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And If, Christopher Wool’s bold and brazen evocation of 1980s New York, belongs to one of the most celebrated series of works produced during the postwar period. Coming as it did after several decades when painting was on the verge of being relegated to the sidelines in favor of the celebratory nature of Pop Art and the conceptual rigor of Minimalism, Wool sought to refocus attention on the continued relevance of painting in contemporary art and ensure not only its revival, but also its survival.
Corralled tightly into the confines of its aluminum support, Wool lays out a series of letters that read like the culmination of an aggressive argument, “AND IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE.” Arranging the letters in a grid format, Wool neatly stacks them one on top of the other, each jostling with its neighbor for supremacy. But this strict arrangement also allows him to abandon the conventions of syntax. When he reaches the end of the line, he simply allows the letters to drop down and continue on the subsequent line regardless of whether the word itself is complete. In forsaking the conventions of everyday language—removing grammatical features, eliminating the regular spaces between words and vacating the conventional arrangements of letters that make up those words—the sentence becomes almost abstract in its organization. The result is that the normally lyrical flow of letters and words becomes disrupted and disjointed, almost to the point of alienation.
Taking a utilitarian font as his starting point, Wool applies the letters to the surface by spray painting the letters through a stencil. Although strictly controlled by the artist, this technique allows for a small degree of chance to enter in the composition, as small, almost undetectable amounts of pigment fail to be contained by the hard-edged stencil and begin to encroach on the neighboring pristine white enameled surround. This, together with the bleeding of the stenciled letters that takes place as Wool removes the template from the surface of the painting, evokes the embracing of involuntary techniques by the likes of Jackson Pollock and other champions of the Abstract Expressionist movement, adding to the rich art historical context in which Wool’s work is set.
This dichotomy—mirroring the nature of utilitarianism while still retaining evidence of the artist’s hand—is a paradox that has been inherent in Wool’s work ever since his breakthrough exhibition at New York’s Cable Gallery in 1986. In the press release for that show, the gallery noted, “Wool’s work contains continual internal/external debate within itself. At one moment his work will display self-denial, at the next moment solipsism. Shifting psychological states, false fronts, shadows of themselves, justify their own existence…. Wool’s work locks itself in only to deftly escape through sleight of hand. The necessity to survive the moment at all costs, using its repertoire of false fronts and psychological stances is the work’s lifeblood” (Press release for Christopher Wool, Cable Street Gallery, Feb-Mar 1986, quoted by K. Brinson, “Trouble Is My Business,” Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, 2013, p. 35).
The impetus for Wool’s word paintings came in the early 1980s when he spotted a delivery truck with the words SEX LUV scrawled on the side in graffiti. Intrigued by the semiotic possibilities of language, Wool began to produce a series of text-based paintings that manipulated words and sentences by excluding vowels, grammatical tropes and other semantically important features. In doing so, he commands the viewer to fill in the gaps that he has created, involving his audience in the cognitive process by which his paintings can be understood. In this sense, he moves art on from the purely reactive—i.e., Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism—forcing it to become a thoroughly constructive process by which artist, art work and viewer all become a vital part of the artistic practice.
The multidimensional nature of And If can be seen in the complex integration of technique and form that permeates the different layers of this work. The aluminum Wool uses as his support gives the work an inexorable aura imbued with an incredible sense of power and permanence by its weighty, solid and uniform surface. On top of this, Wool lays down numerous layers of clean white paint and stenciled letters with an increasing sense of urgency as depicted by the drips and splashes of paint that invade his dramatic composition. This combination recalls the hurried work of the graffiti artists who tagged the skin of Wool’s native Chicago during the unhappy decades of the 1970s and 1980s, when widespread urban decay resulted in a lost generation of youth.
One of the most influential artists to emerge out of the 1980s New York art scene, Wool’s oeuvre encompasses many artistic traditions including Pop Art, Minimalism and even Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Like Andy Warhol, Wool committed to exploring what he saw around him. However instead of Pop’s celebration of American commercialism, Wool recorded the detritus of that period of prosperity, the remains of the two-decades-long party from which American was only just waking up with a fairly hefty hangover. As audacious and relevant today as it was when it was painted two decades ago, Christopher Wool’s And If stands as a testament to its time, but also an exciting predictor of the future.