Re: Christopher Wool
Apocalypse and Wallpaper by Glen O’Brien
All modern art begins to appear comprehensible and in a way great when it is interpreted as an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world.
– Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art
Glenn O’Brien: Was Pollock the end or was he just getting warmed up?
Christopher Wool: He’d barely started. His late black paintings are actually my favorites….completely underappreciated. It’s idiotic that they are seen as “figurative” thus retrograde. Critics….who needs them but you can’t kill them…
From a conversation published in Purple, vol. 3, number 6
Charlie Parker recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1949 and it’s still now. New is what works now. We may question modernism, but we still can’t help looking for that thing that snaps us out of autopilot and makes us look up on the chance we might see something in the present, right in front of us. Epiphanies happen. Oh snap!
Christopher Wool’s paintings do that kind of job now-conjuring new visions, flipping out fresh takes, constructing unheard of pictures that shock and thrill the curious and the jaded the way New York abstractionists did back in the boho fifties. But this is no rehash. It’s not Abstract Expressionism for Dummies. Wool has absorbed the whole esthetic enchilada of the 20th Century and he refries it afresh each time. He beautifully circumvents the big bad art-historical rules the way the Pop Art rebels did in the sixties. It’s a brand new bag (synthesis)-a big, hungry eye with a great rhythmic ear. For me it’s a visual analog to that jazz that’s stuck in my head, something that moves me like Epistrophy or On the Corner. A door to the gray area where the future comes from.
Christopher Wool is not an art movement. But his art is always moving, transitively and to the extent that it seems to change from viewing to viewing. Wool isn’t a movement guy nor is he a clubman or a joiner, but he has his fellow travelers, collaborators, aficionados and co-conspirators. If there is a movement related to him it will come from the youngsters, improving new chops from his central, influential grooves. And those with a good eye will see here a mode of departure that is strong and true. As Lord Buckley once said: “Yeah, there’s the hard lick that makes this endless drag flip city.”
From now on when I say Pop Art, I mean what people think about Pop Art today and when I say Abstract Expressionism, I mean what people think about Abstract Expressionism today. As Dick Higgins wrote in 1967 “Whatever the debt that others who are generally considered Pop Artists owe to Oldenburg…in my opinion Oldenburg belongs more properly to whatever movement Goya was a member of.” We’re in this for the long haul.
You can’t look at the work of Christopher Wool, or you can’t begin to look at it, without thinking of Jackson Pollock. Wool began his career with drip paintings, and he has progressed into ever more complex strategies of abstraction and the articulation of ephemeral concepts. And he’s done all this after the nominal end of abstract expressionism, the perceived end of abstract art and the declared end of painting. Quite a coup and he’s getting away with it.
Pollock and Wool are very different creatures. Pollock is dead, for example. He was loud, unsubtle, drunk and by all accounts obnoxious. Wool is alive. Also cool, dry, subtle and quite pleasant. But it’s about the work. There’s something important and umbilical there, and the more one looks at Wool’s masterful accomplishment the more one realizes that we are beholding an extraordinary and important achievement. We’re at ground zero.
So, what has Pollock, the anointed and martyred artist of introspection and high seriousness, to do with Wool, the quietly controversial, unobtrusively cool artist whose abstractions are made with the tools of a graffiti artist and whose titles come from James Brown and Funkadelic?
Frank O’Hara wrote that Pollock’s work was a quest for spiritual clarity. “The effort to achieve such a state is monumental and agonizing, and once achieved it is a harrowing state to maintain. In this state all becomes clear, and Pollock declared the meanings he had found with astonishing fluency, generosity and expansiveness.”
When Pollock’s Caddy went airborne it seemed to put the exclamation point on the sentence of Abstract Expressionism. It was an act that couldn’t be followed. Andy Warhol used to say: “He was too introspective. He thought too much. That’s why he killed himself.” So even though non-objective painting continued after Pollock, even though the best of them got better, art history moved on. It took Pop to bring back shock and the new. But the monumental clarity has come only in dribs and drabs.
But then slowly and surely Christopher Wool has reinvented abstraction and created a radical new way of working that partakes of that clarity and that heroism, but in a way that is shockingly novel and perhaps heretically casual. The work achieves spiritual clarity, but in a way that might horrify the hipster of a past generation, he makes it look easy. This is the cool clarity of a later time.
