Mediated by cinema, television and other forms of mass advertising, artists from Christopher Wool’s generation involved the viewer in a kaleidoscopic sequence of appropriations. Crossing over from various cultural sources, Untitled draws its etymology from the prevalent expression “helter skelter,” an adjective used to describe disorderly haste or confusion. A loaded term in popular culture, “helter skelter” immediately recalls both The Beatles song of the same title and the vicious string of gruesome murders played out by the notorious cult leader Charles Manson and his followers. Combined with the gritty edge of art history, Wool’s word paintings are affecting reminders of the in-your-face shock that artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol contributed to the art of their times, as well as the continuation of the wryly humorous witticisms of bad boy artists Bruce Nauman, Richard Prince and Maurizio Cattelan. Here, Wool takes Duchamp’s colloquial play on words in L.H.O.O.Q. to a new level, employing the extreme starkness of Richard Prince’s Joke paintings with the raw grit of Pollock or de Kooning’s painted surfaces in an attempt to evoke the same shock as Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptures, and Bruce Nauman’s aggressively in your face Punch and Judy neons.
Celebrated as one of the rawest rock ‘n’ roll singles of The Beatles oeuvre, Helter Skelter was born out of Paul McCartney’s deliberate effort to create a song both as loud and unrefined as possible. Noted for both its “proto-metal roar” and “unique textures,” the twenty-first track from The Beatles eponymous LP—more affectionately known as “The White Album”—is considered by many music historians to be a key influence in the early development of heavy metal. “I was in Scotland and I read in Melody Maker that Pete Townshend had said: ‘We’ve just made the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever heard.’ I never actually found out what track it was that The Who had made, but that got me going; just hearing him talk about it,” McCartney described of his reactionary impulse to create the track. “So I said to the guys, ‘I think we should do a song like that; something really wild.’ And I wrote Helter Skelter. You can hear the voices cracking, and we played it so long and so often that by the end of it you can hear Ringo saying, ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers’. We just tried to get it louder: ‘Can’t we make the drums sound louder?’ That was really all I wanted to do—to make a very loud, raunchy rock ‘n’ roll record with The Beatles. And I think it’s a pretty good one” (P. McCartney, quoted in The Beatles: Anthology, 1995).
Similar to Wool’s own cultural appropriations, the song Helter Skelter draws its title from a spiraling fairground ride, in which revelers would climb up inside a high tower and slide down the outside on a mat or hessian sack. Working as its own metaphor, McCartney explained that he “was using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom—the rise and fall of the Roman Empir—and this was the fall, the demise, the going down.” Continuing his statement, McCartney notes the rather sinister meaning assigned to Helter Skelter after being adopted as the anthem of the murderous cult leader, Charles Manson. “You could have thought of it as a rather cute title but it’s since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem, and since then quite a few punk bands have done it because it is a raunchy rocker” (P. McCartney, quoted in B. Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, New York, 1998). Indeed, it is this alteration of the term “helter skelter” that almost assuredly attracted Wool to the phrase. Flipping the frivolity of Helter Skelter on its head, Manson imbued the song with his own radical ideas about revolution and apocalypse that would—several decades later—fall into Wool’s own textual explorations found in such similar works as Apocolypse Now and The Show is Over. “Charles Manson interpreted that Helter Skelter was something to do with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse” explained McCartney. I still don’t know what that stuff is; it’s from the Bible, Revelation—I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know. But he interpreted the whole thing—that we were the four horsemen, Helter Skelter was the song—and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone” (P. McCartney, quoted in The Beatles: Anthology, op. cit.).
