Christopher Wool Blue Fool, 1990 Enamel on aluminum 108

Christopher Wool

The first time I went to England was in 1984; a point in history when American and European culture diverged in an epistemological bifurcation from which they have not, and probably never will recover. I remember hostels full of eighteen-year-old Euro-trash nomads all convinced that Reagan’s senile hand trembled constantly over the Button, while Time or Newsweek or Rolling Stone trumpeted cheerfully: "See? Orwell was Wrong!" I also remember inexplicable T-shirts absolutely everywhere, with large plain black letters spelling "Frankie Say RELAX." I found out later that these referred to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s prototechno single, which advocated the tantric deferral of orgasm in pursuit of even more intense sexual experiences. A similar restraint, to somewhat different ends, characterizes the black-and-white alkyd-on-aluminum word-and-pattern paintings of Christopher Wool.

Slick, flat, and fast, Wool's Pop-Minimalism generally falls into one of three categories: stencils; free-floating words or phrases crammed into the rectangle a la Robert Indiana's Love; rolled or silk-screened gymnastic floral patterning with optional Polke-delelic layering or ersatz gestural spray-can scribbling. Both withholding and selectively indulging some of the constituents of the act of painting, Wool seeks to betray the supposed conceptual and formal underpinnings of painterly practice while continuing to produce the artifacts themselves, thereby simultaneously debunking and reinventing the conventions of the medium. The fact that the resulting body of work is marked by its intellectual and sensual niggardliness only goes to prove how much more highly evolved or "with it" one must be in order to glean its benefits. And beneficial it must be, as anything that tastes so bad, benumbs with such rote repetition (both within its own parameters and in the larger context of contemporary art-making and graphic design), and relies so heavily on coercive criticalism to lend it authority must be. Otherwise, why would anyone bother paying attention to it?

By eradicating and reintroducing a narrow band of image-making activities, and by emphasizing their flaws, Wool pretends to be critiquing the language of painting, when in fact he is critiquing the language of art criticism as if it were the same thing. Count Korzybski would not be amused. Specifically, Wool is providing illustrations to reinforce and advocate a willful and wholly inappropriate projection of deconstructivist insights regarding the limitations of verbal representation onto a much larger field of phenomena, which long ago accommodated the trifling semiotic glitches that academics like Wool or Joseph Kosuth deem so earth-shaking. This isn't even mistaking the menu for the meal— it's eating the restaurant review.

Only by limiting one's investigations to such a small and unrepresentative sample, and bolstering its "as if" conceptualism with the qualifying leger-de-main of Important Arguments can such a mechanism be forced into even the briefest sputtering semblance of life. This very futility is touted as a rationale for the work, especially in the show's ridiculously overblown catalogue, which is equal parts intellectual hyperbole and high-school yearbook—if there were only one graduating senior, and his dad owned the local publishing house. Not that this prevents Wool from producing enough objects of a particular scale and attractively mannered formal superficiality (particularly those scary punk-rock paintings with the F-word) to keep the gravy trickling down to his studio assistants and curators. Fie. Wool's paintings ultimately recall some embarrassing trust-fund student emulating Warhol and Ruscha, but understanding neither, instead dressing up meager wordplay and old-hat graphic shticks in teacher's-pet practice-runs at getting the lingo right.

Room after room of MOCA'S mid-career survey, organized by curator Ann Goldstein, attests to Wool's faux-conceptual drabness—to his inability to perceive, let alone engage the vast polysensual battery of linguistic issues that lie beyond the petty and degraded third-generation buzzword-only rhetorical shack his work inhabits. After the ten-thousandth sighting of the RELAX T-shirt, the absence of a joke began to wear a bit thin, and I started to more fully appreciate a similarly designed, much less prevalent but far more incisively critical serigraph-on-cotton making the rounds. It read, "Who Gives a Shit WHAT Frankie Say?"

Doug Harvey say "Relax."

Art issues. September/October 1998