Wool has made these free wheeling pictures with a full understanding and appreciation of abstraction and of Pop too. So then what is his relation to the half-century old practice of the transcendental Jack the Dripper aside from their mutual thoroughgoing abstraction and a groundbreaking invisibility to the philistines of their time?
One could superficially interpret Wool’s paintings as parodies of Pollock’s seriousness, as a cynical re-enactment of action painting utilizing an impoverished bag of tricks hijacked from vandalism. But then one would be missing the point. (If anything Pollock parody describes Mike Bidlo, but even Bidlo does it with love.) No, Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source material and he then 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 in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low. But despite the many apparent contradictions the work is singular, strong, organic and as deep as it might appear shallow.
One of the subtitles in Harold Rosenberg’s essay “The American Action Painters” (1959) is “Apocalypse and Wallpaper.” That makes a nice tag for what Wool is up to. There is a painting titled Apocalypse -SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS-and a series of paintings made with the rubber rollers used to mimic wallpaper. In a way that title sums up the ways in which Wool is a perfect bridge between the action painters championed by Rosenberg and the generation that followed and, in a way, opposed them. He is the Pop/Action painter, an action/reaction painter.
Harold Rosenberg created the term Action Painting, in doing so promulgating an idea that changed the course of art. He wrote: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Suddenly the artist was not the great craftsman as much as the great actor or athlete, working in the moment. It was the inspired act, in the moment-not the grand plan, executed over time. Wool works the way the action painters work, but that is only the first step in a process that involves considerable calculated manipulation, calculated action in reaction to the original strokes. Here the tools of the pop artist, like silkscreen, and the graphic designer, Photoshop, meet the neo-primitive tools of the action painter.
William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility.” So maybe Wool’s is a poetic approach to action painting where the action becomes the subject of contemplation and then further acts, less actiony acts. It’s almost a true fusion of Abstract Expressionism and Pop-a noble bastard if ever there was one.
Warhol mocked abstract expressionism, admiring their achievements but smarting from their macho attitudes. Yet he himself only eliminated the token action drips on his first pop paintings when Emile de Antonio told him they were “shit.” According to Dave Hickey the Warhol soup can was the artists way of putting Abstract Expressionism (i.e. “soup”) back into the can.
Wool makes the soup too, (lots of noodles,) yest, he makes gestural paintings in a more or less traditionalist manner, then makes the can, manipulating the gestures later with reproductive and collage techniques from the primitive– cutting and pasting by hand–to the state-of-the-art using computers and graphic design programs. But the same sort of instinct and transcendent judgment that created the initial impulsive marks is also expressed in the deliberate use of the higher tech tools. And, in the process, and it’s all about the process, he manages to redeem painting from academic argument and décor, bringing it back to life by inventing a sort of action/reaction painting that resolves more contradictions than you can shake a brush at.
Wool uses clip art and decorative rollers in the same way he uses verbal clichés. He recycles base materials, signs of commercial kitsch and decorative banality and the husks of devalued emotional triggers, transforming them through a sort of alchemical overkill into strangely beautiful compositions. He’s mining the same ores at Koons, but the results are radically different, from the precisely absurd to the funkily sublime. Wool’s abstractions employing flower clips are not about kitsch. As Rosenberg noted: In America kitsch is nature.” Wool’s compositions spring from the spirit of the urban landscape. With Christopher Wool as with Richard Prince or Paul McCarthy, Playboy is mother nature.
Wool’s work is funky. It is high funk. It is consciously funky, from its appropriation of graffiti tactics to it’s urban povera aesthetic to its references to funk music. “Why must I chase the cat…” “I can’t stand myself when you touch me…”
Christopher Wool takes it to the bridge, spanning abstract expressionism and pop, drama and comedy, funk and the sublime. The emblem of his advanced funkiness is his spray squiggle-with all the innocence of an amateur doodle, yet all the stealth of a master brush stroke. That funk is the P-Funk. Fifty years on Pollock’s paint splash looks very artistic, whereas in its day it was a shocker. But no naked emperor connotations survive. The equivalent shocker today is Wool’s joyous squiggle, a gesture usually associated with impromptu juvenile defacement, obliteration, error. It has a motor-bootiness to it that is guaranteed to produce discomfort in the academically squeamish. That’s street knowledge.
A few years ago a patronizing adult looked at a colorful abstract drawing my five year old son was working on and said, “Oh, that’s really good! Is it a house.” My son looked the questioner over skeptically and said, “It’s a scribble!”
