‘Sometimes, if you look at a word long enough, it’s stops making sense. And then you can start over again with it. We deconstruct the word and the letter and the phrase by contemplating it in skewed order, instinctively going for acrostic. Wool deconstructs words and decontextualizes phrases by stacking letters at faux random. The process generates calligraphic effects, acrostic reverb and a kind of Rubik’s cubism of meaning’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]).
‘His is a gangster aesthetic: grim, business-like, poker-faced, blunt. Yet… as if lurking behind their tight-lipped facades were something like a wink, a tip-off to viewers of some colossal unfolding scam. This is art with a gun in its back’ (C. Haye, ‘Myth and Man’, in Frieze, issue 20, January – February 1995).
‘The chosen words and phrases are All-American mantras, knucklehead koans, idiot ideograms. They are about conventional wisdom, common knowledge and default settings. They are compressed and concentrated like Alka Seltzer or Pez. They are bricks. Clunky, dangerous, mass-produced, but no two exactly alike and their composition on the canvas or page or slab puts them under a philological, microscope’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]).
‘He’s a connoisseur of chaos and a cartographer of disorder’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]).
‘The artwork tries to articulate some final observations on the current sorry state of consumer affairs. Its message seems heartfelt, the wording precise and deliberate - just two letters, each pronounced twice: ‘HA,’ then ‘AH’. Combined here are the simple sounds of human wonder and appreciation, the picture appearing to gasp in recognition and delight. And yet no matter how many times you read it, it fumbles its delivery of the line, choking on whatever emotion it’s trying to express, a grimace interrupting its look of surprise. It seems a joke has been played, a punchline reached. But the tension in the air only grows thicker. Confused, desperate, the painting in the end can’t make up its mind whether it should laugh or cry’ (C. Haye, ‘Myth and Man’, in Frieze, issue 20, January – February 1995).
ith its giant letters stacked and boldly writ, Untitled collides and confuses the senses with its confrontational urban poetry. Both nihilistic and witty in its tone, the colossal ‘HA AH’ gridded out over two rows extending nearly three metres high is at once the punch line of a joke and a questioning conversation, palindromic word-play and onomatopoeic reflex. Executed in 1990, it is perhaps no coincidence that its ambitious verbiage, ‘HA AH’ rhymes with ‘Dada’, since it is a work whose confident and bold execution, with its thick dripping black letters, overrides the apparent questioning sensitivity of its statement. But more than just a play on words, ‘HA AH’ captures the anti-rational aspects of Dada – its title embodying the multilingual, childish, and nonsensical connotations celebrated in the movement. Untitled was conceived at the end of a decade where painting’s right to exist had been deeply questioned by Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘The Death of Painting’ in 1981. Wool took the naysayers on by breathing new life into the medium, with his completely unique adaptation of the industrial materials of urban culture. Coming at the end of that decade, Wool sticks one finger up at Crimp, in a knowingly metaphorical phrase, ‘HA AH’ rather like Homer Simpson would say ‘Doh’! Clearly a play on letters, this palindrome is also a turn of phrase, both a hesitation within a discussion, and a discussion with a question at its heart. Exhibited at his first solo exhibition in Europe at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1991 and just before Documenta two years later, the work is situated at the origin of his profound and important series.
A Wool ‘word’ picture hits you like a sudden collision: the artist’s bold, edgy and uncompromising censure bursts out of its framing structure. The four large stencilled black letters of Untitled are staggered out across the expanse of the aluminium, and yet the message is tightly constrained within the edges of a large, flat aluminium support. Wool denies the letters space to breath, reducing the intervals necessary for our brains to discern words, and ultimately meaning. Loose paint drips from the edges, pushing each letter out of the already claustrophobic picture plane and into our own environment. As a result, the object feels closer than it appears. This sense of foreboding is heightened by the typeface: its utilitarian nature coupled with its physical size engenders a sense of stark authority. This tension between the physical properties of the work and its psychological effect lies at the heart of Wool’s artistic practice; he subverts the conventions of language to render his painting with a surreal sense of simplicity that belies its inward complexity.
With the outsized letters seemingly leaping from beyond the confines of the picture plane, Untitled appears to be barking its statement with an accusatory finger jab or poke. Yet while the aesthetics are clear and explicit, the work’s meaning remains ambiguous. 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. The letters gain meaning as we recite the statement, digest it, and, in so doing, become part of the artistic process. Functioning at the edge of meaning, the statement – ‘HA AH’ – scrambles referents: are these the pithy retorts of one protagonist or two? Is it Wool speaking to his viewer or the viewer’s own response upon contemplating the work: ‘HA, how amusing… AH, I get it [or don’t] ’. Or is the referent, in fact, a more comprehensive concept, referring perhaps to the act of painting in general? After all, the moment of Wool’s emergence in the late 1980s was a time of divided understandings in terms of the relevance of painting to high art. Questions about painting’s viability, its pertinence, in the final decades of the 20th century were at the forefront of postmodernist theoretical discourse.
