Christopher Wool
Biography and Word Paintings.

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Christopher Wool (b.1955)


Early Life and Training
Word Paintings
Later Work
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Postmodern Visual Art

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One of top contemporary artists in America, Christopher Wool is best-known for his monumental word art - made between the late-1980s and early-2000s - consisting of black stencilled words on a white background. The text itself consists of insignificant but slightly unsettling phrases, contrived to convey varying degrees of anxiety. Wool's unique style of contemporary art now sells for multi-million dollar prices. In 2013, for instance, his word painting Apocalypse Now (1988) sold at Christie's New York for $26.4 million. In 2015, his text-based painting Riot (1990) sold at Sotheby's New York for $29.9 million. This success ranks him alongside other leading postmodernist artists like Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Jeff Koons (b.1955), Andreas Gursky (b.1955), Damien Hirst (b.1965), and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88). Although Wool is known principally for his painting, he has also made his mark in black-and-white photography, taking a large number of photographs at night in New York City, around the Lower East Side and Chinatown. (Compare the nocturnal shots of Paris by Brassai 1899-1984.) This body of work is reproduced in the book East Broadway Breakdown (2004). Wool is married to the German artist Charline von Heyl (b.1960), also known for her abstract art. They live and work in New York and Marfa, Texas.

Early Life and Training

Born in Boston - his father was a molecular biologist, his mother a psychiatrist - Wool grew up in Chicago before moving to New York in 1973. Here, he studied briefly under Jack Tworkov (1900-1982) - a founding member of the New York School - before dropping out and plunging into the city's vibrant cultural underground. During the 1970s the latter was dominated by the punk and No Wave scenes, with their fusion of music, film and performance art, reflecting their nihilistic world view. From 1980 to 1984 he was employed as a part-time studio assistant to the American abstract sculptor Joel Shapiro (b.1941). It was after this, that Wool took up painting professionally, achieving a breakthrough around 1986-7 with his "Pattern Paintings", made by using paint rollers incised with abstract designs so as to transfer patterns in black enamel to a white canvas. His trick was to exploit the mechanical process involved by permitting a series of subtle imperfections.

Word Paintings

While producing his "Pattern Paintings", Wool stumbled on the genre of postmodernist art that would make him an international star. Once again it involved the manipulation of a mechanical process, only this time it involved the mechanical stencilling of letters and words in black enamel on aluminium. Typically, these large, black, stencilled letters - inspired by graffiti art on a white truck - are arranged across a geometric grid with all punctuation removed, and the text is allowed to wrap, making the words and phrases disjointed and less easy to read. The words chosen make up impersonal phrases that indicate edginess, despair, even breakdown. This is opportunistic conceptual art, not literary genius - indeed, in some ways the text appears to exclude the spectator, rather than include him - but it works.

Other styles of word art created by American conceptualists include: the graphic art of Barbara Kruger (b.1945), noted for slogans like "I shop therefore I am"; the 'date-paintings' of On Kawara (1932-2014); the pop-art ("Love" sculptures) of Robert Indiana (b.1928); the "Definition Paintings" of Joseph Kosuth (b.1945); the "Guaranteed Paintings" of Mel Ramsden (b.1944); the Barack Obama "Hope" poster designed by Shepard Fairey (b.1970); and the projection art of Jenny Holzer (b.1950).

Later Work

During the late 1990s Wool began combining photography and silkscreen printing, occasionally adding rollered or sprayed enamel, to create a series of 'double-impression' paintings. During the 2000s he began a series of large-scale abstract works known as "gray paintings", which involves the repetitive painting and erasing of black enamel paint, to create layers of tangled lines and hazy impressions. In his most recent silkscreens, Wool employs digital processing to further complicate this process.


Wool has received several major retrospectives. In 1998, a retrospective held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, travelled to the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh and afterwards to the Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. In 2009 his work was showcased at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, and in 2012 at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 2013, a retrospective of Wool's work was staged at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and later travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago. A separate retrospective of works on paper, held at the Guggenheim in 2014, exhibited three decades of his photographs, books prints and posters.

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