Christopher Wool has a reputation for not talking much. He’s of the let-the-work-speak-for-itself school and rarely grants interviews, an aversion perhaps not altogether surprising for an artist who rose to prominence in the late 1980s playing with the hostile, slippery nature of the painted word. But on a gruelingly hot morning in September, Wool welcomes me to his studio in the far eastern blocks of New York’s East Village. The words front and rear are stenciled in block capitals on the building’s facade, a detail so uncannily reminiscent of the artist’s seminal text paintings that I half-expect them to have been graffitied by the man himself. But Wool is the rare abstract painter who pulls his inspiration—and even his materials—directly from the environment. Arguably, no contemporary artist has utilized the gritty, messy vernacular and anxious disquiet of the city to such masterful effect.
In person, the 63-year-old artist has a warm, gravelly voice and a relaxed, engaged demeanor. Although Wool spent his formative years hanging out in the bohemian, punk rock art and music scenes of 1970s and ’80s New York, there’s a soft-spoken, Midwestern friendliness to him that suggests his middle-class Chicago roots never entirely lost their grip. The East Village studio has been his for a while. He bought the sixth (and top) floor in 1991, just weeks before Mayor David Dinkins closed nearby Tompkins Square Park. Wool recalls many of the ejected homeless people setting up camp in a vacant lot right across the street. “That was the tail end of the East Village being a really tough neighborhood,” he notes.
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