The terse, black-and-white text of Christopher Wool’s And If You accosts the viewer with menacing authority, its brutal message rendered in stark capital letters: “AND IF YOU CAN’T TAKE A JOKE YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE.” Painted in 1992, And If You belongs to a series of text-based paintings which have become the most iconic of the artist’s oeuvre. The tough-talking jargon of these paintings recalls the brutal one-liners of film noir that goad the viewer with their rough, confrontational style. There is a self-deprecating humor associated with the phrases the artist selected—If You Can’t Take a Joke, Hole in Your Head, Fuck Em If They Can’t Take a Joke—that are obsessively repeated. Taken together, they create an echo chamber in the viewer’s mind not unlike the riotous refrain of a punk anthem. Indeed, And If You depicts a significant phrase that’s repeatedly altered and modified by the artist—like a personal mantra.
And If You is the antidote to the end of painting, the kind of anti-painting that made critics stand up and take notice when the series was exhibited at Luhring Augustine gallery in 1992. One critic commented: “Christopher Wool’s painting is synonymous with major attitude. …While the rancorous flippancy remains darkly adversarial, and the bent of the black-and-white-lettered text is still provocatively industrial and illiterate, the voice has gotten a lot louder and much more combative. …What was once internalized and passively discursive is now an actively abusive and goading address to the viewer: “IF YOU CAN’T TAKE A JOKE, YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE” …are phrases obsessively repeated…” (J. Avgikos, “Reviews: Christopher Wool, Luhring Augustine” Artforum, vol. 31, no. 5, January 1993, p. 83) Indeed, the rough, jolting effect of Wool’s text-based paintings accost the viewer with their brash, menacing tone. From the time of their first exhibition in 1988 at the 303 Gallery in New York with Robert Gober, their mark on the art world has now become legendary. The curator Richard Flood recalls: “It offered such a simple, reductive solution for moving on that it became a kind of late-eighties mantra.” He goes on: “Wool has kept that edge over the years, slamming down the insults (“IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE”)” (R. Flood, “Wool Gathering,” Parkett, vol. 83, September 2008, p. 142).
And If You hounds the viewer with its stark depiction, its legibility creating a kind of “gotcha” moment that results from the terse effectiveness of Wool’s phrase and the stark, graphic quality of its rendering. One critic described: “Orphaned from its brood, a single Wool canvas can elicit a “got it” moment... It is this legibility that lent Wool’s eighties output a kind of immediately iconic, sought after status that has only increased over the years” (F. Meade, “Syntax for Minor Mishaps,” Parkett, vol. 83, September 2008, p. 126) Indeed, this effect is heightened by the materials Wool used for the series, from the terse, no-frills look of the military-issue script to the weighty supremacy of its aluminum support. The painting issues an ultimatum: the “fuck you” of its message is the ultimate statement of rebuke, and the sort of hissed, menacing quality of its message is heightened by the artist’s typeface—a font similar to the one used by the U.S. military after World War II. Wool’s use of such no-frills, utilitarian script lends an aura of “big brother” style authoritarianism, a “do this or else” quality that pervades such signage on the streets of New York like “KEEP OUT” and “POST NO BILLS.” The aluminum panel that Wool uses as his support lends the work an inexorable sense of power and permanence by its weighty, solid and uniform surface. Indeed, aluminum is the stuff of stop signs and highway markers and its indestructible nature retains a sense of government-sponsored regulation and lawfulness. And If You displays a stark sense of authority that issues from these utilitarian materials.
And If You assaults the viewer with the graphic power of its message, yet it also elicits a kind of formal elegance that runs counter to the jarring quality of its text. In rendering the phrase, Wool arranges the letters within a pictorial grid and ignores the conventions of syntax and grammar, allowing the words to run together without regard for visual comprehension. As he described, “I started in the left hand corner and I went like you would with a typewriter” (C. Wool, quoted in “Conversation with Christopher Wool,” with Martin Prinzhorn, Museum in Progress, 1997, via http://www.mip.at/attachments/222 [accessed April 10, 2016]). Indeed, Wool forsakes the conventions of everyday language. When he reaches the end of one line, he simply allows the letters to drop down and continue onto the next regardless of whether the word itself is complete.
By removing grammatical features and eliminating the regular spaces between words, the letters themselves take on a purely abstract quality. The letters are transformed into cyphers, and a complicated back-and-forth between the legible and the illegible results. Condensed, compressed, compacted; Wool’s text is utterly nonsensical until its meaning snaps into place, a split-second effect that’s registered on a subliminal level. Jerry Saltz explained: “The words run together and appear to be some kind of bizarre gibberish...something you can hear but not quite make out. … Confusing at first, [words] suddenly fall into place before the viewer’s eyes. It is just when the viewer finds comfort in deciphering the code that the bottom falls out of the painting and a whole new field of meaning opens up below” (J. Saltz, quoted in “Notes on a Painting,” Arts Magazine, September 1988, p. 20).
What results in And If You is a kind of visual poetry, one that is born out of the particular environment in which it was created. Living and working in New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 1990s, the cacophonous riot of graffiti and the hard-edged nature of the city streets find their expression in this discordant painting. When viewed in a gallery or museum setting, Wool’s gritty, raw incantations are all the more stark and glaring; ripped from the visual fabric of a decaying city, they emanate with rough, brutal force. The critic Greil Marcus writes, “the voices have a quality that falls somewhere between the ranter screaming on the corner...and the person down the block handing out commercial flyers. ... they communicate not like facile appropriations of primitivist street discourse, but as a honed, perfectionist idea of that discourse, reduced to the irreducible and then starting up all over again. The overall impression is of a voice struggling against muteness...or against censorship...in any case against silence”
(G. Marcus, “Wool’s Word Paintings,” Parkett, no. 33, Fall 1992, p. 87).
And If You augurs from that apocryphal postmodern era in which Douglas Crimp’s infamous missive “The End of Painting” declared painting dead, and Wool’s radical canvases validated the genre with a sort of “endgame” visual rhetoric. They issue forth with combative determination and a forceful, belligerent energy that necessitated their survival, and indeed the survival of the entire genre itself. Wool resuscitated painting by suffusing it with the terms of its own survival. His text-based paintings are nihilistic and bombastic, with a bellicose confidence that is gritty and loud. Yet they possess an aura that verges on the sublime, as if they knowingly take up the gauntlet that has been passed to them. “The canonical position that Wool holds in the recent history of art has emerged in light of the renewed interest in the medium of painting. It is not based on his contribution to painting’s ‘endgame’ but rather on his ability to delineate the sites of contestation that keep the discourse around painting open and painting itself alive” (A. Hochdorfer, “Christopher Wool: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum,” Artforum, March 2014, p. 281).
At the time Wool’s first text-based paintings emerged in 1987, he had already spent nearly a decade archiving certain words and phrases. After seeing the words “SEX” and “LUV” graffitied in black spray paint on a white truck, he began to stencil words directly onto canvas. These early works display an aggressive, claustrophobic urgency that relates to their origins in the streets of downtown New York. Their historical placement right smack at the beginning of a market meltdown and economic recession make them seem like foreboding harbingers of a brutal destiny. At the time Wool created And If You, he was living in a studio on East 9th Street in Lower Manhattan and was submerged in the grit and chaos of an endlessly transforming city, while on the opposite side of the nation, the city of Los Angeles was embroiled in the LA riots that responded to the police brutality of the Rodney King beating. Wool’s nihilistic approach to painting is inextricably linked to the circumstances of its creation, and its potent visual force remains as powerful today as when it was painted more than two decades ago.