Christopher Wool:   Painting about Painting


In the mid-1980s, when New York artist Christopher Wool was just beginning his career, Madeleine Grynsztejn was a Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art and saw his work in a gallery on 57th Street. “He was just getting started, and so was I,” explains Grynsztejn, curator of contemporary art at Carnegie Museum of Art. “I asked the dealer to arrange a studio visit, my first one. I had to climb interminable stairs to the top floor of a little building in Chinatown. But even then, he had honed in on his particular vision, and had established what was important to him, and what he wanted to say.”

The first major survey of Wool’s work, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and opens at Carnegie Museum of Art on November 21, includes approximately 50 works ranging from the time of Grynsztejn’s visit to the present. The pieces in the exhibition, which are drawn from American and European collections, include patterned, stamped, and silkscreened paintings and works on paper. Also included are Wool’s stenciled text paintings, of which the Carnegie Museum of Art owns the largest example.
At the time of Grynsztejn’s first studio visit, Wool was working in black and white, producing tightly controlled drip paintings, and running decorative rollers over a white ground to produce floral and gate-like images. Soon after seeing the words sex and luv written in black paint on the side of a white truck outside his studio, Wool stenciled sex and luv in black repeatedly across a white ground. His second text painting, Apocalypse Now, recasts a letter from the Francis Ford Coppola film that says: sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids. The message evokes a vision: no house, no family, none of those accoutrements that make ordinary life worthwhile. Wool did not simply stencil the words—he broke them up so that reading the text in the usual way is an effort. You can’t scan it, you have to decipher it.

The untitled text painting that was included in the 1991 Carnegie International is based on a proposal submitted to exhibition curators Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis, formerly chief curator at The Andy Warhol Museum. It was exhibited during the International outside the museum next to the Sculpture Court, and now hangs in the museum’s rear entrance.

The statement in the painting is lifted from Greil Marcus’ social commentary, Lipstick Traces, and is a definition of nihilism as quoted by situationist Raoul Vaneigem: 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.

“It’s not just a statement,” Francis cautions. “It’s a painting.” Wool’s earlier work, wrote the late John Caldwell, a former curator of contemporary art at Carnegie Museum of Art, to whom the exhibition is dedicated, was about “the process of painting itself.” According to exhibition curator Ann Goldstein, Wool still returns today to the question of how to paint, rather than what.
In the large text paintings, a viewer can see the drips, the unevenness of the letters, can regard it as a pattern of black on white rather than a written message.  As Grynsztejn points out in her catalogue essay, “Unfinished Business,” “inherent in any viewer’s reception is the experiential fact of reading and looking as simultaneously exclusive acts.... Wool deliberately choreographs a collision between different components of language—grammatical, semantic, visual, imaginary, and spoken—that conveys an emotional magnitude beyond the range of everyday speech and closer in spirit to the true proportions of Wool’s subject: the inherent inefficacy and near-constant failure of language.” The text paintings, according to Grynsztejn, call up the psychic territory of the streets of New York, the urban turbulence that takes place outside of Wool’s studio.

Wool’s newer work, incorporating proofreader’s marks, x’s and o’s, undulating lines, “veers toward image,” Grynsztejn writes, “approaches language, and devolves into shape again in a purposeful fluctuation that steadfastly refuses resolution.” This work, like the text paintings, tempts the viewer to “read” it, but ultimately resists. As in all of Wool’s work, it is the process, the physical properties of the paint, that a viewer ultimately returns to. As critic John Lewis writes in the August 1998 Harper’s Bazaar, Wool is “one of the very few artists keeping painting alive, aware, ornery and unafraid.”

Ellen S. Wilson is a contributing editor to Carnegie Magazine.

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