Powerfully assertive and boldly declaratory, Untitled is one of Christopher Wool’s highly renowned word paintings, a body of works which the artist began in 1987 that marked the major breakthrough of the artist’s mature career. Against bright white paper, the bluntly imperative yet playfully rhythmic, almost cadenced phrase, RUN DOG EAT DOG RUN” is emblazoned in black-stencilled lettering. Combining the austere, utilitarianism of Minimalism, with the all-over compositions of the Abstract Expressionists, and the bold, mechanical directness of Pop Art, Wool’s word paintings appear as a synthesis of the varied strands of postwar American art, yet are heavily steeped in the contemporary urbanity of the gritty metropolis that was New York in the late 1980s and early 90s; historically reflexive yet the embodiment of Wool’s own time. Executed in 1990, Untitled is situated between two major solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, a period during which the artist reached international acclaim. Dating from the beginning of Wool’s iconic text-based series, Untitled exemplifies the rawness of expression and powerful immediacy that Wool’s word paintings embodied.
Untitled presents a barrage of short commands, which are combined into a simplistic phrase that is rendered enigmatic through the visual presentation of the letters. The arresting, industrial-type letters are tightly structured across the composition, arranged over four lines. Forced into an intense confrontation and consequently, a unique collaboration with the work, the viewer has to decipher the phrase, unable to immediately garner the meaning due to the truncation of the words, and the absence of syntax and grammatical points. The letters gain meaning as the viewer recites and gradually decodes the statement, and in doing so, becomes part of the artistic process. In subverting the visual conventions of language, Wool creates a tension between legibility and illegibility: the large, and seemingly readily comprehensible typeface belies the complexity of the psychological effect of interpreting the text on the viewer.
Untitled is one of several works from the late 80s and early 90s, which displayed a number of renditions and variations of the RUN DOG EAT DOG RUN phrase. For Wool, the phrases, words and expressions that he used in his paintings referred to contemporary culture, yet often had a personal resonance for the artist, sticking in his consciousness and then appearing, in modified states and with double meanings, in his word paintings. In the present work, the statement immediately evokes the phrase ‘a dog-eat-dog world’, a term that signifies the constant and aggressive competition within society between individuals hungry for success. In contrast to the violent undertones of this saying, it has also been suggested that the variations of the ‘run dog’ phrase were derived from Wool’s early encounter with the children’s book, Fun with Dick and Jane which contained the line, “See Spot run. Run dog run” (K. Brinson, “Trouble is my Business,” in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., New York, 2013-14, p. 40). Evoking both a childhood memory as well as referring to a phrase evoking the gritty realities of life, Untitled demonstrates the numerous and often paradoxical layers of meaning that characterise Wool’s word paintings. Constantly evading a definitive interpretation, the meaning of the phrase remains indecipherable, its authoritative command both accusatory and instructive, invoking a sense of approaching danger or an impending threat.
Rigidly stacked on top of each other across the expanse of the paper, in Untitled, the mechanical and industrial black typeface is sprayed onto the paper using stencils, with alkyd, a very durable oil-based paint. The mechanical appearance of the letters, reminiscent of the factory-printed text used for packaging or advertisements, is offset by the irregular spots, gestural smears, and splatters and drips of pigment that surround the letters, pervasive evidence of the presence human hand in the creation of the work, and an insistent reminder that Untitled is a painting rather than a mechanically printed poster. Letters become abstract symbols in a dramatic all-over composition that, along with the spontaneous and unplanned bleeding of the stencilled letters, evokes the techniques of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, Wool’s word paintings came at a time when the medium of painting was the subject of an intense theoretical discourse, led by Douglas Crimp’s infamous essay from 1981, The End of Painting, which questioned the viability of painting in a post-modern, conceptual age, proclaiming its demise and subsequent extinction. The same year as Crimp’s essay was published, Wool, having experimented with film and photography, returned once again to painting, focusing primarily on techniques rather than specific subject matter: Wool recalled, “I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint’ (C. Wool, quoted in S. Hudson, “Fuck ‘Em if they Can’t Take a Joke,” in Christopher Wool, exh. cat. New York, 2013-14, p. 54).
In seeking new possibilities for the medium of painting, Wool, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned to the city, drawing inspiration from the grimy, graffiti-covered streets of post-punk New York. The often-documented moment of inspiration for Wool’s word paintings first came in 1987. Living and working in downtown Manhattan, Wool saw a white van with the words SEX LUV crudely branded in spray paint on the side. Taken by the immense simplicity and graphic power of the black letters against the white surface, Wool made his own version of the image, and subsequently began to create his word paintings. Wool reinvented the possibilities of abstract painting with his unique adaptation of the industrial materials of urban culture, absorbing himself in the processes and the very act of painting. Untitled is a work deeply entrenched in its own time: in the chaotic, abrasive, gritty urbanity of downtown New York, a city in which graffiti was scrawled across abandoned buildings, peeling posters and flyers were pasted in collage-like layers, and bold advertisements were displayed in a gargantuan scale on billboards. In contrast to the clean-cut, commercial lettering of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, or the slick, gleaming text of Ed Ruscha or Robert Indiana, Wool’s text-based paintings were born from the urban fabric of the metropolis, conveying the same overwhelming vitality and harshness that is unique to New York. In art critic, Jerry Saltz’s words “Wool captures the ways New York looks, sounds, and smells in our time, much as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings embody the city’s texture in the fifties. I see Wool creating new order out of all this chaos. I see little epiphanies and glean the same clashing, gritty, seemingly haphazard, abrasive, bludgeoning beauty [of] New York” (J. Saltz, “Christopher Wool’s Stenciled Words Speak Loudly…,”New York Magazine, November 11, 2013).
In his elevation of grit from the underbelly of the industrial urban environment into the expansive tradition of painting, Wool’s visual statements generated new possibilities for painting in the post-modern era. Exploring the fertile relationship between text and image, Untitled demonstrates Wool’s novel and wholly contemporary means of pictorial expression; it is a powerful image that is simultaneously legible and perplexing, self-reflexive and externally referential, an imperative yet disjointed message conveyed with the brazen, urban poeticism of graffiti.