Nine years before Christopher Wool stenciled the word “CHAMELEON” in lustrous black enamel letters on a stark aluminum ground painted white, Douglas Crimp announced the long-anticipated death of painting. When painting allegedly reached its final endgame, the remaining survivors were left to adapt amidst a landscape of shifting notions of authorship and originality. With his complex conceptual project, Wool has formed a practice that challenges and subverts these crucial questions of postmodernism to push our understanding of painting into a fundamentally different direction. Like a chameleon, in his practice, Wool constantly deviates from formal boundaries, leveraging the entropy of image-making to deliver a succinct statement on the very anarchy of his painterly enterprise. Concurrently provocative and aesthetically seductive, Christopher Wool’s Untitled is a seminal early example of the artist's most renowned and desirable body of text paintings: the Black Book series. Nearly half of the comparable paintings from this eminent series of 9-letter word Black Book paintings belong to prominent museum collections, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles. Exceptional among the group for the unique complexity of the word it depicts, this extraordinary painting is further distinguished by its long-term temporary loan to the Hamburger Kunsthalle for 16 years, from 1997 – 2013.
The present work can perhaps be considered the face of Wool’s Black Book paintings; originated as a series of small-scale works on paper, these paintings were created over a two-year period at the dawn of the artist’s career. The very word “CHAMELEON” represents a sense of ease in shifting amongst a cast of various guises: the unique capacity to morph into any one of the character types Wool introduced in the series. Intrigued by the 1950 collection of short stories by Raymond Chandler titled Trouble is My Business, Wool absorbed Chandler’s literary vision of a seedy city populated by corrupt characters. In response, Wool invented a company of these pathological types in what became his Black Book. Katherine Brinson explains, “Suggestive of a shadowy regime in which hypocrisy and betrayal are the only viable options for survival, the Black Book drawings have been read both as accusations directed at the viewer and as a more general indictment of a rotten society. Another possibility is that 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.” (Katherine Brinson in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 41) With these multifaceted descriptions of character articulated through aggressively large, imposing stencils, Wool indicts not only the viewer faced with the painting, but also himself—a heightened self-reflexivity that questions the very nature of the artist amidst a discursive context of overwhelming uncertainty toward the status of painting. Jeff Perrone suggests, “These not-so-flattering attributes may be read as self-reflexive. But this emotional self-portraiture only serves to intensify the painter’s anxiety in projecting such image clichés to his audience. The coherence of the analogy between the content and the form it takes, however, produces a tension for any viewer, because the sheer power of address, almost accusatory in tone, asks us to confront our own tendency to reduce others instinctively to a single, blunt trait.” (Jeff Perrone, “In the Shadow of Painting,” Parkett 33, 1992, p. 103)
With the nine-letter word stacked in three rows of three, the word resists instantaneous legibility and instead demands fixed concentration. The anxiety, dread, and paranoia that permeate these pictures summon an intensity and shrill fragility that is visually mirrored in the imperfections that break the rigidity of each stenciled letter: drips, smears, and errors threaten the order of the gridded word, and in every stop we teeter at the ominous brink of total systemic destruction. As is characteristic of Wool’s paintings, the edges of the stenciled blocks reveal small but arresting glitches of process—rich incidents of skipping or distortion that corrupt our reading of the word. The formality of the grid and the truncation of the word imply constriction, while the obstruction of such severe boundaries by painterly interruptions articulate a palpable danger along every edge. As Brinson wrote, “Wool was less concerned with language as a means to transcend image, or with the problematic conjunction of text and image, than with text as image. He had long been fascinated by the way words function when removed from the quiet authority of the page and exposed to the cacophony of the city, whether through the blaring incantations of billboards and commercial signage or the illicit interventions of graffiti artists. But with their velvety white grounds and stylized letters rendered in dense, sign painter’s enamel that pooled and dripped within the stencils, the word paintings have a resolute material presence that transcends the graphic.” (Katherine Brinson in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 40) The painterly composition is minimal and the individual letters have been reduced to a bipolar, stenciled schematic. Whereas the execution of the work achieves the perfection of Minimalist reduction on the one hand, on the other it includes overt suggestion of its handmade manufacture, with the irregular outline, smudges and drips heavily in evidence. Through his text paintings Wool interrogates not only the definitions of subject matter, conceptual content, and creative authorship in painting, but also demonstrably exhibits a love of the act of creation, insistently leaving remnants of the process of its making, such as the luscious drips of ink-like paint in the present work, to designate the hand of the artist.
The oft-recounted story of the moment Christopher Wool was moved to create his first word painting is something close to a New York myth. It’s the kind of account that perfectly conveys the magic of the city: in 1987, while walking the streets of his Lower East Side neighborhood, Wool encountered a graffitied white truck. Scrawled across its side was a tag reading, “SEX LUV” and the artist was so affected by the sight, he returned to his studio to create his own painterly version. This initial rendering of S-E-X and L-U-V laid the groundwork for what would become his signature technique—large black letters, placed vertically over one another and stenciled upon a smooth white background. Wool began this series in 1987 by painting prominent stenciled black capital letters on aluminum surfaces, reveling in their elusive quality and ambiguity. Associated with both the punk poetics of the downtown scene in the early 1990s alongside the increase in postmodern critical thinking, Wool’s paintings investigate the limitations of language as descriptive signifiers, challenging the legibility and objectivity of language by its visual capacity for incessant re-interpretation.
Dating back to the Analytic Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque before the First World War that incorporated collaged elements of newspaper headlines, typography became an integral part of Futurism, Constructivism and Bauhaus design. During the 1950s, when galleries were dominated by Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns used stencils in his work to counter the outpourings of emotion among his fellow painters. Referencing Duchamp and Dada, Johns was interested in stencils because of their ready-made status - when used in paintings, they challenged the authenticity of the personal brushstroke. Even Francis Bacon would come to incorporate Letraset typography in his paintings to address questions of Saussurian semiotics, the dynamics of sign systems, and methods of communication. Furthermore, concrete poetry of the 1960s and early 1970s abandoned grammar, syntax and punctuation to break words into apparently arbitrary units.
Of Wool’s Black Book paintings, Richard Prince wrote: “These are words that I would and I could describe Christopher with. I would if I could but he’s already done it himself.” (Richard Prince in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 236) If Wool’s Black Book paintings are meant to be read as self-portraits, then the present work is indisputably the most accurate of all: capturing Wool’s unparalleled ability throughout his career to challenge and subvert accepted modes of image-making by consistently shifting his practice, all the while maintaining a stark anonymity. Wool’s paintings unravel conceptions of mark-making, obfuscating the perimeters between the hand-made and the machine-made. In this way, Wool’s own subjectivity recedes into the distance—the artist becomes the chameleon after all.
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