Magazine article Artforum International

Christopher Wool

Magazine article Artforum International

Christopher Wool

Article excerpt

MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, LOS ANGELES

Confessions first: I am not a "pure" critic. I routinely purchase works of art with the money I earn by writing about them. In my youth, I actually owned a gallery and sold art for a living. As a consequence, I never stroll through an institutional exhibition, in my role as art critic, unaccompanied by my two unfashionable alter-egos: the low-end collector and the ex-art dealer. These guys usually feel marginalized on such occasions, since present fashion dictates that we look at art the way we listen to songs on the radio - looking for the two-minute stand - the short-attention-span bang of the single encounter. Collectors and dealers are always looking for a long-term relationship, for nuances in the shifting sociability of people and objects, and there is not much of that around.

Strolling through Christopher Wool's midcareer survey, however, Herr Collector and Mister Dealer were happy as pigs in shit, and why not? Wool's black-and-white, alkyd-on-aluminum paintings rank among the quintessential advanced "collector objects" of the previous decade. They are portable, presentable, serious, intelligent, and covertly congenial - replete with the attitudinal signifiers and no-look formalism that characterize this kind of work in our time. So Herr Collector and Mister Dealer got right to it. They wandered from room to room in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, deciding whether this painting would hold up better than that one, and why this was so. They checked out the labels (to see who bought what) and were not amazed to find that Wool's best paintings reside in the best collections - thus betraying a clandestine discourse of taste nowhere alluded to in the verbiage that accompanies the exhibition. They had a lovely time, in other words, and I was happy for them.

Viewed from the perspective of Monsieur Art Critic, however, Wool's exhibition is a singularly unprepossessing affair, and the artist is not well served by it. At no point during my visit could I avoid the feeling that I was looking at the wrong art, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and that it was being recommended to me for the wrong reasons. The problem of location is particularly daunting. Museum exhibitions, after all, must take place in museums, and unfortunately the heartless, colorless conceptual ambiance of the contemporary kunsthalle is precisely the "look" that Christopher Wool is marketing to private collectors in whose homes his simulacra of downtown, not-for-profit virtue look tough and elegant. They allow private citizens a little touch of Dia in the living room and the paintings truly thrive in these secular contexts. Actually hanging a painting by Christopher Wool in a museum, however, is like reprinting one of Andy's Marilyns in Photoplay. It seems at once redundant and oddly dissonant - like the weird tang of a chicken omelet - the kunsthalle being the chicken, in this case, and Wool's painting the egg.

The elegance of Wool's pictorial inversion is so powerful, however, that it is easy to overlook the fact that he is, over and above all else, a painter, one whose work is so deeply imbricated in the recent discourse of American and European practice that I can't think of a single major figure in the last forty years with whose work Wool's does not share some reference or resonance. Whether his work will have followers commensurate with its predecessors is another issue entirely. Speaking for myself, I rather doubt it. Wool's paintings constitute the absolute, refined, Protestant, ne plus ultra in a tradition of ornamental imagemaking that, in American art, runs from Pollock and Warhol to Wool, Philip Taaffe, Lari Pittman, and Jeff Koons. As the single Dissenter amidst Papish idolaters like Taaffe and Pittman, Wool employs the ambiance and iconography of the contemporary Congregationalist chapel, the kunsthalle, as the language of his devotion.

The interesting question is whether Wool's pictorial appropriation of the Congregationalist kunsthalle actually constitutes an endorsement of its politics - its fervent commitment to "critique. …

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