“They had a rhythm while they lasted, a song, a beat, a chant. Taken as a group they go bang, bang, bang...and continuing with an invocation, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE…” Jim Lewis
“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.” Christopher wool
Painted in 1988, Christopher Wool’s Untitled is a brilliant, early iteration of the critically-acclaimed word-based paintings that remain the most gripping, highly-coveted objects of the artist’s career. The stark, graphic wall-power of Untitled seizes the viewer with an almost electric jolt. The insistent refrain “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE” personifies the explosive, primal utterings of the soulful James Brown song of the same name. The brashness of Wool’s stark black lettering grabs the viewer with the urgency and insistence of their pleading, which is made all the more potent by the monolithic authority of the painting’s vast scale. The word “PLEASE” remains one of Wool’s most enigmatic personal phrases. It appears in an early paper version in 1987, and again two years later, in a nearly identical painting of 1989 with matching dimensions (owned by The Broad, Los Angeles). An early, iconic painting, this work cleverly blends the raw, graphic power of graffiti with the cool, formalist precision of Minimalism, in a radical work that showcases the artist’s sardonic wit and inventive style.
In 1989, the curators of the Whitney Biennial selected two of Wool’s paintings to represent his work. They chose Untitled and Apocalypse Now. Both paintings were installed in the Whitney’s upper level Madison Avenue location in situ with another up-and-coming art wunderkind—Jeff Koons—whose Pink Panther was placed directly opposite the present work. The Biennial proved to be a veritable succès de scandale, and New York Times critic Roberta Smith singled out Wool’s word paintings and illustrated his work in her review, writing: “Christopher Wool’s punchy word-images...have a refreshing visual toughness” (R. Smith, “Review/Art: More Women and Unknowns in the Whitney Biennial,” The New York Times, 28 April 1989, p. C32). Truly, Wool’s Untitled retains that visceral punch-to-the-gut that Smith described, which has fascinated critics and collectors ever since.
According to the now legendary story, the inspiration for Wool’s word-based paintings came in 1987, when the artist glimpsed the words “SEX” and “LUV” spray-painted across the side of an unmarked white van. The potent visual jolt of those two emblematic words seized the artist, and he immediately began incorporating the words into his paintings, adopting a no-frills font rendered in stark, black lettering upon an empty white background. Wool was increasingly drawn to those words and phrases that carried the same visual shock of “SEX” and “LUV,” and he found them in the music lyrics and film noir movies that echoed the gritty, hard-edged punk rock aesthetic of New York’s Lower East Side where he lived and worked. The early word paintings from 1988 are tough, emphatic and brash, calling out to the viewer with an anxiety that borders on hysteria. “HELTER HELTER” from the Beatles’ Helter Skelter, “SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS” from Martin Scorsese’s Apocalypse Now, and “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE” from James Brown’s thrilling, soulful, bring-you-to-your-knees ballad are all powerful examples from 1988. They evoke the broken-down, living-on-the-edge nihilism that characterized so much of the New York art scene of the 1980s.
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 his earlier pattern paintings. He said: “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, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005, p. 127).
Untitled personifies the direct, in-your-face tenor that Wool sought to achieve. Towering over the viewer at eight-feet tall, the painting doesn’t merely hang on the wall as an inert, decorative object, but rather commands the viewer by nature of its sheer scale and the authoritarian quality of its message. Wool used large-scale, hand-cut stencils to render the words “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE,” using a no-frills script similar to that used by the U.S. military after the Second World War. The immediate impact and the instant legibility of Wool’s message has a bold, demonstrative tone; it’s reminiscent of signs posted around New York City by the police and municipal government, like “KEEP OUT” or “POST NO BILLS.”
In keeping with the sardonic quality of these early paintings, Untitled nearly screams at the viewer with the fact of its rendering, but it does so with a desperate plea. Wool repeats the word “PLEASE” six times, maintaining the same size and scale for each new iteration, so that the painting becomes a repeated mantra, its message reiterated ad infinitum inside the viewer’s head: “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE...” There’s a palpable sense of desperation, of anxiety implied in the message, recalling the desperate, end-of-life pleadings of some film noir rube who’s nixed in the first scene of a movie, or the last-ditch “I’ll-do-anything-to-get-you-back” promises of a cheating boyfriend. The curators of the 1989 Whitney Biennial described this phenomenon:
“In Apocalypse Now and Untitled…, dread and terror are experienced up front, the black stenciled letters have the graphic strength and ominous presence of placards or tabloid banner headlines. Please is a polite word, but when repeated six times, the tone turns incantatory, desperate, unreal. …the drips of paint and wavering contours make the words seem fragile, while the obsessive ordering of the letters...gives them a high degree of abstraction. Clustered as they are like concrete poetry, the individual letters form sounds and summon up images both related to and independent of the whole message” (R. Armstrong, quoted in J. Hanhart and R. Marshall, eds., Whitney Museum of American Art: Biennial Exhibition, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1989, p. 165).
A potent recurring motif, Wool’s “PLEASE” evokes the brash, hard-driving refrain of a punk anthem, the visceral, bring-you-to-your-knees soul of James Brown and the fevered, whispered prayer of the hopeless and desperate. Paradoxically, the painting retains a sleek elegance that rivals Minimalism in its restrained black-and-white palette and the repetition of its forms, and there is a certain kind of musical syncopation that the critic and novelist Jim Lewis has described: “They had a rhythm while they lasted, a song, a beat, a chant. Taken as a group they go bang, bang, bang...and continuing with an invocation, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE…” (J. Lewis, “Fail Better,” in H. W. Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, p. 106).
Perhaps the painting’s most fevered wish, however, emanates directly from the artist himself, making “PLEASE” into “PLEASE LOOK,” echoing every artist’s most impassioned wish. Indeed, the curator of Wool’s retrospective at the Guggenheim saw an aspect of self-portraiture in these paintings. She writes, “…they represent a self-lacerating catalogue of the various roles an artist might take on, expressing Wool’s vexed relationship to the notion of the masterful figure in the studio” (K. Brinson, quoted in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 41). Indeed, she goes on to describe the “self-deprecating humor” that accompanies much of Wool’s most personal paintings, judging them as “melancholy self-portraits.” Indeed, might the determined “PLEASE” that is reiterated across the surface of Wool’s Untitled emanate directly from the artist himself, whose deepest desire might only implore the viewer to look, and keep looking, please?
A deeply personal work that dates to an early, critical juncture, this work illustrates the clever blend of irreverence and wit that have long remained a hallmark of his radical word-based paintings. At once brash and insistent, cool and elegant, imbued with much personal and cultural reference, Untitled remains one of the most significant paintings of his career.