Christopher Wool is one of many painters who have experimented with bringing their medium to extinction. They strip it of familiar attributes like imagery, brushwork or flatness, often ending up with some kind of monochrome that suggests the last painting that could possibly be made.
Again and again, these works make viewers ask, in effect: Are you kidding me? That’s a painting?
In the postwar years at least, these endgame artists have made their supposedly last paintings and then done one of three things. Some, including most first-generation Conceptual artists, move on to other mediums (although some have circled back). Others, like Robert Ryman, with his endlessly varied white paintings, or Daniel Buren, with his repurposed striped awning canvas, stay put, finding plenty to do despite the seemingly reduced circumstances. Still others work their way back from the brink, toward complexity; a prime example is Frank Stella.
Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Wool, now 58, flirted with extinction at the beginning of his career, initially making thin-skinned paintings using rubber stamps and house-painting rollers, following the hands-off tradition initiated by Jackson Pollock’s dripped canvases and Andy Warhol’s silk-screen images. But then he did something slightly different, keeping his work narrow while expanding it with a few carefully-arrived-at techniques and motifs used in increasingly complex combinations. That circumscribed expansion is basically the plotline of Mr. Wool’s handsome, challenging survey of paintings, works on paper and photographs at the Guggenheim Museum.
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