Christopher Wool’s Untitled is an important example of the artist’s large-scale word paintings, an iconic series of work which he began in the late 1980s at a time when the very legitimacy of painting was under threat. Ostensibly embracing the austere characteristics of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, with a work such as this, the artist investigates what it means to be a contemporary painter. He does this by assembling a seemingly innocuous series of words RUN DOG RUN, yet by rendering them in a strict four-by-four grid, Wool forces the viewer to abandon their conventional comprehension of language and question the fundamental nature of understanding more widely. Often including words and phrases taken from movies or music, the phrase used in this particular painting evokes the spirit of a children book, or nursery rhyme. It also appears to be one of the artist’s most favored too, as he has used the same phrase, in various iterations, in a number of important paintings. These include the sister painting of the present work (the same configuration of words, just moved one space to the right) which is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, a five-paneled example (each panel containing a single RUN or DOG) at Glenstone, and a monumental nine-paneled work that is a centerpiece of The Broad, Los Angeles.
With ferocious audacity, the words RUN DOG RUN DOG RUN are squeezed into the surface of this giant 9-feet tall painting. At first glance, the individual letters appear deceptively simple, plain stenciled forms rendered in black enamel against a brilliant white backdrop. Yet, spelled out in large 2-feet high black letters, their scale and arrangement makes them almost unreadable. The strict geometric arrangement forces the words to become broken up and disjointed, making them difficult to read. With the abandonment of conventional syntax, the viewer is then obliged to focus attention on each individual letter, and decide whether, and how, it has a relationship to its neighbor. Thus, the conventions of reading—something which we acknowledge and use unconsciously—are abandoned, and with the words being interrupted in unnatural places, new words and sentences are formed out of the old ones; RUN DOG RUN DOG RUN, actually becomes RUND OGRU NDOG RUN.
Executed on aluminum, Wool used a stencil to produce the individual letters giving the work a cool, machine-like aesthetic. Yet, Untitled remains inherently painterly. Close examination reveals the thin graphite lines which form the grid Wool uses to ensure the strict rigidity of his format. Also visible are the traces of the artist’s brushwork as he fills in the letters with shiny pools of black enamel paint. Like Andy Warhol’s silkscreening technique, the stencil results in idiosyncrasies and individualities in some of the letters; black paint escapes from the strict rigidity of the outlines of the letters, as can be seen in the black bleeding into the white around the lower edge of the second U, and the upper inner edge of the first G. Thus, Wool’s is a practice laced with contradictions: between word and image, between legibility and abstraction, between the mass-produced and the hand-crafted.
Using a font similar to the one adopted by the U.S. military after the Second World War, subsequently used across the globe for its immediate legibility, Wool’s paintings combine overt visual clarity with deliberate semantic deformation. Their seamless navigation between alphabetic communication and painterly abstraction is heightened by the subtle glitches, bleeding and irregularities that fray the edges of Wool’s carefully-painted stencils. The industrial appearance of the works is held in tension with their status as meticulously hand-crafted objects. Unlike the commercial factory-inspired mechanisms of Pop Art, in which uniformity became a means of expression in its own right, Wool’s production methods explicitly privileged the proliferation of imperfections and unpredictable painterly nuance. In this way, he allows the artist’s hand—regarded as irrecoverable by many artists of his generation—to infiltrate his structural edifice of hard-edged word-play. Wool was inspired in this regard by a visit to Robert Gober’s studio during the early 1980s; as Katherine Brinson explains, "There he saw the artist’s first sink sculptures – objects that mimicked mass-produced anonymity but that Gober had painstakingly sculpted—and was stunned by the vulnerability and elusive psychological potency imparted to these mundane forms" (K. Brinson, “Trouble is my business”, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 39).
