"The word paintings are hard edge on the edge.. It's painting with attitude...It is minimal in its self-defined context, painted words stripped down to the bondo. It is abstraction of language itself, but it's also about the tension running along the thin line between mass production and the personal hand. It's about the aura of the stencil, about energy radiating and splashing from the confines of the character." - Glenn O'Brien
Bold and declamatory, Untitled is an arresting example of the renowned word paintings that represent a definitive early stage in Christopher Wool's groundbreaking practice. Within an oeuvre whose gritty urban aesthetic generated new possibilities for painting in the post-Pop era, Wool's stark truncation of the well-known phrase "the cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river" has become one of his most recognizable visual statements. Both nihilistic and celebratory in its tone, the present work on paper has a larger enamel and aluminum counterpart, held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. According to the museum, the work's cryptic expression appears in the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. "It is a bit of code uttered by one of the characters to indicate that a dirty job has been completed. Wool recalls being struck by the poetry of the phrase and its sinister terseness," (http://www.moma.org [accessed April 2, 2014]). Executed in 1990, the work is situated at a critical moment in Wool's career, bracketed by his first major solo museum exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, as well as prestigious accolades including a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome and his first invitation to Documenta, held in Kassel two years later. Through their startling iconicity, the word paintings played a pivotal role in this rise to international acclaim, and their distinctive articulatory power continues to represent one of the most compelling strands of Wool's output.
Within a practice that has since incorporated silkscreening, spray guns and digital manipulation into its arsenal of painterly tools, the stenciled letters of Wool's word paintings represent the raw impetus of his early attempts to establish new directions for the time-honored medium. Wool's emergence as an artist in the 1980s coincided with a widespread anxiety about the continued survival of painting, spearheaded by Douglas Crimp's 1981 essay "The Death of Painting." In exploring new possibilities for the medium, Wool was inspired by a chance sighting of a brand new white truck with the words "SEX LUV" hand-painted across its side. Employing words and phrases drawn from multiple sources as well as his own imagination, Wool developed a pictorial framework in which verbal expressions became recast as images in their own right. In the present work, Wool's fervent rejection of syntax and punctuation, combined with almost nonexistent margins at the edge of the paper, creates a kind of visual poetry in which the appearance of the text supersedes any sense of meaning. By zooming in on language in this way--paraphrasing, splicing, magnifying--Wool focuses our attention on the letters as a kind of allover pattern, an aesthetic he was already beginning to explore in his wallpaper-inspired prints. 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, the word paintings combine visual clarity with semantic deformation. This dialogue between word and image, in which alphabetic communication is translated into painterly abstraction, is heightened by the subtle glitches, bleeding and irregularities in the carefully-painted stencils. Wool thus allows the artist's hand--regarded as irrecoverable by many artists of his generation--to infiltrate his structural barrage of hard-edged word-play.
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 Untitled, 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. In Untitled, like a stifled punch line, Wool's letters may be understood as straining to express this very predicament-"CATS INBAG BAGS IN RIVER."