I Smell a Rat
Christopher Wool’s work emerged in the 1980s when neo-expressionist painting had achieved ascendancy not only in New York but also in Germany and Italy. In reaction to this climate, Wool, along with painters like Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, reinvented abstract painting by addressing historical arguments against painterly expression as a valid art form. Specifically, Wool brought the lineage of conceptual and minimalist art to bear on abstract painting, not conceding the end of painting to theoretical debate but instead imagining a painting fully aware of its own criticism.
Untitled, 1987, exemplifies Wool’s early practice of painting with patterned rollers. The seemingly mass-produced image is unapologetically outdated and stretches across a surface of aluminum. With a consistent all-over composition, as in works of color field artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko but without any claims to beauty or transcendence, Wool’s image invites arguments against color field painters as “decorative” or accusations that their works recall “wallpaper.” At the same time, however, the painting moves past parody or mere criticism. Countering a seamless, mass-produced aesthetic, Wool’s image is gritty and full of the imperfections resulting from rolling the paint. These errors add a vulnerability to the work, which some historians have described as expression entering from the “back door.”
In the late 1980s, Wool began incorporating text into his work, inspired by graffiti on a local truck that displayed “sex” and “luv.” The paintings that followed are perhaps Wool’s most recognizable images, employing large passages of text from cultural idioms or song lyrics from popular culture. Untitled, 1990, features the words “Run Dog Run” printed across a series of nine aluminum panels. The words are repeated in a staccato fashion, clipped in half by line breaks imposed by Wool. The repetition of words, use of unconventional spacing, and intentionally clumsy rhythms give the sense that communication is broken or disabled.