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Surviving the Moment

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Untitled (1994), by Christopher Wool

Untitled (1994), by Christopher Wool

In the earliest painting here, made before the text paintings, Wool applied paint using patterned rollers. These trivial patterns of what I want to call, following Keats, “retired flowers” and other such banal decorative motifs grow strangely harsh, almost morose and yet somehow poignant, thanks to the recurrent imperfections and slippages in the realization of what seemingly should have been a clean and systematic structure. Soon Wool took to stenciled lettering and then, in 1993, to silkscreening, a technique that had been a standby of painters since Andy Warhol and then Robert Rauschenberg began using it in the 1960s as a way of transferring found imagery to canvas. Soon after came the graffitist’s preferred tool, the spray gun. With this last, Wool finally began to allow himself something like a free, impulsive gesture—but only at a distance. And the distance was redoubled when, in 1998, he started cannibalizing his own work, making silkscreens from earlier paintings and recombining details (or even whole paintings) on fresh canvases, often at a larger scale than the original. 

Perhaps most telling in all of Wool’s repertoire of anti-gestural gestures is his propensity, since 2000, to paint by erasing—to wipe away with a turpentine-soaked rag the marks he’s already made. Taking into account the artist’s view (as conveyed by the exhibition’s curator, Katherine Brinson, in her catalog essay) of “his spraygun application of enamel as closer in spirit to drawing than to painting,” the blunt, businesslike but definitively deconstructive gestures of erasure are the most painterly marks he’s made, and also the closest to the Abstract Expressionist ideal of directness and immediacy. Yet they are gestures of refusal, of negation. They seem to reach for a void beyond the painting’s presence. For Wool, his continual alternation of applying and removing materials and imagery is a manifestation of doubt—that mainstay of Abstract Expressionist art—as exemplified by the title of Dore Ashton’s great book on Philip Guston, Yes, But…. Even so, his doubt manifests itself differently, in a sort of anxious mechanization of painterly gesture—more like Jasper Johns or Sigmar Polke than Guston. Wool’s blending of these distinct approaches makes him a scholar of his own skeptical traditionalism. “The tools have changed and the ways of exploring visual things have expanded,” he asserts, “but it’s not a paradigm shift, it’s the same old paradigm.” Doubt is the one idea in art that never goes out of date, because it’s the one perspective that’s sure to stay relevant to changing circumstances.

It’s a challenge for any artist’s work to withstand the exposure of a grand museum retrospective. Wool’s paintings do. Technically impeccable in their ultra-refined grittiness, on their own terms they maintain a great sense of unruffled presence, never recessive yet without palpable design on the viewer. They are just passively aggressive enough to provoke a curious viewer to try and draw them out. THEHAR / DERYOU / LOOK / THEHAR / DERYOU / LOOK, as the last of the word paintings here, the one from 2000, would have it. The apparent tautology may not be one. I take it to mean roughly, “If you’re vigilant, if you’re really attentive, you’ll come across as a tough guy.”  It suggests the fundamentally self-protective position from which Wool likes to work. Eventually, though, there’s a limit to what can be achieved by never letting your guard down. Wool’s stoicism is sturdier than I’d ever imagined it could be. The paintings manage to “hold the wall” even at the Guggenheim, where they have no walls to hold on to. They conform so well with their own intentions, yet I want to catch a glimpse of something bigger than a mere intention can contain. 

Could Wool’s defensive crouch represent what Wark would understand as his art’s portraiture of its patrons? I doubt it. What if our financial wizards, like vampires, leave no reflection at all in the mirror of art? Decisions about where to park one’s money are simply made by following the crowd, with “no markers of good or bad taste.” At least for a day, one artist’s work is worth $26.5 million and another’s is worth $26,500. The explanations for the difference come after the fact and arbitrarily. All along, Wool was following his own doubt and not the dictates of his market. What if someone’s art has no patrons—and most art doesn’t. Who, then, is it a portrait of?

