Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Through Jan. 22

“Like it or not, Christopher Wool, now 58, is probably the most important American painter of his generation,” said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Few would have predicted as much roughly 25 years ago when the Boston native first started exhibiting in New York. Legend has it that he experienced an epiphany at about that time, when he glimpsed a white delivery truck spray-painted with the words “luv” and “sex.” Drawings that incorporate those words are the earliest pieces shown in this first major retrospective of Wool’s work, and they set the tone of all that follows. Wool’s art begins in renunciations: He works mostly in black, white, and grays, and for decades eschewed expressive gesture. But his way of painting has “quietly gained authority.” His works are limited in what they attempt to achieve, but they “ace” a crucial test for art today: “They look impeccable on walls.”

Wool’s canvases “put me in mind of rock songs,” said David Salle in Town and Country. From a spare collection of building blocks—a rectangular plane, stenciled block letters, and a single color, say—Wool makes art so emotionally satisfying that for three minutes or so “it’s the only sound you want to hear.” The plain letters in his word pictures often spell out phrases that have a punk-rock punch, but experiments with written language haven’t been his only trick. Beginning in the late ’80s, Wool was also exploring the expressive possibility of painting rollers like those that New York’s slumlords once used to cheaply mimic the effect of floral wallpaper. And around 2000, he “entered a phase of such expansiveness and expressiveness” that we had to rethink him. Suddenly, his paintings incorporated Roy Lichtenstein–like Ben-Day dots and looping lines made with a spray gun. “He no longer engaged with words as such, but with the language of abstract painting.”

“Wool’s work can be hard to like, easy to hate,” said Jerry Saltz in New York magazine. Critics who hate it don’t like that it falls in a middle ground: It “isn’t ‘beautiful’ in traditional painterly ways and isn’t dryly conceptual” either. Still, as you climb up the Guggenheim’s central spiraling ramp, Wool’s word pictures create the sensation that you’re strolling through a city that’s talking back to you. And when, farther on, all you see is paintings that layer fragmented imagery, faint polka dots, and color fields that “look like they’ve been wiped down and almost blotted out,” it’s as if Wool has captured the way New York “looks, sounds, and smells.” In his drips, smears, and erasures, I see “the same clashing, gritty, seemingly haphazard, abrasive, bludgeoning beauty that all of us who live in and love New York can’t live without.”