‘Wool’s work contains continual internal/external debate within itself. At one moment his work will display self-denial, at the next solipsism. Shifting psychological states, false fronts, shadows of themselves, justify their own existence... Wool’s work locks itself in only to escape through sleight of hand. The necessity to survive at all costs, using its repertoire of false fronts and psychological stances is the work’s lifeblood’ (Press release for Christopher Wool, Cable Gallery, New York, February-March 1986, quoted by K. Brinson, ‘Trouble Is My Business’, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 35).
Executed in 1998, Christopher Wool’s Untitled presents a visually arresting panoply of signifiers and found decorative motifs, realized on a monumental scale in stark black and white. Dividing his picture plane into six segments, Wool creates a veritable phantasmagoria, layering half-meditated, half-improvised patterns of flowers, hatchings, geometric shapes and undulating lines, peppered with zeroes and crosses reminiscent of tic-tac-toe. The painting’s surface reveals the energetic process of its facture, riddled with white pentimenti and the inky remnants of Wool’s screening process. Loosely replicating sections across the picture place, Wool creates a hypnotic panorama of repetitions, double-images, fissures and interruptions. Selected for the artist’s retrospective organized by the IVAM Insitut Valencia d’Art Modern in 2006, which later travelled to Les Musèes de Strasbourg, Untitled was produced at the beginning of a period when Wool began to use his own work as source material, taking his painterly investigations to a new level. Engaging with the history of post-War American Art in a bid to revitalize contemporary image-making, Wool registers Pop Art’s methods of mechanized production, Minimalism’s emphatic denial of the author and abstraction’s privileging of form over content. In Untitled, Wool embraces all of these paradigms – uniting the abstract and figurative, painting and print, picture and process – to explore the boundaries of contemporary painting.
Wool’s complex investigations into abstraction began in the late 1980s when, inspired by the urban graffiti of Chicago, he produced a series of paintings which took familiar words and phrases and, by removing key lexical elements, broke them down into abstracted combinations of letters and forms. Received with critical acclaim, Wool’s word paintings became some of the most celebrated works by a new generation of artists who were reacting to the dominance of Minimalism and Conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s. By 1993 Wool had migrated to appropriating graphic floral motifs in increasingly complex arrangements which he applied to the surface of his work using the distinctly Warholian process of silkscreening. Following on from his use of roller-painting, this process enabled Wool to embrace the notion of chance, and the inexact nature of silkscreening gave rise to a series of drips, pooling and shadows – the remains of the physical exertion needed to push the ink through the screen. In 1998, the year of the present work, he began to use his own paintings as the source material for a new body of work in which he would take a finished picture, create a silkscreen and then use it as the basis for a whole new image. Fractured, divided and repeated across the picture plane, these new paintings were the latest stage in Wool’s dismantling of the traditional figure-ground relationship – producing a fatter, more anonymous image with seemingly scant regard for the time-honoured aura of the artist’s hand. Katherine Brinson, the curator of Wool’s recent major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, says of these paintings, ‘Whereas the source paintings are characterized by ghostly layers and subtly rendered details, in the second generation all visual information is fattened into a crisply delineated silhouette of the original, creating a stark, monochrome polarity between ground and image’ (K. Brinson, ‘Trouble Is My Business’, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 35).
In Untitled, the successive building of imagery creates a kind of gritty visual static, enhanced by the detached pictorial marks and frame lines that are the inevitable result of Wool’s silkscreening process. As Ann Goldstein has described, the rectilinear traces of the silkscreen frames act ‘like a disembodied picture of a picture, they frame a painting within a painting’ (A. Goldstein, ‘What They’re Not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool’, in A. Goldstein (ed.), Christopher Wool, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 259). The work becomes a complex field of decorative elements, partially obscured and rendered inaccessible through their dense layers of articulation. Through the myriad of patterns, lines and shapes, Untitled appears to develop its own vernacular or hieroglyphic system, drawing parallels with Wool’s earlier body of word paintings. Both the text-based works and Untitled share an interest in layering, yet unlike the semantic multiplicity of the word paintings, here meaning is located in the intricacies of the work’s process, successively building up and effacing its own composition. Painted a decade after the artist produced his iconic Apocalypse Now, Untitled still possesses some of the pent-up aggression seen in those early word paintings. Traces of Pollock-like drips can been seen scattered throughout the work as an indication of the speed and ferocity at which Wool worked. Just as the violent splices and linguistic ruptures of his earlier word paintings may be seen to prevent the viewer from fully accessing the work, in Untitled Wool’s all-over grid seems to present a barrier that denies entry into its chaotic depths. It is through this complex engagement with the outermost limits of contemporary painting strategies that Wool has established himself as one of the leading figures of his generation.