The wanton excess of 1980s pop culture found its art world analogue in the bombastic aesthetic of neo-expressionism. The visual funk of Basquiat and Haring quickly seduced the market, where cash flowed free and fast, catapulting the young New York painters to the pinnacle of fame. Despite—or perhaps because of—the brimming enthusiasm of the collectors clamoring to acquire canvases from these artists, certain critics were quick to decry the prevailing practice of big, splashy painting in favor of the detached cool of postmodernism (as exemplified by the Pictures Generation). Critic Douglas Crimp put it bluntly in his hugely influential essay, “The End of Painting,” 1981. The title alone is sufficient to illustrate the creeping cynicism that pervaded certain corners of the art world over the course of the decade. This kind of hostility towards painting is treated with prosaic irony in Christopher Wool’s work at the end of the ‘80s, in which monochrome enamel motifs resembling decorative wallpaper are repeated ad nauseum over towering slabs of aluminum. In other early works, bold black stencil letters loom large in rows of three, evoking the language of war: extremist, adversary, terrorist. The mischievous spirit of these works quickly established the artist as the mordant provocateur of the New York scene.
Wool’s aesthetic is deeply indebted to that of the liberally vandalized downtown Manhattan landscape of the era. Fellow artist and friend, Joyce Pensato describes their shared experience of disillusionment at the New York Studio School in the 1970s as follows: “You were supposed to draw like Giacometti and paint like de Kooning, then break with it and do your own thing…Everyone was doing these moth-eaten still lifes, and Christopher and I had no connection to that, so we had to search for our own subjects, then and for the next forty years. And I think we both started with the street” (J. Pensato quoted in K. Brinson, “Trouble is my Business,” Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 36). During the years that led to his breakthrough deploying the written word as a kind of visual weapon, Wool compulsively collected turns of phrase that skewed towards the subversive or anarchic. It was the chance encounter with a certain impish scrawl that served as the artist’s crowning inspiration for his signature works: SEX LUV, emblazoned in shaky black spray paint across the fresh white exterior of a delivery truck. In 1987, Wool rendered these words in stencils, huddled in the upper right corner of paper painted white. In another work on paper created shortly after, he repeated the pairing against a faintly visible graphite grid that would herald the uniform compositions of the large-scale aluminum paintings to come.
In the 1990s, Wool implicitly set his sights upon the lingering influence of Pop by incorporating in his practice not only one of Warhol’s favorite motifs, the flower, but also his weapon of choice, the silkscreen. Whereas Warhol favored the tool for the ease with which it allowed him to repeat nearly identical compositions across any number of canvases, Wool chose to deliberately abuse the silkscreen’s capacity for imprecision by allowing ink and enamel to pool and drip with abandon, undermining both the rational cohesion of the pictorial space and the fundamentally peaceful nature of the flower. The rigid repetition of rolled-on patterns that defined Wool’s abstract paintings of the late 1980s is cast aside in favor of chaotic, sabotaged fields of melted petals and leaves. In certain works, these haphazard arrangements are effaced by furiously applied coats of intense color; for example, I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me, 1994. In these paintings, the obscuring layer of acidic pink or highlighter yellow exudes the irked haste with which graffiti is “removed” from the urban environment. In the purely abstract works of the ‘90s, this turbulent sense of painting-as-clash is further accentuated by Wool’s rambling coils of sprayed lines, his increasingly flippant exploitation of the silkscreen and the fleet scrubbing away of portions of the pictures’ architecture.
In deceptive contrast, the flowing loops and frenzied erasure of Wool’s Untitled, 1998, belie a reckless spontaneity that is in fact the result of a detached and reductive process. Approaching the end of the decade, Wool began to appropriate images of his own paintings as the basis for new works. Rather than simply transfer the image wholesale onto the new canvas, Wool divides the original composition across four separate screens. The edges of these screens are never perfectly aligned so that the picture plane appears superimposed with ghostly crosshairs. The emerging central vanishing point becomes at once stabilizing anchor and destabilizing void, imbuing the reincarnated image with a complicated unity. Rendered in vibrant, hazy pink, Untitled performs an intricate dance on the border between original and copy, calling into question the presumed value of novelty and the depleted vitality of redundancy. In the same sense, Untitled interrogates the nature of abstraction itself: since it is essentially a replica of an object—albeit an abstract one—that exists in the world, it can be considered a fundamentally representational painting. Katherine Brinson defines the dreamlike experience of contemplating these chimeric works by means of a disquieting metaphor: “[it is] at once familiar and alien, as if something experienced in daylight is being recalled in an altered and irrationally disturbing form” (ibid., p. 47).