"By using the word in its capacity as visual material, leading to obscuring the legibility of the texts by accommodating them primarily to the impositions of the picture space, Wool made the viewer reinterpret the meaning of words used in his paintings, thereby underlining the failure of language as an effective, objective medium of communication." Marga Paz in: Exh. Cat. IVAM Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Christopher Wool, 2006, p. 201.
Concurrently outrageously provocative, artistically seductive and conceptually brilliant, Christopher Wool's monolithic Untitled (W38) is the very quintessence of his most immediately recognizable and significant body of work. As viewers we are urgently confronted with the compounded string of words CRASS CONCEITED VULGAR AND UNPLEASANT in an artistic exclamation that is both textual and imagistic. The literal semantic content of the coldly industrialised letters is both accusatory of the viewer and self-deprecating of the work of art itself. The glossiness of the reflective black letters against the chalky white surface, broadcast on a monumental scale and revelling in the process of painting, is utterly seductive aesthetically. Through his Word paintings Wool interrogates not only the definitions of subject matter, conceptual content, and creative authorship in painting, but also demonstratively exhibits a love of the act of creation, insistently leaving remnants of the process of creation, such as the luscious drips of ink-like paint in the present work, to designate the hand of the artist.
Implicating an array of references to spoken, phonetic, poetic and everyday language, the words in Wool's paintings emerge from the crossroads of various cultural legacies. In the present work Wool invests the string of adjectives with an imperative urgency accentuated by the dramatic use of de-personalised capital letters. The powerful phonetic alliteration of the words, together with their devastating total meaning, forms an archetypal phrase that is, typically, impossible to access in quotidian conversation. This is precisely the string of words that we might plan in our head when we are anticipating or reflecting on a conversation, but which is never so concisely or effectively available at the opportune moment. This leads to a tremendous satisfaction in unravelling the disorganisation of the words to discover how lethally pithy the phrase is.
At the same time, the painterly composition is minimal and the individual letters have been reduced to a bipolar, stencilled schematic. Each letter is aligned with those above and below, each component suspended in perfect parallel or perpendicular motion, forging a visually crisp and abstract construction. However, whereas the execution of the work achieves the perfection of Minimalist reduction on the one hand, on the other it includes overt suggestion of its handmade manufacture, with the irregular outline, smudges and drips heavily in evidence.
At a time when the prevailing trend in painting was set by Neo-expressionism and the Transavantgarde movement, Wool joined a small band of artists including Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen who dared to challenge the status quo of painting from within the medium itself. As perfectly represented by the present work, he explored new possibilities by successfully addressing the contradictions and interrelationships between abstraction and figuration. In a progression of series, from paintings of vines and floral prints to the pre-eminent stencilled word pictures, the artist explored reductive strategies informed by a plethora of art historical precedent, such as the minimalist geometric landscapes of Piet Mondrian, the all-over action paintings of Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol's distinctly post-modern silkscreen works that dealt with mechanical replication. The slick black-and-white aesthetic Wool adopted as his signature style evidences an ongoing negotiation with and reconsideration of the history of abstract painting and painterly process. With the sheer delight in the act of paint application of Franz Kline, to the inherently Pop interpretation of contemporary life akin to Jasper Johns, to the violently witty conceptual innovation of Bruce Nauman, Wool's art draws together myriad precedent with sensational economy.
It was in 1987 that Wool began to explore the use of words, stencilling carefully selected statements onto his surfaces, and his first text painting was a play on the words "Trojan horse," in which he deleted the "a" in Trojan and the "e" in horse. Dating back to the analytic Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque before the First World War that incorporated collaged elements of newspaper headlines, typography became an integral part of Futurism, Constructivism and Bauhaus design. During the 1950s, when galleries were dominated by Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns used stencils in his work to counter the outpourings of emotion among his fellow painters. Referencing Duchamp and Dada, Johns was interested in stencils because of their ready-made status - when used in paintings, they challenged the authenticity of the personal brushstroke. Even Francis Bacon would come to incorporate Letraset typography in his paintings to address questions of Saussurian semiotics, the dynamics of sign systems, and methods of communication. Furthermore, Concrete poetry of the 1960s and early 1970s abandoned grammar, syntax and punctuation to break words into apparently arbitrary units. However, by focusing more on process rather than subject matter, the act of painting itself became Wool's primary subject. Wool's art does not merely strategize semiotic themes of signs and signifiers, but, as epitomized by Untitled (W38), embodies Marga Paz's deft summary that "We are confronted with work that deals with the possibilities and mechanisms that keep painting alive and valid in the present, an issue that, despite all forecasts, is one of the most productive ad complex issues in contemporary visual art." (Marga Paz in: Exh. Cat., IVAM Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Christopher Wool, 2006, p. 200).
Enamel on aluminum
New York, Luhring Augustine, Christopher Wool, November - December 1997
Valencia, IVAM Institut Valencià d'Art Modern; Strasbourg, Musée d'Art moderne et contemporain de Strasboug, Christopher Wool, April - September 2006, p. 85, illustrated in color
108 x 72 in. 274.3 x 182.8 cm.
Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 212, illustrated in color
Luhring Augustine, New York
Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above)
Gandar Collection, Ltd., Geneva
L & M Arts, New York