In the late 1960s, Manson preached that the black man would rise up against oppression and enact a wave of killings and riots against white people that would, in 1969 lead to an eventual overthrow of all Caucasians. Manson had maintained that during these apocalyptic years, he and his followers would seek shelter underneath Death Valley. When the fighting was over they would eventually emerge from their desert to regain control of the cities, overtaking the black population in return. When The Beatles released their White Album in 1968, Manson felt the lyrics and title were indicative of his forecasted riot and revolution, and he adopted the term. When the promised revolution and social unrest did not materialize as Manson had predicted, he felt he must show the blacks how they should proceed, thereby committing the horrific and grisly murders at the LaBianca and Tate homes in the canyons of Beverly Hills. The killers left scrawled messages in their victims’ blood, including the phrases “Death to Pigs” and even “Healter Skelter [sic]” on the refrigerator door of the LaBianca home.
Untitled is laced with intrinsic paradox. While the “subject” of the painting alludes to a certain state of doomed chaos, the execution of the work seems to be a carefully choreographed and minimalist composition. Prince aligned each E down the center, and the left and right columns are flanked with a patterning array of lines that spell out “HTHT” and “LRLR” respectively down the sides. There is a post-Pop intensity to the stenciled letters in Wool’s word paintings. With the same renegade authority as the graffiti message that originally inspired them—the words “SEX LUV” painted on the side of a white truck—the compulsion felt by the viewer to read the words and then flee gives this text a sense of “street power.” Wool’s art is not the descendent of advertising that Pop was, rather it is the product of the disjointed writings of the urban landscape; the warnings, boasts, insults and territorial markers represented in the scrawled markings of graffiti. At the same time, the “no-frills” stenciling of the letters recalls Minimalism, especially the word works of Joseph Kosuth (for example: Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word ‘Definition’, 1966-1968). However, where Kosuth’s works were deliberately self-contained and hermetically sealed by the words that they formed, Wool’s work is rogue: it is a disjointed phrase that points to the ambiguity of language and syntax. On the one hand, this allows Wool to question the content of paintings, the narrative elements of art. Yet, on the other hand, stripped of any context, the lament shouted from within Wool’s diatribes becomes surreal and unsettling, a sinister echo rendered incarnate in its functional yet brutal stenciled letters.
With their utilitarian type-face and rigidly stacked lines of text, Wool’s word paintings resemble packing crates or stamped airmail—an industrial effect that is heightened in the present example by the artist’s use of alkyd. These works are undoubtedly rooted in the aesthetic of factory-style reproduction espoused by Pop Art, in which uniformity became a means of expression in its own right, and minimal presentation worked in tandem with slogans lifted from everyday life. Indeed, as Madeleine Grynsztejn has written, “Wool’s work shares Pop Art’s affection for the vulgar and the vernacular, and in form it recalls Pop’s graphic economy of means, iconic images and depersonalized mechanical registration” (M. Grynsztejn, “Unfinished Business,” in A. Goldstein, Christopher Wool, Los Angeles 1999, p. 266). Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana are certainly to be counted amongst Wool’s forbears. Yet, in contrast to the clean-cut aesthetic of commercial advertising that had originally driven the development of Pop Art, Wool’s works were simultaneously grounded in the urban environment of post-Punk New York. Like his contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool’s artistic outlook was nourished by the street art ineffably scrawled around the city, punctuated by the cacophony of peeling posters and flyers that adorned abandoned walls and billboards. This raw vibrancy is captured in the word paintings: executed with searing vitality, the block-like capital letters appear to shout at the viewer from the page, their disjointed messages steeped in the coded poeticism of graffiti.
The word paintings demonstrate Wool’s ability to breathe new life into established modes of expression. Unlike many of their artistic precedents, these works do not function as celebrations of linguistic power nor indeed as commentary on contemporary culture. Rather, as demonstrated in Helter Helter, the word paintings undermine the communicative ability of language by collapsing it in on itself, displacing syntax and challenging legibility. Like telegrams gone awry with typographical malfunction, language implodes upon the page, forced to the very edges of the paper through Wool’s mutilating amputations. There is a sense in which Wool’s petition to reinstate painting comes at the cost of a brutal attack on literacy: if painting must go, the work seems to say, then it will not be before language. Wool’s work may therefore be understood as an act of defiance: in each instance, painting becomes the means of textual disfigurement. The deformation is complete, the damage is done.