Christopher Wool



by Ann Goldstein*

Wool’s work has followed a trajectory that is at once historically reflexive, very much of its own moment, and keenly self-critical. Wool’s work has drawn from a variety of experiences both inside and outside art, within a framework that is concerned with the history, conventions and problematics of making a painting in the 1980s and 90s – his work embodies and encourages its own contradictions. As Bruce W. Ferguson has written, “Wool accepts that he is and that his paintings are, at any moment, within what Richard Prince calls ‘wild history’, subject to the intertextual meeting of various discourses.”

Besides the affinity that Ferguson describes with Prince, Wool has also shared his interest in aspects of mass culture (film, television, music) with other close colleagues of his generation, including Robert Gober, Cady Noland, Philip Taaffe, Albert Qehlen, Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelley, and Stephen Prina. Wool was particularly affected by the attitude of the painters of his generation in Germany – especially Oehlen and Kippenberger – whose work, as Friedrich Petzel has written, “hailed the productivity of failure, claiming that the discrediting of painting’s effective capacity has opened yet another discursive field.”

Wool’s early development as an artist reflects this multitude of influences. In 1972, at the age of sixteen, Wool graduated from high school and began two years of study, during which he had the opportunity to work with Richard Poussette-Dart and Jack Tworkov. At the time he ended his formal studies in 1975, at the age of nineteen, he was making allover abstract paintings of accumulated mark-making. In 1976, he moved into a Chinatown studio that remains his residence today.

Living and working in New York since the early 1970s, Wool saw a number of exhibitions that greatly impressed him – Joel Shapiro’s tiny cast iron sculpture of a chair in his 1974 exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Brice Marden’s four “Figure” paintings in 1974 at Bykert Gallery, and Malcolm Morley’s 1976 exhibition at the Clocktower. Of particular importance to Wool were the process works associated with Post-minimalism, especially the thrown lead works of Richard Serra. These sculptures of splashed lead are central to Wool’s ideas of process and covering-up in relation to painting, and specifically to picture making.

Wool was also exposed early on to the work of European artists including Richard Hamilton, Yves Klein, Arnulf Rainer, and, most importantly, the Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth, whose long-standing friendship with Wool’s father later resulted in a comprehensive collection of Roth’s production: books, drawings, paintings, graphics, sculptures, installations, and changing works-in-progress occupying his parents’ apartment in Chicago.

Music was also very important to Wool – his great interest in the Art Ensemble of Chicago led him to Ornette Coleman’s performance space in Soho, and he encountered the downtown punk music and club scene of the late 1970s, which also crossed over into film, specifically the films of artists, musicians, and filmmakers – James Nares, Eric Mitchell, John Lurie, Becky Johnston, Vivian Dick, and Michael McClard among them – known as the New Cinema. Beginning in 1978, Wool stopped painting for two years in order to follow his interest in film, including a brief, unsuccessful period of study at New York University. Wool started painting again in 1981, and at the same time he became a studio assistant for Joel Shapiro, a position that he continued to hold part-time for the next four years.

In the early 1980s, Wool’s paintings featured semi-figurative imagery that often played with figures of speech, evident in such titles as The Bigger the Lie the Longer the Nose or Monkey Chase (the dog in me). Wool was working with a limited palette (red, white, and black) with a loose, drippy, wide brushstroke, often over-painting into wet paint, thus emphasizing the process. At this time, Wool was finding it increasingly difficult to identify meaningful imagery. Ultimately, it was the process of painting and the physical properties of paint that became most important to him. As he later reflected: “I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint.'”

In the “silver” paintings of 1984-85 and the “drip” paintings of 1985-86, Wool was trying to make traditional paintings that did not look like traditional paintings – in effect trying to push what might be seen as a painting in order to create a confusion between the act and the image: “Is it a painting or a process?” With these and his subsequent allover works, he sought to define his work by the elimination of everything that seemed unnecessary, thus rejecting color, hierarchical composition, and internal form. Wool’s work is as much defined by its exclusions as its inclusions, as he has stated: “You take color out, you take gesture out – and then later you can put them in. But it’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are.”

The images of the “silver” and “drip” paintings were the product of an allover composition of enamel and aluminum paint poured and dripped onto surfaces of steel backed by wood. In these works, Wool was able to control the application of paint to such a degree that individual dots of paint retain their individual integrity while chemical interactions between the materials produce a secondary process of shadow or halo-like rings that echo them. As Jeff Perrone has described the results, “Wool produced a detailed, all-over field suggesting a chemical peel, a deep etching, some microscopic pitting that could also be read as cosmic, astronomical.”

