the validity of painting in general was being doubted, Wool set aside the paintbrush and tried to find new ways to answer an old question: What can a painting be now?
To that end, Rondeau said, Wool drew on two important strands in post-World War II art: the vibrancy of abstract-expressionism, which linked painterly gesture and emotion, and the cool detachment of pop art, which relied on found images and photo-mechanical reproduction.
“Christopher seems to be the first and only person who has combined those two dominant modes on one surface,” he said.
Viewing Wool’s paintings can be tricky, because it is not always evident what one is seeing. In some of the later canvases, what looks like swirling brush strokes are actually parts of the surface where the artist has partially wiped off previously sprayed paint.
Other works, such as “Untitled” (2012), look like paint on linen, but they are in fact silk-screened photographs of other paintings. Or in the case of “Last Year Halloween Fell on a Weekend” (2004), sprayed paint overlays a silk-screened image of a 2003 painting shown nearby in the gallery.
Setting this show apart is the unusually open arrangement of Regenstein Hall, the museum’s main special-exhibition gallery. Working with Rondeau and an exhibition designer, Wool sought a display approach that provides for ample vistas to take in the paintings, which reach 12½ feet in height, and suggests a chronological pathway but allows viewers to go in any direction they choose. A long space in the center is set aside for selections from the artist’s small-scale, less widely known photographs.
While the Wool retrospective is not likely to draw the same size crowds as some of the Art Institute’s museum’s recent blockbusters, Rondeau is confident it will have its own appeal.
“I think this may be a somewhat tougher exhibition,” Rondeau said, “but I think this is remarkably beautiful, and I hope people respond to someone from our own city.”