But look at how free it is, a scribble. Look at how that sprayed line seems to have a mind of its own, or is it a mindlessness of its own? It’s the arm aspiring to freedom in randomness, dowsing a psychic magnetic field, making tracks to a secret place where the artist is as natural as a preying mantis or a local god.
Okay, lets have a show of hands.
Graffiti is the human signature of the city. Tags are the only non-corporate individual markings in the city landscape. The spray can and marker make the only show of hands. If it were art, graffiti would be revolutionary art.
Graffiti is never abstract, but sometimes the lettering is very abstracted, pushing legibility to the limit. At the height of New York’s “wild style” movement, with its heavily decorated letters (or armed letters, as Rammellzee would put it) readability was trumped by graphic spectacle. But I recall taking an Amtrak train to Philadephia where the tracks into the city, particularly near the North Philadelphia station passed through desolate post-industrial slum with weird fields of graffiti that seemed almost like an alien alphabet. It was genuinely ill. It looked like Chinese on crack and angel dust. I don’t know what physical cues Wool provides himself when composing a sprayed line, but the results can be as strange and unsettling as those Philly tags. Sometimes his line is easy and loopy and partakes of the innocence of childlike doodling, but other times it is uneasy, tense and ill.
The word paintings are hard edge on the edge. It’s not reductio ad absurdum or a send up. It’s painting with attitude. It’s not exactly Robert Ryman with found lyrics, or Ad Reinhardt meets concrete poetry but it’s up that alley. It is minimal in its self-defined context, painted words stripped down to the bondo. It is abstraction of language itself, but it’s also about the tension running along the thin line between mass production and the personal hand. It’s about the aura of the stencil, about energy radiating and splashing from the confines of the character. It’s sign-painting with feedback.
The chosen words and phrases are All-American mantras, knucklehead koans, idiot ideograms. They are about conventional wisdom, common knowledge and default settings. They are compressed and concentrated like Alka Seltzer or Pez. They are bricks. Clunky, dangerous, mass-produced, but no two exactly alike and their composition on the canvas or page or slab puts them under a philological, microscope..
Sometimes, if you look at a word long enough, it’s stops making sense. And then you can start over again with it. We deconstruct the word and the letter and the phrase by contemplating it in skewed order, instinctively going for acrostic . Wool deconstructs words and decontextualizes phrases by stacking letters at faux random. The process generates calligraphic effects, acrostic reverb and a kind of Rubik’s cubism of meaning.
For the great impenetrable fakakta theorist of graffiti Ramellzee, graffiti was a scientific restoration of the alphabet’s power, with limitless metaphysical connotations, from the Van Allen belt to blood types. Undoubtedly the graffiti writers remanipulation of the letter had a deep iconography. Even graffiti has its cabalists. But this work is more casual. It’s about the meeting point between the machine and hand work, between formula and expression There are no answers here, only good questions about how characters and words work. Or not.
Unlike the swaggering abstractionists of the fifties, the purist painters, Wool doesn’t disassociate his paintings from at least a metaphoric relationship to the world. There’s a street-smart quality to his esthetic. He’s a connoisseur of chaos and a cartographer of disorder. His photographs, as in his book East Broadway Breakdown (2002) lays out a vision of apocalyptic entropy: graffiti on graffiti, vagrant dogs, wrecked chassis, scary spills and the abstract expressionism of blood, urine and motor oil, the gleam of pvc bagged trash, toxic stains, and demented detritus. Here’s the flotsam of Office Depot farce and the jetsam of the studio apartment tragedy, a world of dreams put out on the curb and waiting to be hauled off and given a decent or at least ecologically correct burial. But even absent of image there’s true grit in the sub-stratum, in the sub-iconography of the work.
Jean-Michel Basquiat loved the do-it-yourself bilingual bricolage aesthetic of Alphabet City, the of bootstrap enterprise. Wool, another far Eastsider, has a similar romance with 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. Here is the action painting of the unconscious-accidental splashes and streaks that mark fields of blighted architecture. The over-painting of his large canvases resembles nothing more than the amateur abstract paintings that are the whitewashed windows of empty storefronts.
Wool’s swirling squiggles ride the canvas with fraught exhilaration. Sometimes Wool’s knotted lines seem loopy and comic other times they are furious or tense. When they accrete they look like cross outs, negations, but what they are crossing out is often blankness itself. They are crossing out nothing. Usually they avoid the edge, marking territory with animal energy, like a dog on a pissing marathon, extending proprietary redolence over the full scope of available space. I fuck this space up therefore I own it.