The drip paintings of Jackson Pollock are an obvious influence on Wool’s process at this time. As John CaIdwell wrote:

Standing before such paintings for the first time is a curious experience. One thinks naturally of Pollock because of the way the paint is dripped onto the metal support, but to remember Pollock is necessarily to experience a sense of loss. Instead of his looping whorls of paint, seemingly uncontrolled, but in fact highly disciplined, one faces in Wool’s work only the arbitrary order of carefully achieved randomness. Undeniably the work is beautiful; for many observers it resembles stars in a night sky. Yet, especially because of the inevitable recall of Pollock’s work, there is no secure sense of what Wool’s paintings mean. They are uniform, deliberate, absolute, and masterful, but entirely resistant to ones natural search for meaning, which they seem to deny.”

In an untitled drip painting from 1986, Wool reduced his palette further, removing silver and white as the alternative to black and covering the surface with only black on black drips. The result was a shiny, mottled surface that gave the work a mirror-like quality as it reflected the contingencies of light and the changing position of the spectator. Wool’s interest in opening the paintings to a wide range of associations was further expanded in this pivotal work, not only by adding to his ongoing investigation of the relationship between process and painted imagery, but also by raising the possibility of a painting that would invite an active, physical engagement with the viewer.

However important the process of dripping paint was to Wool at this time, it was ultimately Pollock’s allover strategy of picture making that was most influential in these and the subsequent body of paintings (begun in 1986) that were produced with rubber rollers commonly used to apply a decorative “wallpaper” patterns to walls. These works mark a distinct break with the earlier drip paintings through their employment of recognizable, banal imagery – flowers, vines, clover, dots – that open the works to associative meanings derived from the particular patterns of the image. Wool selected images that he found the most “naturalistic” and least kitschy, and those that when rolled out made continuous patterns without beginning or end. Using the roller as a tool for both painting and printmaking, these works continue to operate, like the drip paintings, as allover patterns, albeit with a clear figure / ground relationship between the uninflected, chalky white surface of the alkyd on steel ground and the shiny blank enamel paint applied to it. Although he will occasionally substitute dark blue or red for black, or add yellow or pink, Wool’s “palette” remains almost exclusively black and white.

The repetitive patterns of these works are articulated by layering, skips in register, drips and scumbles, what Gary Indiana called “glitches.” The imperfections imbue these works with fragility, as the seemingly empty decorative patterns ate rendered imperfect, and thus vulnerable. As Caldwell observed: “In many works the image is so faint at times that it almost fades away entirely. In fact, the eye does move across the paintings’ surface repeatedly because in ordinary life, outside of painting, variation implies change or development, and the viewer actually tries to read the imperfections of the process for meaning.” Likening Wool’s use of rollers to Andy Warhol’s silk screened paintings of the 1960s, he continued,

In Warhol’s best works, the dead movie star or the electric chair seems to change, and the viewer experiences this with both relief and heightened interest, only to discover that the image is the same and that there is no escaping the harsh reality, or unreality, of the single image itself. Wool is more reticent, cooler even than Warhol. Since the repeated pattern has no inherent meaning and no strong association, we tend to view its variation largely in terms of abstraction, expecting to find in the changes of the pattern some of the meaning we associate with traditional abstract painting.

The last group of roller paintings of this initial period were those using a dot pattern, a more neutral visual presence that refers to the Benday dot and the basic patterns of printing.

In 1987, while Wool continued to make paintings with the roller images, he also began to use words as the imagery in his work. His interest in working with words was first manifested in concrete poems, as well as in titles for abstract paintings. Having seen a brand new, white truck with the words “SEX LUV” hand-painted on the side, he started to work with compositions derived from stenciled words, the first a small drawing alternating the words “sex” and “luv” in a stacked composition. The first painting was a play on the words “trojan horse”, dropping the “a” in trojan and the “e” in horse. These first so-called “word” paintings focused on words or expressions with multiple meanings, particularly as they are broken up in composition, repeated, or modified or abbreviated through the deletion of letters: “helter helter”, and longer texts drawn from expressions originating in popular culture, such as Muhammad Ali’s proclamation “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” His 1988 painting Apocalypse Now draws from Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the text comes from the chilling letter from Captain Colby: “sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.” This work was included in a collaborative installation with Robert Gober at 303 Gallery in New York in 1988, which also included a wall sculpture consisting of three plaster urinals (by Gober), a full length mirror, a collaborative work by Wool and Gober consisting of a small black-and-white photograph of a sleeveless dress, made from cloth printed with the vine roller pattern Wool had used in his paintings; hanging on a tree, and a work of fiction by Gary Indiana in the accompanying publication.

