Rock critic Greil Marcus wrote that Christopher Wool’s work conveys a “sense of obsession and hurry, of pressure, fever, danger, and fright.” In the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, Wool achieved this effect through simple means: the painting of words and designs with rubber stamps, pattern rollers, and stencils in blunt colors of black, white, red, and blue. The paintings are gritty, hard, and aggressive, full of fracture and disjointed rhythms, often likened to urban detritus and ruin. In the late 1990s, Wool created silkscreens of aspects of the earlier works, deploying the pieces in new configurations.
Here, Wool uses the ghostly patterns of past paintings as imagery. Pulling from the margins, Wool forms a dialogue with his own history to find meaning in what was previously fugitive or accidental. The result is equivalent to musical distortion or background noise, fully confrontational compositions made through the after effects of other things.
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 The seemingly mass-produced image is unapologetically outdated and stretches across a surface of aluminum.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.