January 16, 2014
NEW YORK CITY — Artist Christopher Wool must be really good at texting. His stencil sign paintings, according to the Guggenheim Museum, “freely stripped out punctuation, disrupted conventional spacing and removed letters.”
Thus, “trouble” was rendered as TRBL, and “drunk” as DRNK, each with two letters stacked over the other two. Can’t you just see the text message? “Got drnk last pm. Trbl.”
And though some enthusiasts pay as much as $2 million for a Wool painting and critics make much of his punk art, I’ve seen better stuff spray-painted on the train cars that pass behind my house.
Wool was hanging — perhaps he should have been, but it was his art, actually — at the Guggenheim during my recent visit to New York. And I’ll look at anything as long as it allows me to walk through that beautiful place.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1959, the Guggenheim is such an ideal space for art you wonder why nobody thought of the plan before. Its round shape and curving ramp makes a walk up, or down, the ideal way to enjoy paintings, if the paintings are enjoyable. And the skylight at the tiptop floods the exhibition hall with natural light. The white exterior is a break in gray, rectangular New York monotony.
But, then, that’s the mark of genius. When it’s something so obvious that you can’t believe it’s not been done, painted or said before. A cliche becomes a cliche because it’s so good originally that it gets repeated.
Wright himself claimed his design would make the Metropolitan Museum of Art “look like a Protestant barn.” But when the Guggenheim opened in 1959, after Wright’s death, some critics complained that the building’s architecture overshadowed the art displayed inside.
That was certainly the case the week I visited. Seeing the Guggenheim building is worth the cost and trouble of a trip to New York. On the other hand, I figure art collectors buying Wool are going to wake up a few decades from now, slap their foreheads and try to remember why they paid big bucks for block letters that say “Sell the House, Sell the Car, Sell the Kids.”
Will that emperor never put on his clothes?
I did like Wool’s photographs, probably because they made me feel better about my own. They are, the Guggenheim claims, “shot in a raw, abrasive style that disregards any concern for technical refinement.” I would say of my own grainy photos, “Shoot, this one is out of focus.” Now I know better. I just have a disregard for technical refinement.
When I got back to Mississippi, where we don’t know much, I looked up Wool and found a New York Times critic’s assessment of the well-attended current exhibition. He said it made him wonder what Wool would do next.
Now, I know beauties like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Pyramid and, yes, the Guggenheim were roundly hooted by fuddy-duddies, and that just because something’s not your personal taste you shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. But when art on a museum wall looks like an illiterate kid’s cellphone, remember this: “Phone” starts with “P” and that rhymes with “T,” which stands for TRBL.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.