Executed in 1990, Untitled is a seminal early example of Wool’s word paintings, the artist’s most celebrated and significant body of work; within the fragmented etymological forms of the present work, Wool juxtaposes the austere economy of language with the entropy of abstraction to effectively annihilate presumed boundaries between image and text. Exemplifying the unruly painterliness which complicates the very best of Wool’s word compositions, the delicate drips, skips, and splatters of white pigment within Untitled articulate sensuous glitches of process that, in their graffiti-like corruption of the aluminum support, further interrogate our expectation of straightforward legibility. Upon close inspection, this seemingly opaque veil of white pigment reveals the ghostly outlines of the word ‘RIOT,’ emblazoned and overpainted below the gleaming letters of ‘FOOL’ upon the surface. Both these terms hold singular importance within the artist’s oeuvre: while Wool has revealed that ‘FOOL’ operates as a linguistic self-portrait, it is the incorporation of ‘RIOT’ that further encapsulates the rebellious energy of his painterly enterprise. By juxtaposing these two, equally charged terms within a single painting, Wool creates a singularly arresting work that, in its simultaneous engagement with and subversion of linguistic meaning, cuts to the very heart of his celebrated artistic practice. Reflecting upon the intricate complexities and drives within Wool’s artistic practice in terms particularly reminiscent of the present work, a contemporary of Wool’s describes: “Wool’s work contains continual internal/external debate within itself. At one moment his work will display self-denial, at the next moment solipsism. Shifting psychological states, false fronts, shadows of themselves, justify their own existence…. Wool’s work locks itself in only to deftly escape through sleight of hand. The necessity to survive the moment at all costs, using its repertoire of false fronts and psychological stances is the work’s lifeblood.” (Jeff Koons cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 35)
Achieving an intricate layering of two of Wool’s most iconic and incendiary terms, Untitled is amongst the most expressive and insurrectionary embodiments of his artistic project. While ‘FOOL’ suggests the wisecrack alacrity of an incisive insult, subverting the viewer’s attempts for sincerity or candor within the painting, ‘RIOT’ reverberates with the provocative energy of a rebellious call-to-arms, invoking the interrogation of painting itself which serves as Wool’s primary subject. Featured in a several of Wool’s best-known word paintings from this pivotal period, the word ‘FOOL’ further functions as a signifier for the artist himself: achieving a quasi-mirroring of Wool’s own name, the word invites references to a ‘play on words,’ emphasizing the playful subversion of meaning inherent to the word paintings. This conflicted identity within Wool’s painting – the work simultaneously looking outward, as citation of the world, and inward, as signifier for the artist himself—serves as summation for Wool’s larger artistic output. Extending to the outermost edges of the aluminum support, the four towering letters of both words are crisply fragmented within a four-part grid that, in its neat divisions, simultaneously underscores and abstracts the meaning within the words themselves. By separating his words into their constitute letters, Wool destabilizes the coherence of the overall phrases themselves, activating the individual letters as formal elements within his pictorial composition. John Caldwell describes, “They are uniform, deliberate, absolute, and masterful, but entirely resistant to one’s natural search for meaning, which they seem to deny.” (Ibid., p. 35) This technique is especially potent within the uppermost ‘FOOL’ of Untitled, where the mirroring between the four letters not only recalls the artist’s own name, but creates a dynamic symmetry that further abstracts the word itself. Katherine Brinson reflects, “Setting up a dizzying interplay between the regimes of the visual and the textual, Wool engages the associative power and overt mode of address of his subject matter while also allowing the words to operate as shapes on a surface, beyond any communicative function.” (Ibid., p. 40) Barely visible behind the white veil of pigment, the phantasmagoric letters of ‘RIOT’ appear as shadowed counterparts to ‘FOOL,’ offering the illusion of depth within the two-dimensional picture plane. Describing his practice in terms highly reminiscent of the present work, Wool reflects: “I often want a painting to feel like it is the result of a certain process….a process that was not simply the painting/picturing process of putting together a formalistically successful painting. I’ve made paintings that were ‘pictures’ created merely by the act/process of painting over a previous image.” (The artist cited in Hans Werner Holzwarth, Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 160)
Concurrently provocative and inane, the exceptional painterly virtuosity of the present work distinguishes Untitled as a superb exemplar of the artist’s most significant body of paintings. While the execution of the work achieves the perfection of Minimalist reduction, the irregular smudges and drips of white pigment simultaneously include overt suggestion of its handmade manufacture. In this way, Wool interrogates not only accepted theories of meaning, content and artistic authenticity in painting, but also demonstrably exhibits 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. Speaking about his practice, Wool reflects: “I always considered myself involved with painting. I can’t imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it’s a painting. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else.” (Christopher Wool, “Conversation with Christopher Wool,” with Martin Prinzhorn, Museum in Progress, 1997) In his investigation of painterly intent and authenticity, Wool brings into play the weighty mantle of the Abstract Expressionists, his monochromatic paintings echoing and engaging their fraught legacies as much as it undermines them; by obscuring the aesthetic perimeters between the hand-painted and the machine-made, Wool embraces the compromised historical narrative of painting as a primary source, then manipulates that legacy to produce a thrillingly subversive masterpiece. Even the primary text of the painting engages canonical tradition: in ‘FOOL,’ Wool invokes the artistic term trompe-l’oeil, a term for paintings which quite literally ‘fool the eye’ through optical illusions.
