Held in the same private collection for almost three decades, Untitled is a punchy example of Christopher Wool’s iconic “word paintings”. “HOLE IN YOUR HEAD”, stenciled in inky blue block-capitals, blares down a meter of pristine white. The words are startling in their violence, and in their direct address to the viewer. While Wool’s bold, confrontational text works were first sparked by the street graffiti of ’80s New York, they also reference half a century of artistic endeavor, encompassing the coolness of Minimalism, the intellectual rigor of Conceptual art, and the bravado of Abstract Expressionism. The crisp seriality of the present work’s sans-serif letters is disrupted by gently bleeding edges of pigment, reminding us of the artist’s hand; the aggressive phrase takes on an unnerving formal beauty, and language begins to fall apart, the boundaries between speech, painting and printed word becoming dizzyingly blurred.
According to a now-legendary story, the impetus for Wool’s “word paintings” came in 1987, when he glimpsed the couplet “SEX” and “LUV” spray-painted across the side of an unmarked white van. The words’ simple visual jolt seized the artist, and he immediately began incorporating them into paintings, adopting a no-frills font rendered in stark black over an empty white background. He went on to appropriate similarly potent phrases from a variety of sources, sampling dialogue from film-noir movies and lyrics from the punk and hip-hop tracks that ricocheted through the gritty, hard-edged Lower East Side environs where he lived and worked. “HOLE IN YOUR HEAD”— some related works read “HOLE IN HEAD” or “HOLE IN YOUR FUCKIN HEAD”—echoes the chorus from “Hole in the Head”, a song on Cypress Hill’s 1991 debut album. Much of the words’ impact lies in the surprise of their context: presented by Wool as paintings, phrases that would not seem out of place shouted from underground radio or sprayed across a subway car now sit freshly and uneasily in the mind of the viewer.
“Word painting has a history,” observes Peter Schjeldahl, “from the snatches of newspaper text favored by the Cubists to Ed Ruscha’s portraits of words that pique the mind’s incapacity to look and read in the same instant. Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer have worked primarily with language; Lawrence Weiner does so exclusively. But Wool made it new. He merged the anonymous aggression of graffiti with the stateliness of formal abstract painting. Selecting words and phrases that appealed to him, he leached them of personality, by using stencils, and of quick readability … Once read, the words don’t stay read. When you leave off making sense of three stacked blocks, ‘HYP/OCR/ITE’ or ‘ANA/RCH/IST,’ they snap back into being nonsensical graphic design. We’re not talking about a major difficulty here, but just enough to induce a hiccup in comprehension, letting the physical facts of the painting preside. The effect calls to mind Jasper Johns’s early Flag paintings, with their double-bind readings of paint-as-image (it’s a flag) and image-as-paint (it’s a red-white-and-blue painting)” (P. Schjeldahl, “Writing on the Wall”, New Yorker, October 28, 2013). Like Johns, Wool delights in semiotic to-and-fro. His text paintings unfurl language as a complex, uncertain and many-layered thing, creating, in their brazenly two-dimensional surfaces, a profound sense of vertigo.
Terse and emphatic on first glance, with extended viewing Untitled reveals just the “stateliness” Schjeldahl describes. Read as a statement of intent, it feels threatening: viewed as an arrangement of shapes, its hostility dissipates. As we waver between the letters’ linguistic sense and graphic form, the “O” of “HOLE” starts to look like more of a hole itself. The parallel lines of “HOLE” and “HEAD” alliterate aurally when read aloud. The ominous phrase begins to sound like poetry or mantra. Finally, of course, it sticks—its four-letter words irrevocably and delicately altered—in your head. With disarming subtlety, Wool finds new plastic and lyrical potential in collapsing both words and paintings as unfixed, arbitrary structures of communication. As curator Madeleine Grynsztejn writes, “Wool deliberately choreographs a collision between different components of language—grammatical, semantic, visual, imaginary and spoken—that conveys an emotional magnitude beyond the range of everyday speech and closer in spirit to the true proportions of Wool’s subject: the inherent inefficacy and near-constant failure of language” (M. Grynsztejn, “Unfinished Business”, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 267).