-Glenn O’Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper” in Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 11)
“Feet don’t fail me now
Begging please don’t make a fool of me
Feet don’t fail me now
Please don’t keep me where I should not be
Feet don’t fail me now
Stop pretending that you’ve gone to sleep
Feet don’t fail me now
Begging please don’t make a fool of me”
-Utopia, Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, 1982
Visually explosive in its frenetic composition and enthralling in its dense application of pitch-black enamel paint on aluminum support, Christopher Wool’s monumentally scaled and intricately layered Feet Don’t Fail Me Now from 1995 is a key touchstone of the artist’s revolutionary investigation into the genre of painting. The present work hurtles the viewer into a full-throttle assault of expressive gesture, layering screen after screen of a variety of Wool’s characteristic floral patterns atop one another in beautifully crisp strata of imagery. Sweet, daisy like flowers erupt in explosions of petals amid tulips and black-eyed susans, all overlaid atop one another in richly saturated pigment. Complementing the floral bursts dominating the composition are lighter passages of grisailles, thin veils of paint adding depth and a gritty street aesthetic. Borrowing its title from Utopia’s hit song of 1982, Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, Wool’s riotous composition nearly reverberates with an energy and dynamism that exemplifies the downtown counterculture and punk edginess of the 1980s and 90s in New York City. The present work has remained in the esteemed private collection of Norah and Norman Stone for over twenty years, and was notably included in the artist’s first major survey in the United States: Christopher Wool, which travelled to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsbugh in 1998-1999, and emerges today as an incontrovertible masterpiece from the artist’s incomparable oeuvre.
The present work roars to life in a paroxysm of painterly mastery, vibrating in oily black pulses as if emitting from subwoofer speakers. Enlarging and reproducing floral motifs from rubber stamps, Wool repeats the same stamps in dense layers of thick black paint atop a pristine enamel surface. The accumulated layers build up an impenetrable thicket of cacophonous flora; although each flower is an easily replicated stencil, the varying positions, angles, and layers bring to life an individuality in each form. Larger flowers bloom gloriously, surrounded by smaller fellows that hum quietly at the edges amid diminutive spheres that call to mind the raw elements of nature, such as pebbles and grit. As petals, flower stalks, and various vine patterns burst forth across the surface atop grades of thickly applied enamel and overlapping drips, Wool creates a picture plane rife with action that simultaneously imparts a stark flatness. It was in these heavily layered paintings of the mid-1990s that Wool first explored the aesthetic possibilities of intense overprinting and clogging of his screens—as exemplified in Feet Don’t Fail Me Now. Two centralized masses crush together at the center of the composition, against which the edges of each screen reveal the artist’s process. These angular planes read like consecutive frames of a film or edges of walls and streets in an urban landscape, emphasized in the hints of black spray paint.
In the sumptuous painterly extravagance of the present work, we are made privy to the schema of procedural omissions or ‘glitches’ that disrupt the ostensibly decorative pattern that it presents. As explained by Ann Goldstein, these paintings from the early 1990s explored image constructions as simultaneous products of both build-up and erasure: “The banality that one associates with Andy Warhol’s silkscreened flowers is overwhelmed by the grittiness of Wool’s intense and seemingly out-of-control compositions. The first silkscreen works continue the additive process by laying black flower images on top of each other. Wool later introduced white into the works, painting out certain areas, and then silkscreening the black images again, wherein the process that produces the works becomes both additive and reductive.” (Ann Goldstein in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 262) By choosing to represent flowers, Wool inserts himself into a larger tradition of still-life painting, one that includes such masters as Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Roy Lichtenstein, and notably, Andy Warhol; indeed, with the silkscreen technique, Wool isolates the motif of flowers against monochrome grounds and empties them of meaning in their purely decorative nature. Welcoming the potential for error in his mechanical process of paint application, in Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, Wool revels in the mishaps of dripped paint and slipped outlines: ghostly traces of previous impressions are visible along the outer edges of the composition, while hazy zones of sprayed paint and smeared off-register screens reveal the human error behind the depersonalized formal template. Neville Wakefield writes: “Since the mid-’80s, concurrent with the word paintings, Wool has been making abstract works based on decorative motifs. Paint is applied to a flat surface using stamps, patterned rollers, stencils, and screens to create repeat patterns reminiscent of flocked wallpaper or wrought-iron tracery. At once seductive and forbidding, these ‘grilles’ bring the cool, minimalist restraint of the printing and stamping process to the baroque impulse. Even at their most elegant, they carry with them the inky obduracy of blots on the copybook of both gestural and decorative painting.” (Neville Wakefield, “Christopher Wool,” Elle Decor, February - March 1999, p. 58)
Wool’s black and white paintings are multifaceted and evocative of the ‘allover’ compositional strategy of Jackson Pollock; the minimal palette, line, and gesture of Brice Marden; and mediated by Warhol’s integration of mechanical methods. Through cumulative acts of reductionism and recapitulation, Wool has stripped down the essential facets of painting to engender a union of process with picture making. In a progression started with the roller and rubber-stamp paintings, through to the stenciled text pictures and the most recent corpus of silkscreened gestural abstractions, Wool has explored a mutating, visually arresting landscape of seemingly mechanical, cipher-like reductions; coolly detached and emptied of heroic angst. Conflating art historical tradition with contemporary counterculture and painterly gesture with a silkscreened technique, Christopher Wool’s monumental, exquisite and rare masterpiece Feet Don’t Fail Me Now is a breathtaking example by one of today's intellectually engaging and iconoclastic artists.
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