Executed in 2003, Untitled is a mesmerizing example of the so-called ‘gray’ paintings that represent an important development within Christopher Wool’s abstract practice. With its hypnotic black scrawl overwritten with sweeping gestural smears, the work bears witness to the dialogue between creation and erasure that represents the cornerstone of his artistic outlook. Evolving from the distinctive pattern and word paintings that dominated Wool’s output throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Wool’s abstract paintings undermined the rigid compositional structure of these earlier works, embracing free gesture for the first time and reasserting the presence of the artist’s hand within his practice. During the previous decade, Wool had begun to experiment with effacing his own work, manipulating silkscreens of pre-existing paintings and overwriting his own gestures with thick brushwork. It was not until his chance discovery of the effects produced by erasing his work with turpentine that the gray paintings were born: lyrical theses on the relationship between addition and subtraction. In this series of works, which alternate incessant mark-making with a continual erosion of the pictorial surface, Wool had finally uncovered a means of expressing his own convictions about the transient, unstable nature of all art-making. Through their twisted dialogue between assertion and destruction, declaration and denial, the gray paintings are both monuments to the continued survival of painting and deep expressions of doubt as to the very nature of image production in the postmodern age.
Wool’s gray paintings were the product of nearly two decades of continual evolutionary progress within his practice. His word and pattern paintings, created using an arsenal of rollers and stencils, represented a bold and measured response to the gauntlet laid down by Douglas Crimp’s 1981 essay The Death of Painting. However, despite the rigid formal properties of these works, with their stark grids of motifs and letters, as early as 1991 Wool had begun to imbue his practice with notions of erasure, distortion and uncertainty. The trajectory was set in motion with his artist’s book Cats in Bag Bags in River, in which he dragged photographs of his word and pattern paintings repeatedly through a photocopier, revelling in the grainy effect of reproduction as well as experimenting with cropping and colour. By 1993, Wool had transferred this technique onto a larger scale, deploying silkscreen methods to create ruptured versions of his roller works, and often painting over his efforts with a large brush. This was to become his primary modus operandi for the next few years, supplemented from 1998 onwards by a deliberate appropriation of his own works, transforming them into new paintings through his now highly developed panoply of techniques. In 2000, however, an accidental discovery paved the way for a new body of work: whilst struggling with a sprayed yellow enamel work, in a burst of frustration he attacked his composition with a cloth soaked in turpentine. Entranced by the blurred mass created at the centre of the work, Wool reverted to black, applying his distinctive looping patterns to canvas with a spray gun, sweeping his rag across the surface and repeating the process to create a series of hazy gray apparitions. In the dialogue between drawing and erasing, a mesmerizing concoction of veils and lines is born: a palimpsest of abstract painterly layers and gleaming white pentimenti which intermingle interminably across the surface.
As the curator Katherine Brinson has suggested, the indeterminacy and flux of the gray paintings represents a direct expression of Wool’s own equivocal relationship with the status of the contemporary artwork. As she explains, ‘The anti-heroic notion of mark-unmaking correlates with a conviction lying at the heart of Wool’s oeuvre—that linear progression towards artistic mastery is a modernist relic; that “the traditional idea of an objective masterpiece is no longer possible.” Abandoning this goal, the artist operates in a realm of pervasive uncertainty: “Without objectivity you’re left with doubt, and doubt insists on plurality.”’ Indeed, as she goes on to argue, ‘The gray paintings’ effacement has an undeniably emotive tenor. When asked in an interview to explain his use of erasure in various forms, Wool responded with four words: change, doubt, indecisiveness, and, perhaps surprisingly on the face of it, poetry. The literal loss enacted in the realization of these paintings endows them with the character of a lamentation, chiming with the potent strands of angst and melancholia that have always run close to the surface of his work, despite its game face of cool indifference’ (K. Brinson, “Trouble is my Business,” in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2014, p. 47). The liminal state embodied by the gray paintings speaks to the very core of Wool’s aesthetic: challenging the traditional notion of a completed artwork, they are eulogies to painterly process and, by extension, to the never-ending possibilities latent within the medium.
Wool’s defence of painting coincided with a period of soul-searching within the art world about its continued viability. Coming to prominence within the urban milieu of post-Punk New York, his vocabulary of inscribing and erasing was steeped in the caustic visual language of graffiti that nourished his earliest works. However, the gray paintings ultimately go beyond this Zeitgeist. Instead, they may be understood as polemical visual expressions of the ways in which painting—with its inherently fluid condition—has the potential to continually undermine and redefine the parameters of art. Wool has spoken of his admiration for Dore Ashton’s publication on Philip Guston Yes, But…--a turn of phrase that he felt summed up his aesthetic outlook. As the artist has explained, “I define myself in my work by reducing the things I don’t want—it seems impossible to know when to say “yes,” but I do know what I can say “no” to … It’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are” (C. Wool, quoted in A. Schwartzman, “Artists in Conversation I: Chuck Close, Philip Taaffe, Sue Williams, Christopher Wool,” in Birth of the Cool: American Painting from Georgia O’Keeffe to Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zu¨rich, Zurich, 1997, pp. 32-34). Nowhere is this sense of productive doubt more aptly expressed than bold yet ultimately unstable surfaces of the gray paintings: articulated with the gritty assertiveness of street art yet riddled with ambiguity, uncertainty and vacancy, they embody the central tenets of Wool’s practice.