The highly-coveted series of text-based paintings that Christopher Wool created in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s retain the sophisticated blend of graphic wall-power and sleek design that has come to define his best work. Painted in 1990, Untitled is one of the most iconic examples of this early, desirable series. With bold, demonstrative power, the painting replicates a film-noir catchphrase from the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success: “The cat’s in the bag, and the bags in the river,” which Wool shortens and condenses to “CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER” in stark, declaratory lettering upon a monolithic aluminum panel. The potency of the letters and their blunt display hit the viewer like a punch to the gut, and there is a speed and sureness to the work that evokes the fast-talking, innuendo-laden dialogue of film-noir. The work is situated at a seminal moment in the artist’s career, flanked by his first major solo museum exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, alongside his Fellowship at the prestigious American Academy in Rome. An iconic work from the artist’s oeuvre—a similar version of
this painting, of exact dimensions and using the same phrase, is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York—this early text-based painting brilliantly merges the raw, graphic intensity of graffiti with the cool, formalist precision of Minimalist painting, a truly bravura performance that showcases the artist’s inventive style and sardonic wit.
Christopher Wool’s word-based paintings were born out of a legendary moment in the artist’s early career. In 1987, while living and working in New York’s Lower East Side, he happened to see a white delivery truck with the words “SEX” and “LUV” graffitied across the side. Immediately impacted by the power of these simple letters and their frank display upon the otherwise unblemished white truck, Wool embarked upon a series of paintings that ultimately paved the way for his success as one of the most talented young painters of his generation. Returning to his studio, Wool began a series of paintings that laid the groundwork for what would become his signature technique. His first rendering of S-E-X and L-U-V provided a crucial framework for the basis of his most popular style—large letters rendered in stencil upon a blank, white background.
At the time, Wool acknowledged that he was looking for a new kind of work that proclaimed itself in a “louder” and more direct manner than the pattern paintings that he still continued to create alongside the text-based series: “Initially I had been drawn to text because I wanted to make a work that was a little more direct, a little louder, that talked a little more directly to the audience than some of my abstract paintings had” (C. Wool, in conversation with A. Temkin, Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection, New York, 2005, p. 127). In this case, Wool adapted a zingy one-liner from the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, a hard-edged black-and-white piece of film-noir that details the life of a New York gossip columnist named J.J. Hunsecker. The film is chock-full of rapid-fire phrases of double-entendre, like “You’re dead son, get yourself buried” and “I’d hate to take a bite out of you...you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” In the movie’s most famous line, the J.J. Hunsecker character holds up his cigarette, and, instead of asking for a light, simply says: “Match me, Sidney.”
When asked to explain the meaning behind the strange phrase “CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER,” the artist acknowledged the poetical aspect of this particular phrase and its resonant power: “I did a painting with the phrase, ‘CATS IN BAG, BAGS IN RIVER’…it’s a line from the movie Sweet Smell of Success . Sidney Falco, the Tony Curtis character, does a dirty job for J.J. Hunsecker, the Burt Lancaster character, and to tell him that he’s done the job—they’re in the 21 Club so they have to talk in code—he says, ‘The cat’s in the bag, the bag’s in the river’...Harper’s Bazaar did an article recently about that for which they interviewed Tony Curtis, who said, ‘When I heard that sentence, it went straight to my brain.’ It was an important line...I loved the poetry.It was a poem” (quoted in A. Temkin, ibid., New York: Museum of Modern Art, p. 127).
In Untitled, Wool translates the raw, punchy jargon of the film to painterly format in a large-scale, commanding script. In doing so, he adjusts and shortens the original phrase, eliminating certain words and running the letters together so they pack more of a visual punch. Wool then selects a series of large-scale, hand-cut stencils to render each letter, using a font similar to the one adopted by the U.S. military after the Second World War. The immediate impact and the instant legibility of Wool’s script has a bold, demonstrative tone; it’s a no-frills, easily readable form that proclaims “KEEP OUT” or “POST NO BILLS.” Often ignoring punctuation and the spaces between words, Wool turns the letters into formal cyphers, so that there is a complex interplay between the legible and the illegible. Squished together, moved around, condensed and shortened, Wool’s phrases appear nonsensical until their meaning snaps into place. Often this moment of disorientation might occur within a split second so that the effect is registered on a subliminal level. Jerry Saltz explained this phenomenon upon viewing Wool’s word-based paintings for the first time in 1988: “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).
The letters of Wool’s phrase require a quick and efficient scanning process—the same technique required in reading a line of text. This sort of effortless rapid-fire response takes over when the brain is confronted with words or phrases, as in reading a book or scanning a billboard. But a second type of viewing experience is required when applied to a work of art, which dictates a slower, more inquisitive reaction. In Untitled, these two processes suddenly collide, in a complicated back-and-forth in which the brain attempts to both read and look simultaneously. By zooming in on certain letters, slicing up phrases and eliminating punctuation, Wool transforms the letters into an allover pattern. What results is a kind of visual poetry, one that is born out of the particular environment in which they were created.
Living and working in New York’s Lower East Side at the end of the 1980s, the cacophonous riot of graffiti and hard-edged nature of the city streets find their expression in these discordant, jarring paintings. The curator Katherine Brinson has written, “for Wool, the word paintings function most effectively when their content is matched to their affect—when a work, in his view, ‘does what it says.’” (K. Brinson, quoted in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 40) In this sense, the brash, in-your-face style of Untitled is perfectly expressed by the ruthless one-liner from the Sweet Smell of Success. It also echoes Wool’s interest in the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, like the work of Raymond Chandler. Again, Brinson wrote: “Chandler’s vision of a seamy metropolis peopled by criminals, corrupt journalists, and dirty cops is channeled in the dog-eat-dog world distilled in the world of Wool’s paintings, which voice a study of social breakdown...This refrain of dark-humored abjection and vulnerability repeatedly surfaces in the work of this period” (K. Brinson, ibid., pp. 40-41).
Untitled is a bold pronouncement from an abject era, a postmodern landscape in which the genre of painting itself had already been pronounced dead many times over. In his invention of an utterly new method of painting that united text, graffiti, film noir, and the elegance of Minimalist restraint, Christopher Wool assiduously rose to the task of painting time and again. With a stark, stop-em-in-their tracks visual potency and a sleek palette of dark blue lettering upon a vast white panel, Wool’s Untitled is a brilliant encapsulation of the artist’s most iconic work. The preeminent critic Peter Schjeldahl perhaps said it best: “Once you stop resisting the gloomy mien of Wool’s work, it feels authentic, bracing, and even, on occasion, blissful. … [T]hey look impeccable on walls today and are almost certain to look impeccable on walls tomorrow” (P. Schjeldahl, quoted in “Writing on the Wall,” The New Yorker, 4 November 2013).