"One could superficially interpret Wool's paintings as parodies of Pollock's seriousness, as a cynical re-enactment of action painting utilizing an impoverished bag of tricks hijacked from vandalism. But then one would be missing the point. No, Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and he then manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a Pop artist or Dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low. But despite the many apparent contradictions, the work is singular, strong, organic and as deep as it might appear shallow."
(G. O'Brien, "Apocalypse and Wallpaper," in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Christopher Wool, Kln, 2012, pg. 9)
Shattering the art world with its catastrophic incantation, Apocalypse Now made its debut in 1988 during a collaborative exhibition with Robert Gober at 303 Gallery under the humble title, A Project: Robert Gober and Christopher Wool. Hung directly across from Gober's Three Urinals of the same year, Apocalypse Now emerged as the decisive, commanding and seemingly unmatched tour de force of Wool's contemporary output. An image so indebted to its time--to the grittiness of the Lower East Side, the graffiti battered walls, and the hard-edge punk scene--Apocalypse Now is no less powerful today than it was during its creation. Timeless and affecting, imposing and arresting, Apocalypse Now imprinted such a resounding impression that the Chief Curator of New York's New Museum, Richard Flood, still recalled a decade after its debut, "The first time I was really aware of work by Chris Wool was in a now legendary exhibition at 303 Gallery in 1988. It was a collaboration with Robert Gober and included Apocalypse Now, arguably one of Wool's most important paintings. It was probably the painting of the year, and one of the most emblematic pictures in the recession to come that would humble the art world the following year. It offered such a simple, reductive solution for moving on that it became a kind of late-eighties mantra" (R. Flood, "Wool Gathering," in Parkett, no. 83, 2008, p. 142).
Constructing his imposing images out of language, Wool, who draws from a myriad of sources, turns to Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the epic Vietnam War film from which Wool draws his title--Apocalypse Now. Wool's chosen words, which announce a fear of imminent chaos and heartbreak are those of Richard Colby--a special services captain on a mission to assassinate the film's most notorious character, Captain Kurtz. Played by Marlon Brando, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces veteran, widely believed to be insane, has gone rogue--running his own operations out of Cambodia, he is feared by the U.S. military as much as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Yet, in Colby's own dramatic turn of events, he becomes one of Kurtz's zoned-out zombie followers. Having "crossed the line," he communicates his radical decision in an angry and hopeless letter home, hastily penciled across a scrap of paper, which simply--yet no less despairingly--reads:
SELL The HOUSE
SELL The CAR
SELL The KIDS
FIND SOMEONE ELSE
I'M NEVER COMING BACK
FORGET IT ! ! !
Judiciously and carefully edited, Wool loops around the first three lines of Colby's letter, creating a desperately bold and resounding statement. Severed from the final four lines of text, Wool's painting becomes a real statement of urgency. SELL THE HOUSE, SELL THE CAR, SELL THE KIDS is as emotionally wrought today as it was during the paintings conception, the movie's 1979 release, and the Vietnam War--and will be for as long as mankind holds value in property and family.
"The words Wool has painted come from the most intimate sort of communication: that of a husband to his wife," Jerry Saltz wrote upon seeing the painting in 1988. "Yet, the words transmit a sense of dread and despair, hysteria and catharsis. Wool has chosen words that are directive, peremptory, somewhat accusatory. They express terror succinctly and bluntly. We are instantly put in touch with an unraveling mind in an unraveling time. The quote is like some joke gone monstrously bad. This is a last communion from a soul whose world has been turned inside out, a message to the living from the dead. It is a message in a bottle from someplace gone wrong, imparting a sense of Dickensian catastrophe (like losing the farm), on a global scale. Desperate and hopeless, forlorn and heartsick, this is the mantra of the lost: a lamentation of the irretrievable. All those things held dear by the world are renounced and relinquished. Family, possessions, home and love are all worthless now. Order is replaced by total social breakdown and social chaos. Wool has applied the letters with a graffiti-like touch, thereby echoing in the painting, the scratched quality of the letter. Apocalypse Now is like an evil crossword puzzle filled in by the damned, the words breaking down with indeterminate angularity into chaos and confusion. The painting becomes a chant, a rant, a slogan, and a scream" (J. Saltz, "This is the End: Christopher Wool's Apocalypse Now" in Arts Magazine, vol. 63, no. 1, Sept.1988, p. 20).
Composed of large black letters, each word is staggered out across the expanse of the aluminum, and yet the message is tightly constrained within the edges of a sizable support. Wool confines Colby's words into a strict grid--five rows across, and seven columns down. It is through this breakdown of pictorial order that visual chaos ensues. Initially unable to digest the words, the viewer--seeing only letters--must methodically read through the painting in several streams of consciousness as the starts and stops of each word begin to materialize. It is here, when the viewer finds security in deciphering Wool's code, that the initial meaning is lost within the painting and a whole new field of significance emerges. In the act of decoding his painting, the letters gain meaning as we recite the statement, digest it, and, in so doing, become part of the artistic process. As the words in turn are directed at us, we understand the underlying intent present in the phrase, which retains an elusive air, refusing to be easily deciphered and thus remaining all the more ominous.
Wool's use of gargantuan lettering creates an intimidating atmosphere, and the claustrophobic nature of the composition, combined with his extensive use of under-painting, pushes the words out towards the viewer with a distinct sense of energy and force. The foreboding feeling derived from its content is heightened by the artist's carefully chosen typeface, selecting a font similar to the one adopted by the U.S. military after the Second World War, and subsequently used across the globe for its immediate legibility. Wool matches the utilitarian nature of the design with the functional nature of its execution, which when combined with its physical size, creates a work that possesses a stark sense of authority. This tension between the physical properties of the work and its psychological effect lies at the heart of Wool's artistic practice as he subverts the conventions of language to render his painting with a surreal sense of simplicity that belies its inward complexity.
