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Painted in 1990, Untitled is an iconic example of Wool’s most important series of word paintings—that coveted body of work that Wool created between 1987 and 1992 while living in NYC’s gritty Lower East Side. At once refined and elegant in its Minimalist simplicity, the painting is quiet yet shouts by use of the large-scale black lettering that extends to the uttermost limits of the canvas edge. Towering over the viewer in an aggressively authoritarian manner by nature of its stark typeface, the painting depicts two of Wool’s most important slogans—“FOOL” and “RIOT”—in his trademark stenciled-letter style. The word “FOOL” is writ large, each letter of the word segmented into a four-part grid that confounds the mind’s ability to both read and look at the same time. Upon further inspection, another iconic slogan of Wool’s emerges as a ghostly phantom from the depths of the painting’s delicate white background—“RIOT”—just barely visible beneath the more obvious “FOOL.” Both words are particularly significant for the artist: “RIOT” recurs repeatedly and captures the subversive nature of Wool’s art as it was formed in a hotbed of social dissent in New York City of the ‘70s and ‘80s, while Wool acknowledges that “FOOL” can be understood as a self-portrait. By layering the two words within a single painting, Wool creates a complex narrative that subverts the traditional conventions of language to create a work of ever-expanding complexity of meaning.
Wool started painting in earnest in 1981, while living in a loft that had been converted from a homeless shelter in Chatham Square, near the lower reaches of the Bowery in New York’s Lower East Side. He kept a studio in the East Village and was immersed in the cultural hotbed of art and music that came to define New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Walking between his studio and his loft, the imagery that bombarded the artist would soon impact his work; in 1987 he made his earliest word paintings after seeing a white delivery truck with the words “SEX” and “LUV” scrawled across it. The words seemed to provide a powerful visual gestalt that gave impetus to Wool’s first experiments with language. By that time he had already spent nearly a decade cataloguing turns of phrase that grabbed his attention. The word paintings that developed during this intensely creative time period stemmed from this gritty urban environment and still retain the visual “shock” of that era.
Wool’s word paintings, especially Untitled, harken back to the spirit of bohemia, the creativity from chaos out of which they were created. The boldly executed utilitarian lettering recalls the stenciled signage posted around the city like “KEEP OUT” or “POST NO BILLS” that Wool would have seen while walking from his studio in the East Village to his loft in the Bowery. It is a no-nonsense, authoritarian script, similar to that chosen by the U.S. military after the Second World War. In Untitled, the letters “F-O-O-L” are enlarged to monumental scale, which heightens the letters’ stark sense of authority so much so that the painting seems to literally scream its message—“FOOL!” Yet the delicate white underpainting that forms the background of these works stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian nature of Wool’s lettering. In fact, Wool’s background is utterly painterly, and recalls the encaustic white-on-white paintings of Jasper Johns and even the delicate, painterly reductions of Robert Ryman. The bold black lettering of each word combined with this expressive and delicate white underpainting is what defines Wool’s signature style, in which he is able to unite “the anonymous aggression of graffiti with the stateliness of formal abstract painting” (P. Schjeldahl, “Writing on the Wall,” New Yorker, November 4, 2013). Rather than depict perfectly stenciled letters, Wool allows the enamel to seep beyond its stenciled boundary, letting the enamel drip and pool in places. In the present painting, the white drips of paint enliven the surface of the flat, black rendered letter, like blips in a computer screen or specs of dust on a grainy black and white film.
Wool’s paintings are especially revelatory given the art historical milieu in which they were created. When Wool began his word paintings, he was knowingly going against the prevailing artistic current. In 1981—the same year Wool first started painting—the influential art critic and historian Douglas Crimp published “The End of Painting,” his now-famous essay that declared the death of painting. For Crimp and a host of other postmodern theorists, the genre of painting had lost its potency. Having been so closely tied to the expressive gesture of the Abstract Expressionists and the pictorial purity of the Color Field painters, Crimp relegated painting to the fussy realm of decoration. Faced with this critical climate, Wool took on the impossible task of painting after it had been already declared dead. He had no other choice but to look elsewhere for inspiration, and he found it in the streets of New York.
As in the present work, Wool’s word paintings often appropriate words or phrases with multiple meanings, whose effect is often only discovered by their anti-literal placement within a pictorial grid. Rather than keep the letters within a given word together in one coherent line of text, Wool breaks up words into their component letters; the word “amok” becomes “am ok” for instance. By breaking the words into their constituent letters and separating them out within a pictorial grid, Wool destabilizes the coherence of each word, thereby hinting at the fallibility of language itself. In the present work, he separates “FOOL” into “FO” and “OL,” so that the letters are prohibited from their descriptive role in forming words, and are left to exist simply as formal elements within a white field. This technique is especially potent considering the letter-count of “FOOL:” it contains four letters that fit so perfectly within Wool’s four quadrants, not unlike Indiana’s LOVE or Warhol’s early photo-booth self-portraits. Even the letters themselves are fractured by virtue of their stenciled nature; small slits cut into the stencil to allow for easier dissemination so that the “O” in “FOOL” is not a perfect circle, but bifurcated down the middle into two separate halves.
Wool’s use of the word “FOOL” is especially pertinent considering the meaning of the phrase trompe l’oeil, which literally means to “deceive, or ‘fool’ the eye.” In this respect, Wool’s painting might be a sophisticated take on the nature of painting itself, which throughout history has long sought to recreate the natural world by means of a two-dimensional canvas, to fool the viewer by its resemblance to the things it depicts. The word also rhymes with “WOOL,” the artist’s own name, and recalls the colloquial saying “to pull the wool over your eyes,” which also means to deceive by means of trickery. “FOOL,” though, has a dual function as both a noun and a verb, so while the painting might suggest the illusionary tricks of representational painting intended to “fool” the viewer, it might also be used to describe a person, a fool, as in Picasso’s evocative Rose Period paintings of harlequins, which are said to be autobiographical. If Wool intends “FOOL” as a self-portrait, does this mean the artist is a fool for continuing to paint after the end of painting? The era of postmodern painting certainly raises more questions than it does answers. Luckily, Wool is a painter skilled enough to take on the foolhardy task of painting long after it was pronounced dead.