PAINTING AND WORDS
Indeed Wool’s emergence as a painter in the early 1980s coincides with a period of soul searching within the art world about the state of painting. It was in this environment that Wool began his exploration of the painterly process and the different techniques that could be utilized to expand its properties. Wool began using words as imagery as early as 1987 after seeing a brand new white truck with the words ‘SEX LUV’ hand-painted across it. This first collection of word paintings was created during an intensely creative period for the artist and focused on words or phrases with multiple meanings.
The word paintings demonstrate Wool’s ability to breathe new life into established modes of expression. ‘I always considered myself involved with painting I can’t imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it’s a painting. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else’ (C. Wool, ‘Conversation with Christopher Wool with Martin Prinzhorn’, Museum in Progress, 1997, http://www.mip.at/attachments/222, [accessed 1 June 2014]). As Wool espouses, these works do not function as celebrations of linguistic power nor indeed as commentary on contemporary culture; rather, as demonstrated in Untitled, the word paintings undermine the communicative ability of language by collapsing it in on itself, displacing syntax and challenging legibility. Like telegrams gone awry with typographical malfunction, language implodes upon the page, forced to the very edges of the surface through Wool’s mutilating amputations. There is a sense in which Wool’s petition to reinstate painting comes at the cost of a brutal attack on literacy: if painting must go, the work seems to say, then it will not be before language. Wool’s work may therefore be understood as an act of defiance: in each instance, painting becomes the means of textual disfigurement. The deformation is complete, the damage is done. In Untitled, like a stifled punch line, Wool’s letters may be understood as straining to express this very predicament-‘HA AH’.
A NEW ARTISTIC LANGUAGE
The ‘word’ paintings are undoubtedly rooted in the aesthetic of factory-style reproduction espoused by Pop Art, in which uniformity became a means of expression in its own right, and minimal presentation worked in tandem with slogans lifted from everyday life. Indeed, as Madeleine Grynsztejn has written, ‘Wool’s work shares Pop Art’s affection for the vulgar and the vernacular, and in form it recalls Pop’s graphic economy of means, iconic images and depersonalized mechanical registration’ (M. Grynsztejn, ‘Unfinished Business’, in A. Goldstein, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Los Angeles Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1999, p. 266). Ed Ruscha’s OOF, 1962, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (Soap Pads), 1964, and Robert Indiana’s Love, 1967 are certainly to be counted amongst Wool’s forebears with their aesthetic falling between the parameters of found and constructed image and between mundane reproof and absurd outburst. Yet in contrast to the clean-cut aesthetic of commercial advertising that had originally driven the development of Pop Art in the 1960s, Wool’s works are the product of the disjointed writings of the urban landscape: the warnings, boasts, insults and territorial markers represented in the scrawled markings of graffiti. Like his contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool’s artistic outlook was nourished by the street art ineffably scrawled around the city, punctuated by the cacophony of peeling posters and flyers that adorned abandoned buildings and billboards. This raw vibrancy is captured in the word paintings: executed with searing vitality, the block-like capital letters appear to shout at the viewer from the surface, their disjointed messages steeped in the coded poeticism of graffiti.
At the same time, the Spartan stencilling recalls Minimalism, especially the word works of Joseph Kosuth’s such as Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word ‘Definition’, 1966-1968. But where Kosuth’s works were deliberately self-contained and hermetically sealed by the words that they formed, Wool’s art is rogue: it is a disjointed phrase that points an accusatory finger at the ambiguity of language and syntax. But with the thick, somewhat loose, wide drips and smears, Untitled also partakes of the legacy of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. As O’Brien espouses, ‘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’ (G. O’Brien, ‘Christopher Wool’, http://glennobrien.com/site/#/writing, [accessed 1 June 2014]). Here, Wool takes Duchamp’s colloquial play on words in L.H.O.O.Q. to a new level. While Duchamp coyly masks his reference of ‘Elle a chaud au cul’ or ‘She is hot in the arse’ through a series of letters, Wool’s attempt is not so sly. Instead, he employs extreme starkness of Richard Prince’s Joke paintings with the raw grit of Pollock or de Kooning’s painted surfaces.
Untitled is a powerful example of the art of its time, yet continues to be of paramount relevance today. Showcasing the ongoing debates that raged about the significance of painting, it also reflects the life experiences of a generation of artists who matured in the tough urban environment of the early 1990s. Untitled’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. In its vernacular, geometric, yet painterly rendering, Wool treats materials and language as a dynamic ambiguity between sign and referent, conventional artmaking and a postmodern anti-aesthetic. Wool’s brash, explicit paintings were developed against the backdrop of inner city blight and urban deprivation that affected most large cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s; as such, Untitled, is intrinsically linked to the post-Punk scene of New York, its energy and attitude running through the very heart of the work. In his elevation of grit from the underbelly of the industrial urban environment into the expansive history of fine art, Wool’s iconic visual statements have generated new possibilities for painting in the post-Pop era.