Compare Wool’s line to Brice Marden’s. Marden’s line swings as it inscribes the plane. It has rhythm and elegance. It’s almost pastoral; the kind of line one might find on a topographic map or as an element in some Islamic décor. It is almost calligraphic measure. Wool’s line is drastic, edgy and anarchic. Sometimes it has a sort of nuclear center, orbiting a ground zero in mid-canvas while other times it’s like tracks of weird subatomic particles skidding through a cloud chamber. Sometimes the lines ignores the confines of the canvas which becomes a sort of arbitrary grid or section, superimposed over the real ground of action. Then there is more to the painting than meets the eye and that part is real gone. Then it begins with the line, never a straight line, or the shortest distance between two points, but a careening, tortuous, insane line, a unmeasured distance between here and whatever.
Sometimes Wool’s line, doubling back on and crossing itself creates islands of bio-morphic shape reminiscent of Baziotes or Miro, particularly when the tonality is manipulated to give the delineated space clarity. (Untitle 2006 silkscreen ink on paper 72 x 55 1/4) Sometimes Wool’s line, like Basquiat’s line, achieves a frenetic graphic equivalent of syncopation by setting up a rhythm and then playing with the stresses, riffing against our expectations.
Wool begins with action painting, then he edits it. He doesn’t just overpaint the plane, he rearranges it. He creates a sort of Photoshop cubism in which the plane is both real and illusionary, whole and composite.
Wool creates an archeological dig on canvas. Under-painting is often an important part of abstract painting, but here it is a matter of interactive layering. We are so used to the simple plane of the canvas that Wool’s assemblages of the plane, often only slightly off or out of register and his sometimes hard to see or invisible cuts and edits make the pictorial arena a mystery.
Every painting is a history and Wool’s over-painting, his blotting and scumbling is a multi-purpose strategy that gives the work areas of discourse, areas of revelation, areas of concealment or metaphorical occultism. Over-painting can reflect a change of course or it can be a strategy from the get go. Every painting has a time signature, and sometimes Wool plays with this. What came first here? What was added? What’s the frequency, Kenneth? (Noland?)
Sometimes the bottom leaps to top, as if reclaiming turf from the neurotic scribble that cuts across the surface, undecided between randomness and skewed logic. (Untitled 2002 104 x 78) Sometimes broad over-strokes partially conceal an armature of line. (Untitled 2006 96 x 72) Sometimes the over-painting leaves traces of the line’s path, or the thick-brushed gray covering mimics or reacts to the thin black spray line beneath. But however he layers a composition there’s always the ironic dichotomy: depth in 2D. Wool creates depth where there is none, showing that depth is an illusion as much as anything.
The stencil and the roller are primitive forms of mass production, the bridge between hand and technology. But all tools are equal here-spray paint, roller, stencil or a terabyte of memory.
The perfect splash of Wool’s “Minor Mishap” resembles completely a successful abstract expressionist gesture, maybe a Clyfford Still painting. But is also a sort of acheiropoieta-an icon not made by hand. If you can see Mother Theresa’s face in a raisin bun then you could see an agonized Christ in this blood red drip of silkscreen ink. You could see a lot of things. It is certainly an evocative abstraction and this sort of accidental abstract reminds us of the spectral image evoking power of abstract art at its best. The acheiropoieta of the 9th century, miraculously produced images, were seen as proof that iconoclasm was against the will of God. Undoubtedly the capacity for the miraculous is indelibly ingrained in humanity, and the best random productions of Wool’s process have that kind of evocative power. The drip of Minor Mishap is, in fact, re-used again and again as a silk screen component in other works, an icon of accident. And by repeating these painting moments via silkscreen Wool creates a sort of emotional hieroglyphs or ideograms that stand, like musical tones, for inscrutable yet real states.
This is a large part of Wool’s modus operandi-capturing the action and re-using it. It was also a part of the Warhol repertoire, and he developed it to the threshold of where Wool now operates with the “Shadows” series, where abstraction met pop mass production. Wool takes that combination of abstract action and mechanized manipulation much further. Maybe his work has more in common with some Warhol fakes.