Recalling the brazen daring of graffiti or accusatory intensity of a tabloid headline, the stark black letters of Untitled summon the industrial severity of the urban environment that serves as primary source material for Wool’s celebrated word paintings. The oft-recounted origin story of the series has, over the years, become something close to a New York myth: in 1987, while walking the streets of his Lower East Side neighborhood, Wool encountered a white truck that had been freshly graffitied with the tag “SEX LUV.” Struck by the singular aesthetic and conceptual intensity of the image, Wool returned to his studio to create the first word painting, laying the groundwork for what would become his signature technique. In their subversively truncated words, incendiary phrases, and industrialized aluminum support, the word paintings invoke the punk vernacular of New York’s downtown scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Wool’s use of the phrase ‘RIOT’ in the present work is particularly evocative of the incendiary power and anti-establishment attitude that defined this cultural moment, the phrase recalling the hard-edged, stripped-down melodies of such groups as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. Untitled likewise invokes the iconic street-poetics of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist similarly influenced and inspired by the gutteral, adrenalizing energy of downtown New York in the last decades of the Twentieth Century. While Basquiat developed an explosive, street-art inspired symbolic vernacular, however, Wool juxtaposes urban subculture with his own background in post-modern critical theory to explore the equally exhilarating possibilities of linguistic abstraction. Glenn O’Brien reflects, “Basquiat loved the ‘do-it-yourself’ bilingual bricolage esthetic of Alphabet City, the district of improvisational bootstrap enterprise. Wool, another far-Eastsider, has a similar romance with the fringe New York, the no man’s land, the interzone, the DMZ, and the ruins of concrete jungle. Where Basquiat gleaned pop cues from that world, Wool finds an alphabet of symbolic abstractions.” (Glenn O’Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper,” in H. W. Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, pp. 10-11) A testament to the artist’s longtime investigation of the way words embed and express themselves within the urban fabric, the austere intensity of Untitled imbues the symbiotic relationship between Wool’s practice and the street with fresh, undeniable charge.
Confronting the viewer with the violent force of sudden impact, Untitled juxtaposes painterly entropy with commanding linguistic force to utterly annihilate presumed boundaries between image and text. Demanding fixed concentration while resisting objective legibility, the rich dark painted enamel letters investigate the limitations of language as descriptive signifiers, achieving a Baroque elegance that undermines their communicative utility. Arranged within the towering painting, the formality of the grid barely confines each enormous letter of ‘FOOL,’ intensifying their potent graphic power; beneath, the secondary edict of ‘RIOT’ resonates rebelliously to underscore the attitude of post-Punk indifference which permeates Wool’s painterly oeuvre. “Wool can take a word,” critic Jim Lewis describes, “and worry it, turn it this way and that, beat on it a few times, paint it, paint over it, paint it again, try to break it, auscultate it like a doctor tapping the chest of a sick patient and listening for the echo inside; try to humiliate it with paint splatter, and then to deify it as if it were the word of God; and then, when its been stripped of sense, when he’s sure it can’t be understood, and he’ll erase it and paint it again, and leave it there as the embodiment of his efforts—and leave us wondering if its the word that means something, or the painting.” (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 284) Turning the joke on both art and language with thrilling nonchalance, Untitled confronts the viewer to deliver a succinct statement of Wool’s anarchic artistic project in eight letters, three syllables, two words, one painting.
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