The multidimensional nature of Apocalypse Now can be seen in the complex integration of technique and form that permeates the different layers of this work. The aluminum that 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.
It is in this sense that Apocalypse Now is more than just a title. As Glenn O'Brien has noted, "The original meaning of apocalypse has nothing to do with nukes or extinctions. It is simply revelation. Lifting the veil. Apocalypse is revealing to the many what was only known by few. Something is always being revealed, something is always ending and something is always beginning" (G. O'Brien, "Apocalypse and Wallpaper," in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Christopher Wool, Köln, 2012, p. 9). Undeniably, Wool's emergence as a painter in the early 1980s coincided with a period of doubt within the art world about the status of painting. In his seminal 1981 essay, "The End of Painting," the influential curator and art historian Douglas Crimp condemned the acceptance of painting, as well as the artist's investment in the human touch that was perceived to be crucial in maintaining a work's unique aura (D. Crimp, "The End of Painting," October, Vol. 16, Spring 1981, pp. 69-86). It was into this environment that Wool began his exploration of the painterly process and the various techniques that could be used to expand its properties.
As with his contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool's word paintings took their inspiration from the graffiti-covered streets of New York. "Jean-Michel Basquiat loved the 'do-it-yourself' bilingual bricolage esthetic of Alphabet City, the district of improvisational bootstrap enterprise," cited O'Brien, writer and producer of Basquiat's Downtown 81. "Wool, another far-Eastsider, has a similar romance with the fringe New York, the no man's land, the interzone, the DMZ, and the ruins of concrete jungle. Where Basquiat gleaned pop cues from that world, Wool finds an alphabet of symbolic abstractions. Here is the action paining of the unconscious--accidental splashes and streaks that mark fields of blighted architecture. The over-painting of his large canvases resembles nothing more than the amateur abstract paintings that are the whitewashed windows of empty store fronts" (G. O'Brien, ibid., 10-11).
There is a post-Pop intensity to the stenciled letters in Wool's word paintings. With the same renegade authority as the graffiti message that originally inspired them--the words "SEX LUV" painted on the side of a white truck--the compulsion felt by the viewer to read the words and then flee, gives this text a sense of "street power." Wool's art is not the descendent of advertising that Pop was, but rather it is the product of the disjointed writings of the urban landscape, the warnings, boasts, insults and territorial markers represented in the scrawled markings of graffiti. At the same time, the "no-frills" stenciling of the letters recalls Minimalism, especially the word works of Joseph Kosuth (for example, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word "Definition," 1966-1968). However, where Kosuth's works were deliberately self-contained and hermetically sealed by the words that they formed, Wool's work is rogue: it is a disjointed phrase that points to the ambiguity of language and syntax. On the one hand, this allows Wool to question the content of paintings, the narrative elements of art. Yet, on the other hand, stripped of any context, the lament shouted from within Apocalypse Now becomes surreal and unsettling, a sinister echo rendered incarnate in its functional yet brutal stenciled letters.
After spending a period of time working with Richard Poussette-Dart, Wool began making all-over abstractions of accumulated mark-making. Of particular importance to him was also the process-based art of Richard Serra, particularly Serra's "splash pieces," such as Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift. These sculptures became central to Wool's ideas about process, the importance of layering in relation to painting, and specifically to picture-making. In fact, there is a strong connection between Wool and Pollock, aside from the prevalence of painterly drips found in their works, Wool, too, is--in contemporary terms--a sort of action painter. As O'Brien explained, "One of the subtitles in Harold Rosenberg's essay 'The American Action Painters' from 1959 is 'Apocalypse and Wallpaper.' That makes a nice tag for what Wool is up to. There is a painting named Apocalypse Now--SELL THE HOUSE, SELL THE CAR, SELL THE KIDS--and a series of paintings made with rubber rollers to mimic wallpaper. That title sums up the way in which Wool is a perfect bridge between the action painters championed by Rosenberg and the generations that followed and sometimes opposed them. He is the pop/action painter, an action/reaction painteralmost a true fusion of abstract expressionism and pop--a noble bastard if ever there was one. The word paintings are hard edge on the edge. It's not reduction ad absurdum or a send-up. It's painting with attitude. It's not exactly Robert Ryman with lyrics, or Ad Reinhardt meets concrete poetry, but it's up that alley. It's about the aura of the stencil, about energy radiating and splashing from the confines of the character. It's sign painting with feedback" (G. O'Brien, ibid., p. 8-10).
Apocalypse Now is a powerful example not only of the art of its time but also continues to be of robust relevance today. Showcasing the ongoing debates that raged about the significance of painting, they also reflect the life experiences of a new generation of artists growing up in the tough urban environment of the early 1990s. Apocalypse Now's directness, both aesthetically and conceptually, stands as an exceptional example of Wool's work from this important period. The ambiguity of the syntax is as uncanny as it is menacing, and allows Wool to fundamentally question the content of paintings and re-interpret the narrative elements of art in a thoroughly modern context.
"The painting turns words into image and image into memory, memory into nightmare and nightmare into moral. 'Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids' is a foreboding harbinger, an ominous warning for all those who entertain the idea of 'going over to the other side,' 'partaking in the forbidden fruit.' The advice given is (in the words of the terrified soldier in the film, who gets off the boat in order to go into the jungle to look for mangoes, is nearly attacked by a tiger, and runs away screaming), 'Never get off the boat! I gotta remember, never get off the fuckin' boat!'" (J. Saltz, op. cit., p. 20).