Katherine Brinson, ‘Trouble is My Business’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 46
Executed in 2003, Christopher Wool’s monumental Portrait encapsulates many of the artist’s most fundamental conceptual breakthroughs and material discoveries, serving as a testament to his career-long deconstruction of the tenets of painting. The work stands at a towering 108 inches, projecting an intoxicating maelstrom of inertia and fluent gesture; Portrait appears erased, or scrubbed of evidence. Despite the work’s painterly mien, this sense of movement and force is an illusory impression set forth by Wool. Portrait is a product of a silkscreen process wherein each passage of gestural movement and random spread of enamel is in fact emulated by the reproductive sweep of a screen-print squeegee, bringing together notions of mechanical and manual production to create a work that is not quite either.
Wool entered the artistic fore at the beginning of the 1980s, a period that marked the genesis of his reevaluation of the parameters of paint. Using the context of the argument set forth by the Art Historian Douglas Crimp in his 1981 essay “The End of Painting,” Museum Director and Curator Ann Goldstein explains, “some younger artists began to reconsider painting as a vehicle for critique from within, specifically through strategies of appropriation. The act of painting did not have to be a conservative gesture; rather than seeking to undo its conventions, it could effectively confront and embody its critique by working within those conventions” (Ann Goldstein, “How to Paint” in Ed., Hans Werner Holzwarth, Christopher Wool, New York 2008, p. 183).
Since that time, this reflexive line of inquiry has manifested in an expansive array of painterly techniques and expressions. Wool has used paint rollers, stamps, stencils and spray guns, and has also appropriated from graffiti and popular culture, to address painterly notions of subject matter, meaning and gesture. Despite the breadth of Wool’s technical repertoire, his works are instantly recognizable for their monochromatic palette, as well as their chilled ironic detachment, a sense of dispassion that allows his paintings the distance to function as critical tools. Above all, Wool’s signature appears in the appropriation of a diverse range of artistic styles, from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, through the lens of conflicting mechanical and manual, as well as additive and subtractive processes.
The present work is a product of two conceptual breakthroughs relating to this artistic signature. The first is the development of the artist’s “gray” paintings, a body of work that Wool established in an attempt to erase a painting he had made with enamel spray using a turpentine-soaked rag. In scrubbing at his painting, he rendered a blurred record of his movement, conflating the mechanical mist of the spray gun with the evidence of his hand. Wool immediately integrated this process into his practice, repeatedly spraying and wiping his canvases in order to replicate and build on the effect of his first fortuitous mistake.
The second conceptual leap occurred concurrently to the first, in the development of Wool’s practice of transferring painting to screenprint. Articulating the role of appropriation in Wool’s oeuvre as it relates to his technical process, independent curator Anne Pontégnie explains “The silkscreen process allows Wool to play with scale, repetition, and rhythm. At the same time, it makes all of his work available as a repertory of form. At the heart of his corpus, the question of originality has entirely disappeared. Thus the same form… can be represented it its own right, then reproduced by screen-printing without affecting its ‘status’” (Anne Pontégnie, “At the Limits of Painting” in Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, New York 2008, p. 314).
In this context, Portrait, translated from the original enamel painting into a silkscreen, is a fundamental shift away from its referent, nestled in layers of artistic process that imbue it with its own unique aura. The enamel “gray” painting which the present work uses as source material was in the collection of Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner before it was donated to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016. Portrait inherits this art historical legacy and then subverts it; Wool first implies the hand, and then strips that implication away, emulating the collision of the additive and subtractive processes that resulted in the painting on which it is based.
Adding to the complexity of the work, Wool moves beyond this initial juxtaposition, silkscreening the work in four parts, and leaving gaps and overlaps between each quadrant. This refusal to adhere to a grid renders some passages of more densely applied pigment, and others of raw canvas. These gaps disrupt the flow of each sweeping gesture, making the perfect imperfect, and testifying that, despite the layers of mechanical process involved in the production of Portrait, the hand prevails.
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