Swathes of translucent canary yellow paint are smeared across the picture plane in Christopher Wool’s Untitled, 1995, obscuring a monochrome backdrop of floral and decorative motifs. Prominently featured in the artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2013, the work bears witness to a critical turning point within Wool’s practice, marking his first major step towards painterly abstraction. Following on from his patterned canvases, in which ornamental symbols were applied with a roller and stencil, Wool began to progressively efface reproductions of these works with daubs of brightly-coloured paint. Deliberately obfuscating his own pictorial language, Wool initiated a dialogue between creation and erasure that would, over the following decade, come to consume his practice. Wool’s yellow paint is streaked with strains of black, picked up from the inky surface of the underlying silkscreen. These works would eventually give way to the artist’s so-called ‘gray’ paintings, in which Wool employed turpentine to blur, unhinge and overwrite his own gestures. Undermining the rigid compositional structure of his earlier patterned works, here we see Wool embracing free gesture for the first time, dramatically reasserting the presence of the artist’s hand. The work presents a virtuosic interplay between structure and expression, order and chaos. Manually eroding the legibility of his mechanically-reproduced ground, Wool had finally uncovered a means of articulating his own convictions about the transient, unstable nature of all art-making. Through their twisted dialogue between assertion and destruction, declaration and denial, these works are both monuments to the continued survival of painting and deep expressions of doubt as to the very nature of image production in the postmodern age.
Untitled is the product of over a decade of continual evolutionary progress within Wool’s practice. His word and pattern paintings, created using an arsenal of rollers and stencils, represented a bold and measured response to the gauntlet laid down by Douglas Crimp’s 1981 essay ‘The Death of Painting’. Recalling at once the ‘allover’ surfaces of Jackson Pollock and the reproductive banality of Warhol’s Flowers, the early pattern paintings would eventually succumb to the unique process of violation demonstrated in Untitled. In 1991, Wool embarked upon a series of experiments with colour that culminated in the artist’s book, Cats in Bags Bags in River. Manually heightening the colour controls on a photocopier, Wool repeatedly ran photographs of his word and pattern paintings through the machine, creating a hallucinatory vocabulary of chromatic variation. With each successive feed the acid pigment was further debased, creating jagged strips of cyan blue, yellow and magenta toner across the surface of the pictures. Fascinated by the visual effects he had created in these works, from 1993 he transferred this technique to painting, introducing almost prohibitive washes of fluorescent colour to the patterned surface of his silkscreened canvases. Simultaneously defacing and refreshing his own artwork with vibrant bursts of colour, in these redacted paintings Wool commits an act of self-vandalism. In the dialogue between addition and deletion, a mesmerizing concoction of veils and lines is born: a palimpsest of abstract painterly layers which intermingle interminably across the surface.
As the curator Katherine Brinson has suggested, the indeterminacy and flux of these works represents a direct expression of Wool’s own equivocal relationship with the status of the contemporary artwork. As she explains, ‘The anti-heroic notion of mark-unmaking correlates with a conviction lying at the heart of Wool’s oeuvre – that linear progression towards artistic mastery is a modernist relic; that “the traditional idea of an objective masterpiece is no longer possible”. Abandoning this goal, the artist operates in a realm of pervasive uncertainty: “Without objectivity you’re left with doubt, and doubt insists on plurality.”’ Indeed, as she goes on to argue, ‘When asked in an interview to explain his use of erasure in various forms, Wool responded with four words: change, doubt, indecisiveness, and, perhaps surprisingly on the face of it, poetry. The literal loss enacted in the realization of these paintings endows them with the character of a lamentation, chiming with the potent strands of angst and melancholia that have always run close to the surface of his work, despite its game face of cool indifference’ (K. Brinson, ‘Trouble is my Business’, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2014, p. 47). The liminal state embodied by these works speaks to the very core of Wool’s aesthetic: challenging the traditional notion of a completed artwork, they are eulogies to painterly process and, by extension, to the never-ending possibilities latent within the medium.
Wool’s defence of painting coincided with a period of soul-searching within the art world about its continued viability. Coming to prominence within the urban milieu of post-Punk New York, his vocabulary of inscribing and erasing was steeped in the caustic visual language of graffiti that nourished his earliest works. However, works such as Untitled ultimately go beyond this Zeitgeist. Instead, they may be understood as polemical visual expressions of the ways in which painting – with its inherently fluid condition – has the potential to continually undermine and redefine the parameters of art. Wool has spoken of his admiration for Dore Ashton’s publication on Philip Guston Yes, But… – a turn of phrase that he felt summed up his aesthetic outlook. As the artist has explained, ‘I define myself in my work by reducing the things I don’t want – it seems impossible to know when to say “yes”, but I do know what I can say “no” to … It’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are’ (C. Wool, quoted in A. Schwartzman, ‘Artists in Conversation I: Chuck Close, Philip Taaffe, Sue Williams, Christopher Wool’, in Birth of the Cool: American Painting from Georgia O’Keeffe to Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zu¨rich, Zurich, 1997, pp. 32-34). Nowhere is this sense of productive doubt more aptly expressed than bold yet ultimately unstable surface of Untitled: articulated with the gritty assertiveness of street art yet riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty and it embodies the central tenets of Wool’s practice.