* * *

Anyone who thinks art’s mission is to abolish itself will probably not have bothered to go to Industry City (formerly known as Bush Terminal) in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to see the massive recent exhibition “Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1,” which was curated by Phong Bui, the editor and publisher of The Brooklyn Rail (to which I am an occasional contributor, gratis), and himself an artist who lost most of his work to the floods of October 29, 2012. Bui just might be the most affable and energetic denizen of the New York art world, but (as befits a man whose mentor was Meyer Schapiro) he also has a deeper working knowledge of artistic activity in this city over the past sixty years than almost anyone I know. In “Come Together,” which includes more than 200 artists, in many cases represented by several works each, he has rustled together one of the largest exhibitions I’ve ever seen outside some of the great international biennials. “Centered on the work of artists directly affected by Sandy,” as the exhibition was described, it also included “work inspired by and referring to the storm, along with work by artists who were invited to participate in the spirit of solidarity.” It was, in essence, an exhibition of Bui’s extended network of friends and friends of friends, and the participants ranged from out-and-out stars (Alex Katz, Shirin Neshat, Joel Shapiro, Kiki Smith) to complete unknowns who have no gallery behind them, let alone patrons.

Any art lover could come away from the show with a fresh discovery or an unexpected rediscovery. I was taken with a couple of funky assemblage sculptures by an artist named Jo Nigoghossian. Another treat was a modest yet tough abstract painting by Robert Storr, the well-known curator, critic and educator, who seems to make it a policy not to exhibit his own work. (I last caught sight of one of his paintings about twenty years ago.) But my great find was Joanna Pousette-Dart, an artist whose work I didn’t know but whose name I recognized, because she is the daughter of the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart. Her contribution to “Come Together” was a pair of large, eccentrically shaped paintings with exuberantly colored, hard-edged curvilinear forms that somehow manage to recall both Arabic calligraphy and Northwest Coast Indian art without indulging in nostalgia for the exotic. Who knows when we’ll be able to see more?

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Encountering Pousette-Dart’s paintings in Sunset Park the day after seeing Wool’s retrospective at the Guggenheim seemed serendipitous somehow. Wool had been a student of her father’s at Sarah Lawrence College (he ended up dropping out), and it was from the elder Pousette-Dart, in part, that Wool learned how to be “a painter more interested in questions than answers.” Together, Wool and Joanna Pousette-Dart curated an exhibition of her father’s work at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York two years ago. There’s a lesson here: the paths and projects of the market darlings continually cross with those of outliers. Which category a given artist is slotted in seems arbitrary. Pousette-Dart made a splash with a couple of new paintings, but how would they hold up displayed with ninety others along the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp? Will she ever get the chance to find out? I could ask the same about any number of the other well-regarded mid-career artists included in “Come Together”: Rita Ackermann, Cora Cohen, Lonnie Holley, David Humphrey, Donald Moffett, Gary Stephan and Stanley Whitney, to name just a few. It’s no insult to Wool to point out that the star system so beloved of art collectors (and the museums they sustain) has little or nothing to do with the value of what modestly successful or unheralded working artists make.

As an effort to show the breadth and energy of contemporary art at the grassroots, “Come Together” was a success, but it offered no cure-all for the capricious inequalities imposed on the art scene by the vagaries of the market in a time of ever-increasing upward distribution of income. Every underdog is someone else’s overdog. One reason is that the art market isn’t the only market artists have to contend with; another trades in the one commodity many artists need the most—space. Bui and his exhibition have come in for vociferous criticism—most prominently on the Art F City blog—for his collaboration with Industry City, whose owners have been forcing artists out of their studios to make room for higher-paying tenants. The Times recently named Sunset Park one of “Brooklyn’s New Gentrification Frontiers.” Artists are harbingers of gentrification, but they rarely reap its ultimate economic benefits. The real estate market pits artist against artist. Hurricane Sandy was ultimately a man-made disaster, not a “natural” one. So, too, is the expectations gap of our economy, which makes it harder for most artists to live and work, even as a few become bargaining chips in a game being played somewhere above their heads. Art just might help us survive all this, if the market doesn’t kill it first.

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