Christopher Wool

Incident on 9th Street


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Christopher Wool born 1955
13 photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper
Support, each: 278 × 354 mm
Lent by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of Christen and Derek Wilson 2015
On long term loan


The thirteen black and white photographs that comprise Incident on 9th Street 1997 were made after a fire in Wool’s studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. Wool initially shot them as evidence for the insurance company and later decided that they could constitute a work. The photographs show the aftermath of a disaster: smashed windows, broken plasterboard littering the floor, sheets of cardboard packaging strewn around, paper taken out of filing cabinets and damaged ceilings. Some of Wool’s paintings can be seen stacked against the walls, undamaged, but computer equipment seems to have been destroyed: one photograph shows a work desk where the now absent computers have left a trace. Of the thirteen images, three are portrait and ten are landscape in format. The series has been produced in an edition of twelve plus four artist’s proofs and Tate’s copy is number eight in the edition.

Wool has always used photography alongside his painting, drawing and silkscreening practice. His photographs document the life of his studio and the environment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where it is located. He usually works with inexpensive cameras and shows the prints as series. Two notable series are the Studio Polaroids 1993–2001 and East Broadway Breakdown 1994–5. Most of the Studio Polaroids show paintings in the centre of the frame. Whereas a conventional image of a painting would aim to document it as accurately as possible for a gallery inventory or a catalogue, Wool’s Polaroids are deliberately rough in feel: parts of a painting might be obscured by flash, there is sometimes camera shake, and sections of a work might be cropped. The 160 photographs in the series East Broadway Breakdown show Wool’s neighbourhood at night. These are black and white prints of pavements, shop fronts, stairwells, dogs, deserted roads and housing projects. Often Wool was drawn to graffiti, oil stains on the tarmac and dog urine on the pavement. If the Studio Polaroids convey the mood of his paintings more than their appearance, East Broadway Breakdown encourages comparisons between the marks on Wool’s paintings and those on the streets of his city.

Having been drawn to the rough character of his neighbourhood when he made East Broadway Breakdown, Wool’s Incident on 9th Street also captures another aspect of his environment, namely that many of the old buildings in the neighbourhood were particularly susceptible to fire damage. Wool may have also sensed that these grainy black and white shots, taken with flash and from awkward angles, and often showing a scatter of strewn and broken materials, had some affinity with his paintings of this time with their overlaid marks, erasures, messy loops, spills and stains. In this way these photographs bring together ideas already explored in Studio Polaroids and East Broadway Breakdown.

For many years Wool has been interested in the urban photography of fellow Americans Robert Frank and William Klein as well as Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. He is fascinated by the way these artists capture the experience and appearance of the city and by their use of black and white film and high grain. The photographs that comprise Incident on 9th Street are closer to the sensibility of these artists than to the kind of photographs that police investigators might make of an incident scene. Whereas police photographers might aim to show as clearly as possible what has been damaged, Wool conveys the atmosphere of a studio affected by a fire as much as the actual details of the scene.

Further reading
Anne Goldstein, Christopher Wool, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 1999.
Anne Pontégnie, Christopher Wool: Crosstown, exhibition catalogue, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee 2003.
Ulrich Loock, Christopher Wool 2006–2008, Ludwig Museum, Cologne, and Museu Serralves, Porto 2009.   

Mark Godfrey
August 2012

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