The origins or initial contexts of the texts that Wool used were less important than the possibility of opening them up through composition and their conversion into paintings. Wool extended his interest in layering imagery in the roller paintings to layering meaning in the word paintings through the selection of words or texts that are both common and open-ended. In a group of four-letter word paintings Wool portrays such words as “fear”, “amok”, “awol”, and “riot’, by stacking the letters two over two. In the case of the word “amok’, when stacked it reads an incongruous “am ok’, whereas in “trbl” and “drnk’, Wool has deleted vowels, thus opening up multiple readings.

In 1989-90, Wool made a series of paintings of nine-letter words that describe character traits, types, or roles, such as hypocrite, terrorist, comedian, spokesman, insomniac, paranoiac, adversary, prankster, chameleon, assassin, persuader, and pessimist. Stacking the letters in three rows of three, the words are “read” as an allover composition as well as meaningful text. These “Black Book” paintings – from the title of a 1990 artist’s book by Wool that reproduces all of the words he had assembled as potential subjects – together resonate as a cast of characters; or as the multiple facets of one.

Wool’s work with text recalls that of such artists as diverse as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, all of whom influenced his use of text as image and as vehicle of address. Anticipated in the mirror-like engagement of the viewer in the untitled black-on-black drip painting from 1986, Wool’s text paintings speak out in loaded expressions of direct address and slang. Stumbling and misarticulated in their composition, they are often decipherable only by reading the text out loud.

This is the case in several untitled works of the early nineties that incorporate longer texts, including a series of works that work with different renditions of such expressions as “run dog run”, “cats in the bag”, and “fuck’em if they can’t take a joke.” In a 1988 collaboration with Richard Prince, Wool made two paintings using jokes supplied by Prince: “I didn’t have a penny to my name so I changed my name” and “I went to see a psychiatrist. He said tell me everything. I did, and now he’s doing my act.” In 1990-91, Wool made four untitled paintings using, without punctuation, a passage quoted in Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, a key Situationist text of 1967: “The show is over the audience get up to leave their seats time to collect their coats and go home they turn around no more coats and no more home.”

In each of the paintings, Wool’s stenciled text is composed and painted in a different manner, varying in the composition of the letters and/or words across the surface, as well as in the physical rendering of the stenciled letters and the incorporation, or not, of irregularities, broken edges of the letters, and drips in the paint. For example, one version presents the text in an allover pattern of letters that do not break at words, instead filling the surface from edge to edge until the letters run out halfway across the bottom line. The letters themselves are re-outlined in white paint, which drips into the text. This text was also used in a billboard project and in a 1993 collaboration with Felix Gonzalez-Torres consisting of a stack of sheets of paper printed with the text.

In 1988 Wool added another technique of image/paint application, that of the rubber stamp. Like the rollers, the rubber stamp joined together painting and process. With it Wool was able to broaden his imagery beyond the “off-the-shelf” catalogue of the rollers. These new images included bouquets of flowers, wrought-iron gate patterns, running men, and birds. The “gate” imagery was particularly effective as a continuation of Wool’s involvement in allover pattern. He could construct a pattern with the repetition of the stamped image, in effect “interlocking” the individual stamped images like the links in a gate, as well as altering the integrity of the image through layering, overprinting, and register variation. Working with these rubber stamp images, chosen for the ability to convey a wide range of associations as compositions, Wool continued to consider the associative possibilities of decorative imagery. He also began to engage with the idea of a “generic” painting, an idea that was addressed by a number of artists in the 1980s, notably in the broad stripe paintings of Sherrie Levine.

In 1991-92, Wool concluded the rubber stamp paintings with a series of works using large blowups of the vine leaf roller pattern. These works were shown at Documenta IX in 1992, in a collaborative installation with Robert Gober, on walls covered with a fall forest wallpaper designed by Gober. Wool then began to work with silk screened imagery, which he continues to use to the present. Silkscreen opened up new possibilities of scale and process. Wool’s work of the 1990s began to shift through image construction towards erasure or destruction as a method of image production.