There is a peculiar beauty to some Warhol fakes because, as Rene Ricard pointed out to me, the lazy forgers, using Warhol’s original screens, neglected to clean them and so the images became more abstract the more paintings they made. When Wool overpaints with silkscreens he deliberately allows them to accumulate ink and dirt with the effect of creating distortion. Think fuzztone on a guitar line.
Warhol found magic in the imperfections of the printing process, in the colorful auras created by out of register silk-screens, the accidents of overlap. Wool is also interested in the copy of the copy of the copy, but he takes it farther. Like Roy Lichtenstein he loves the dot array of printing, but in his hands the image is gone. The process is all that’s left. This is the devil in the details-think Lichtenstein on angel dust. We usually consider the consequences of the chain of transmission in the negative, as “transmission loss.” But for Wool the process is not about loss but gain, about the inverse accrual of distortion gain. As the copy is copied it becomes more original. The process itself enters the picture, presenting a portrait of the void in the machine.
Wool runs the human soul as expressed through pure, almost animal expression through the reproductive technology, copying it until something else emerges, the soul of the machine. Warhol declared he wanted to be a machine. But Wool figured out how to make the machine human.
Mass production was an inspiration of the Pop Art sensibility. Democratically Pop perceived value in whatever was popular. A purchase equals a vote. And so Pop Art was a dehumanized art, using commercial art for its own sake, reveling in the romance of the impersonal and the corporate. But it’s not as as corrupt as it sounds. Pop, said Warhol, was about liking things. So it was more about like the soup label or the Supremes than about dissing seriousness.
Wool’s more recognizable pop sources are played the way a musician would play them. Maybe not a pop musician but a jazz musician. The word paintings are like standards beloved by the beboppers-they take power from playing against the familiar and finding inversions and secondary meanings and ironies in the context of the expected and the banal. Wherever there are snatches of cartoon and kitsch clip art there is also pure bebop. Like the boppers he transforms kitsch into something powerful and primal. The cartoon flowers have a sort of skull and bones mojo to them, projecting the doom of happiness, the sinister bend of the cute. They are late breaking flowers of evil.
In the pattern paintings, made with wallpaper rollers and lacy grids, he take prettiness and jacks it up until Marshall amp level distortion sets in. This amp goes to eleven. You’re in Sonic Youth territory where the composition seems to swarm, gathered within the borders of the canvas as if by magnetic force or biological imperative. He achieves a kind of graphic atonality, hitting those sour keys like Thelonious Monk or laying down swirling tonal clouds of like late Coltrane. To quote a Monk title, it’s “Ugly Beauty.” It’s reinventing beauty for an age that has outlived it.
Apocalypse? Now? What happens when the world ends? Bangs? Whimpers? Whoop-de-doos? Life goes on, I suppose. Apocalypse is a moving target. The end is always at hand for somebody. It has to be, to fill the seats of the churches, and maybe the gallery openings too.
Something is always ending and something is always beginning. At the beginning of abstraction, it was seen as the end of the picture and the end of humanistic art. The public was alienated and scandalized by the antics of what they perceived as extremist artists, from Picasso to Pollack, while astute commentators from Ortega y Gasset to Wyndham Lewis to Malraux saw abstraction as a new sort of extremism. There were now two art audiences, the traditional public and the initiated public. The artist was seen as turning his back on the mass audience, creating a clandestine sect dedicated to illuminating private worlds closed to the public. Ortega called it “artistic art.” Lewis called it “extremist art,” and defined it as art alienated from the craft of the medium and dependent on theoreticians. Ortega saw the new art as young and an inevitable consequence of democracy and mass-communcation. But Lewis saw the new artist, the abstract artist, as serving the program of the pundit-prophet (think Clement Greenberg), an “agent of the Zeitgeist,” and therefore fashion.
But maybe we’ve underestimated the public. Maybe this is where it all comes together. A pop apocalypse. Apocalypse means “lifting of the veil,” and it refers to the disclosure of mysteries hidden from the many. Maybe there is a new young public, tuned in not to the networks, but the networks of networks, to a quantum field of signs and data, a public to whom abstraction is just another avenue of perception. Not that they made an effort. They just couldn’t help it. They get it. Abstraction is nature now. Ultimately that’s what Christopher Wool’s work is about-about the abstraction of consciousness, perception and expression, about second nature becoming nature, about the wallpaper starting to swing hard.
Like they say on Avenue D: “It is what it is.”
A painting by Christopher Wool in the Tate Modern, London