Christopher Wool was born in Chicago in 1955 and moved to New York City in the mid-1970s. He has since lived and worked on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Though Wool is recognised all over the world as one of the most important painters working today, there is something in the essence of his work that is fundamentally rooted in these hard-edged streets.
Wool enrolled in the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in the early 1970s and studied with the likes of abstract expressionist painters Jack Tworkov and Richard Pousette-Dart. He came to creative consciousness in NYC as the post-punk scene was obliterating boundaries and his bold use of found materials (so familiar these days with the ubiquity of street art) was not only groundbreaking but prescient of a future where such boundaries seem quaint.
In the early 1980s, Wool worked as a studio assistant for modernist sculptor Joel Shapiro and by the end of that decade he was making his famous ‘word paintings’, apparently after seeing a brand new white truck with the words ‘SEX LUV’ hand-painted on the side. Aspects of mass culture – film, television, music – weave their way into his work and one of his most recognisable word paintings, 1988’s ‘Apocalypse Now’, draws text from Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name: ‘Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.’ Even as an established artist Wool hasn’t been afraid to mix with pop culture, collaborating with Supreme on a series of skate decks in 2008 and the Pass The Bitch Chicken book in 2002 with Harmony Korine – in which the latter’s photographs are put through an intense process of layering, drawing, overprinting and photocopying by Wool.
At the heart of Wool’s work is abstraction. But how is abstraction related to the context in which it is created? Does it emerge from the deep-lying structures of the artist’s unconscious? Or is it a reflection of the exterior, rather than the interior of the mind?
“When an improvising musician expresses the deep-lying structures of his unconscious out there on a stage, there is a true bravery there. It’s a powerful statement,” says Dan Sapen, a psychoanalyst, musician and author who’s written extensively about the connection between psychological processes and the improvisational nature of art forms like Jazz. “He is creating something that has never been heard, or even thought, before. And it’s even more powerful to be able to make that stop. When you’re talking about abstraction in painting, there’s an added bravery. It’s out there. There’s a permanence to it,” Sapen continues. “ It’s a crystallisation of unconscious processes, and it’s there to be consumed, judged and traded. It goes on forever. There’s a real bravery in that.”
Ranging from pure, gesturally bold abstraction through to confrontative typography and photographic statements, Wool’s work has the flavour of a kind of hybrid Pop Art. There are silkscreens with enmeshed, Lichtenstein-like dots but also freely flowing, multilayered, patterned canvasses with the energy of an abstract expressionist like Jackson Pollock. Wool continually plagiarises himself too, one painting or piece borrowing a detail from another. It might be in a different tone, a different scale, angle or situation but there are language-like elements, or musical motifs, that crop up time and time again.
In 2008, Wool collaborated with punk legend Richard Hell for an exhibition and publication called PSYCHOPTS – fifty-seven word images that play with symbolism and language. It is a powerful self-referential body, motored by an improvised energy. Like Jazz, it repeats, echoes and riffs, reflecting perfectly the manic boogie and shuffle of life on the Lower East Side. The recurring phrases constantly appear and disappear, making it impossible to ignore a connection with bebop – improvised music that twists, turns and explores the deep-lying, perhaps unconscious, corners of the mind.
“With the painting the inspiration comes from the process of the work itself,” Wool said recently. “Like music [making the work] is an emotional experience. It’s a visual language and it’s almost impossible to put words to it.”
Ultimately, Wool’s work points to the limitation of semantics – the fact that language can only tell us so much. Images that communicate rise from the chaos, reminding us how a city like New York is composed of a kaleidoscope of elements that are constantly re-arranged, continually shifting the meaning ascribed to itself. The work, like the city, takes on an improvised language of its own – without thought or fear.
“With Jean-Michel [Basquiat] or Picasso, the fact that they could do it so easily is what makes the work, in the end, so great,” Wool told Interview magazine recently. “They had absolute fearlessness. If you’re not fearless about changes, then you won’t progress.”