Painted in 1990, the present work comes from a pivotal period in the artist’s career, a time when he was feted with two major museum retrospectives (at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam), in addition to being awarded a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and an invitation (his first) to take part in the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Kassel two years later. It was Wool’s word paintings that catapulted his rise to fame during the late 1980s and early 1990s, their gritty, uncompromising aesthetic reflects the raw impetus of his early attempts to establish new directions for painting in a world that had declared it dead. Wool’s emergence as an artist in the 1980s coincided with a widespread anxiety about the continued survival of the medium, spearheaded by Douglas Crimp’s 1981 essay The Death of Painting. In this influential treatise, Crimp discusses the claim that the "end of painting" had argued that the actually happened almost 20 years prior, with the revolutionary Black Paintings of Frank Stella. “…It was Stella’s earliest paintings that signaled to his colleagues that the end of paintings had finally come (I am thinking of such deserters of the ranks of painting as Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, and Morris), it seems fairly clear that Stella’s own career is a prolonged agony over the incontestable implications of those works, as he retreated further and further away from them, repudiating them more vociferously with each new series. The late seventies paintings are truly hysterical in their defiance of the black paintings has not come” (D. Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October, Vol. 16, Spring 1981, pp. 81-82). Skip forward a generation and, in the 1980s, artists such as Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen responded to this gauntlet with a new brand of wild, painterly neo-Expressionism, colliding multiple artistic languages with little respect for time-honored stylistic boundaries, Wool’s response was cool, measured and calculated. Amongst his earliest explorations was a series of stenciled wallpaper-like motifs, drawn from the vernaculars of historical ornamentation and contemporary kitsch, and applied to the canvas with a roller in neat, regimental arrangements.
Captivated by the painterly idiosyncrasies that arose from this seemingly mechanical enterprise, Wool established a conceptual framework caught somewhere between the allover compositions of Abstract Expressionism, the deadpan detachment of Pop Art and the emphasis on process espoused by Post-Minimalism. It was from the graphic, manufactured aesthetic of these early roller works that the word paintings were born. As an artist—like his contemporary Jean Michel Basquiat—he was fascinated by language, having spent many years documenting words and phrases that caught his attention. Wool’s epiphany occurred in 1987 when he chanced upon a brand new white truck with the words ‘SEX LUV’ caustically branded on the side. Struck by the visual power of this urban apparition, Wool extended the ornamental language of his roller paintings to encompass letters. In doing so, he unlocked an entirely new plane of correspondence between word and image—between writing and painting—that gave rise to his most important body of work.
The word paintings were first exhibition at New York’s 303 Gallery in 1988, in a collaborative exhibition entitled Apocalypse Now with Robert Gober; with the rough, jolting effect of Wool’s text-based paintings accosting the viewer with their brash, menacing tone, the exhibition has become one of legend. The curator Richard Flood recalls: “It offered such a simple, reductive solution for moving on that it became a kind of late-eighties mantra.” He goes on: “Wool has kept that edge over the years, slamming down the insults (“IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE”)” (R. Flood, “Wool Gathering,” Parkett, vol. 83, September 2008, p. 142).
While Douglas Crimp’s infamous missive declared painting dead, Wool’s radical canvases validated the genre with a sort of “endgame” visual rhetoric. They issue forth with combative determination and a forceful, belligerent energy that necessitated their survival, and indeed the survival of the entire genre itself. Indeed, Wool resuscitated painting by suffusing it with the terms of its own survival. His text-based paintings are nihilistic and bombastic, with a bellicose confidence that is gritty and loud. Yet they possess an aura that verges on the sublime, as if they knowingly take up the gauntlet that has been passed to them. “The canonical position that Wool holds in the recent history of art has emerged in light of the renewed interest in the medium of painting. It is not based on his contribution to painting’s ‘endgame’ but rather on his ability to delineate the sites of contestation that keep the discourse around painting open and painting itself alive” (A. Hochdorfer, “Christopher Wool: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum,” Artforum, March 2014, p. 281).
At the time, Wool’s first text-based paintings emerged, he had already spent nearly a decade archiving certain words and phrases. After seeing “SEX” and “LUV” graffitied onto the truck, he began to stencil words directly onto canvas. These early works display an aggressive, claustrophobic urgency that relates to their origins in the streets of downtown New York. Their historical placement right smack at the beginning of a market meltdown and economic recession make them seem like foreboding harbingers of a brutal destiny. When Wool painted the present work, he was living in a studio in Lower Manhattan and was submerged in the grit and chaos of an endlessly transforming city, while on the opposite side of the nation, the city of Los Angeles was simmering with racial tension that would culminate in the police beating of Rodney King. Wool’s nihilistic approach to painting is inextricably linked to the circumstances of its creation, and—as such—its potent visual force remains as powerful today as when it was painted nearly three decades ago.
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, inscribed and dated 'WOOL 1990 W7' (on the reverse)
Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
Private collection, New York
Luhring Augustine, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2002