The first silkscreen paintings of 1993 used large blowups of flower images taken from the earlier wallpaper rollers, clip art, wallpaper and textile designs. Wool’s first silkscreen paintings layered black images upon black images in dense compositions with varying degrees of overprinting, clogging, slipping, and obviously dirty screens, all associated with mistakes in the silkscreen process. The banality that one associates with Andy Warhol’s silk screened 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 our certain areas, and then silk screening the black images again, wherein the process that produces the works becomes both additive and reductive. In these and such works as I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me (1994) or Knee Deep (1995), in the process of “painting out” much of the image area with pink or blue-black paint, respectively, Wool is engaged in “a process of covering that became a picture.” These works mark a shift from the allover or systematic approach to composition of the earlier roller and text paintings to more hierarchical compositions. The image area becomes more centralized and the structure more detached from the edges of the frame. The picture plane often seems to be divided horizontally, suggesting consecutive frames from a film.

In 1995, working on large sheets of paper and later on aluminum panels, Wool made works using a spray gun to apply black paint like a drawing. The initial works are simply a single sprayed tangled line on the surface, with the highly liquefied paint dripping down from the initial sprayed mark. Later the spray is used in conjunction with the silkscreen and painting-out techniques. In Maggie’s Brain (1995), a silk screen surface is over painted with white, then silk screened again, and topped with an explosive floral-like spray form in the center of the surface.

In the recent works of 1997, over painting with white becomes very specifically about erasure – erasure as a process of producing and articulating an image. The silkscreen patterns of these works are drawn from blow-ups of the earlier roller patterns, and the white paint that covers aspects of them reinforces the “negative space” of the picture plane as it echoes the original ground of the surface. In his most recent works, Wool has applied a black, spray painted, rectangular “frame” to the surface. Streaming with drips, these “frames” hover over the surface, reinforcing it while at the same time alluding to the convention of the painting as a “window.” Like a disembodied picture of a picture, they frame a painting within a painting.

In addition to his paintings, Wool has worked on paper consistently throughout his career, making both studies for paintings and discrete works specifically conceived for the medium. He has used both painted surfaces and unpainted rice paper for works using rollers, stamps, stencils, silk screens and sprays. These works enrich his oeuvre especially through the incorporation of the materiality of the surface of the paper and the degree of the absorption of the paint.

Wool has also worked in photography, and, since the time that he began to make the word paintings, he has produced a voluminous body of installation shots of his work in his studio, as well as in exhibitions and collections. A sequence of these images has been assembled by the artist for this publication. These casual images form striking parallels to the paintings and works on paper, both in terms of process and as picture. The blurred focus, grainy high contrast, and askew camera angles echo the skips, clogs, and slips of the wallpaper rollers, the distressed images of the silk screens, and the stunning provocations of the text paintings – AMOK, TRBL, PRANKSTER, FUCKEM IF THEY CAN’T TAKE A JOKE. Like the different bodies of paintings, they work with multiple variations; a single painting may be represented in half a dozen images. They incorporate the incidents of reflection and glare that obscure and compromise the subject with white light, nor unlike the over painting that obscures a printed image. As photographs, they function both as documents and as pictures. In one sequence they are in fact the documentation Wool made of the devastating damage to his studio and artwork (for an insurance claim) in the chaotic aftermath of a 1996 fire in his building. These eerie, crime scene-like images were reproduced by Wool in a booklet, Incident on 9th Street, and were published as an edition of photographs. As documentation, reproductions, or as works of art, these photographs, like his paintings, reflect Wool’s ongoing interest in multiple readings.

His work incorporates a steadfast criticality and welcomes contradictions. As one untitled painting states, “You Make Me.” Its speech is boldly directed to the spectator, and yet it remains surprisingly open to interpretation: you make me… you complete me. Through process, technique, scale, composition, and imagery, Wool’s work accentuates the tensions and contradictions between the act of painting, the construction of a picture, its physical attributes, the visual experience of looking at it, and the possibilities of playing with and pushing open the thresholds of its meanings. They are defined by what they’re not – and by what they hold back.

* Ann Goldstein, “What They’re Not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool”, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998): 255-264 (excerpt)