Geneva, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Christopher Wool, 1999
Having developed his practice at the critical height of the Pictures Generation – a group of artists whose appropriative and largely photographic strategies fundamentally undermined the validity of painting in contemporary art – Wool set out to prove the critical agency of painting within a set of newly defined parameters. The influential critic, Douglas Crimp, had famously declared ‘The End of Painting’ in his eponymous essay of 1981; nevertheless, it was within this critical milieu that Wool pursued a trajectory that negated the expressive decision-making usually associated with the discipline. In the late 1980s, Wool began working with his hand at a remove from his paintings’ surfaces. Using wallpaper pattern rollers, rubber stamps and stencils, Wool created all-over compositions of readymade motifs, banal patterns, and ubiquitous words and phrases on immaculate white aluminium surfaces in thick enamel paint. Combining the process-oriented practices of late-Minimalism with a quotidian ‘borrowing’ from everyday life, Wool’s paintings deftly sidestepped the baggage of painterly expressivity; and yet, via the mistakes and chance slippages of his handmade-readymade method, Wool was able to maintain a sense of free-hand energy. The skips and slides of the paint roller, the visual noise at the edge of a rubber stamp, or the pooling of enamel paint underneath a stencil, imparted remarkably painterly passages of poetic spontaneity.
From this moment onwards, Wool’s oeuvre evolved through a cumulative progression of working and reworking. Following the rollers, stamps and stencils of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in 1993 Wool began applying the same motifs via silkscreen. By taking on Andy Warhol’s trademark method, Wool was afforded greater levels of mechanical mediation and control that nonetheless preserved the potential for dissonant slipups. The even effect of the silkscreen allowed the artist to apply layer-upon-layer of patternation that resulted in dense strata. While this sometimes resulted in compositional collapse, Wool’s cumulative layering would also create new forms and unexpected configurations. The push-pull of the destructive-creative impulse thus came to the fore in Wool’s work for the first time; as Katherine Brinson has explained, it was “only by sabotaging his own images”, that Wool could “find the freedom to generate new ones” (Katherine Brinson, ‘Trouble is my Business’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 2014, p. 42).
Brilliantly capturing Wool’s ambitious and clever formal programme – which opened up the possibilities for painting from an unexpected angle – Untitled represents a key moment in the history of abstract painting. In the words of Glenn O’Brien, Christopher Wool “embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and then he manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a Pop artist or Dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined and redolant of street vernacular, both high and low” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Apocalypse and Wallpaper’, Wool, Cologne 2012, p. 8).
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