KünstlerInnenporträts 78

Conversation with Christopher Wool

Martin Prinzhorn: I want to start to talk about the use of letters in your paintings. I always saw this as a kind of reaction from a painting position to conceptual art. These letters were used as a kind of anti-painting attitude, and I have the feeling that they were used in your work quite differently. So, could you maybe start by saying something about the use of letters in your work. 

Christopher Wool: I was unaware of this – but I always considered myself involved with painting, and I never imagined that there would be this confusion. I think some of it had to do with – especially the text works you're talking about – people seeing the work in reproduction, as opposed to seeing the work themselves. Is that possible with the text paintings, the letters? I can't imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it's a painting. But people surprise me all the time.

MP: Well, but people have this very superficial idea that if there are letters on a canvas, then it might not be real painting. So why did you choose to work on a formal level with something which is also used in a very different context by artists who just start with letters in order to make a meta-comment on the medium painting. Take Baldessari's work from the sixties and seventies.

CW: I wasn't making a comment.

MP: That's what I am saying, but why did you choose to work with letters?

CW: I guess, if I remember back, I had something to say. I had something to say that was maybe more literal than what I had been able to say before. I remember once, a friend of mine reminded me many, many years ago, someone I went to art school with, I used to go around saying "Never, never put words in paintings!" And I must have forgotten about that. Who knows why you do anything? It wasn't so carefully thought out. There were a couple of things ringing in my head, so I made them into paintings.

MP: Well, I think that, no, I know that several conceptual artists really hate you for entering their grounds on this formal level.

CW: The feeling is mutual.

MP: Maybe one reason for this really could be that your work kind of proves that as soon as you use a canvas and you do anything with a canvas, you are doing painting. And what conceptual artists did was try to prove sometimes that you can have letters and then it wouldn't be a painting anymore, which never works. And I think this could be the source of this dislike.

CW: Well, in a way you just answered the first question. It seems obvious – if you use a canvas, no matter what it is you're doing with it, it's a painting. That's good – we just answered the first question. Oh, and then with the conceptual artists – it's not personal. It's the work, not them. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else.

MP: When you started in the early eighties, would you think of yourself as being part of a group and a movement?

CW: No. I've always been most influenced by artists my age. For whatever reason, no matter what I might have learned from older artists, what I might learn now from younger artists, I always notice that it's my generation, and starting even when I was young. So there were a number of artists at different times who were very influential to me. But some of them – the work ranged; you know it was artists like Richard Prince, who made photographs, Bob Gober was a friend, I learned a lot from his first sink sculptures, things like that that didn't, wouldn't have made me feel part of a group with them. I was influenced, I was interested, involved, but I don't think our work really shared all that much.

MP: So what would the connection to Prince have been? Why were you interested in his photographic work?

CW: I can't remember. We did do a collaboration, which was a great experience. Because when he first started working with the jokes, it was around the same time, when I first started working with making the text paintings. That was actually before he'd even made the jokes into paintings. He had just done the written, he would write me on paper. And, he proposed this collaboration. I know I'm really impressed with someone's work, when I have that feeling, "Oh I wish I had done that." And with the jokes that was really the case, I thought that was quite an exciting thing to be working on. So he gave me his repertoire and I made a couple of paintings, and that was our collaboration. I ended up doing "I never had a penny to my name, so I changed my name," actually I chose the ones that fit into a painting the easiest, because it was really hard for me at the time to figure out how to make them. But they were all about change of identity, so it was kind of great. I titled it "My Name" and I felt like I was Richard Prince for a day. The other one was the psychiatrist one: "I went to see a psychiatrist. He said ‘Tell me everything.' Now he's doing my act." I titled that one "My Act". So it was like I was doing Richard's act.

MP: And what about Gober as a sculptor? What were the common points of interest?

CW: We had been friendly and I went to his studio when he made the first sink. And I saw that sink in his studio. We are the same age, so we were relatively young, and he was the first friend of mine who'd really done something which was quite an accomplishment. What impressed me about the sink is that kind of almost garage band aesthetic. That it's not how you do something. It's not how well you do something, it's what you do. And the way that Gober had put that sink together, the way he had made it, the fact that it was a plaster construction as opposed to just a, what is it that Duchamp did? – Those things. What are those things? Got to ask one of those conceptual artists.

MP: Urinals?

CW: No, but . Readymade! Gober, you know, he sculpted something, he didn't readymake it. So I learned something about making paintings. The quality that went into making it being so important to the strength that the piece had was something I had forgotten about.

MP: What is the relation between the letter-paintings and those paintings of yours where you just use patterns like flowers? Is this a kind of logical extension of your letter-paintings or what is the idea? I am especially interested in the flower-paintings, because I remember this show in Prague. I think it was one of the most interesting painting shows, because there were three very different painters who, by accident maybe, chose to go for the same motifs, namely flowers.

CW: Yes, that was an odd coincidence. For the record it was Albert Oehlen and Herbert Brandl. That was a very big show, it was a lot of work, and it was just by chance that there was this kind of flower thing going on in all three of the artists' work. No one was aware of it or even intended it. The curator had put together a show with the same three painters a few years before, when we were all doing completely different things, and the show was supposed to be like that. It just ended up that way. But I think he understood the potential for. I didn't answer your question, right?

MP: Right.

CW: The words and the flowers.

MP: The words and the patterns.

CW: There are a lot of similarities and there are some differences.

MP: Let's talk about those.

CW: The similarities are probably greater than they would seem – you know, they're two different things – but the similarities for me are probably greater than they are for someone looking at the work. For example, some of the things that the text paintings might have spoken about might be emotionally parallel to something the other paintings might be about. And some of the former qualities – there were certain formal issues that I was really only intuitively involved with, but very aware of, that I found important to keep with. There was basically no composition. You know, it's so hard to talk about this stuff, because everything I can say about those paintings, I can contradict in some other context. I can say I didn't use composition in those paintings and I'm completely involved with composition now. That's why I hate this stuff! You know, with painting, you can contradict yourself from one painting to the next, you can contradict yourself from one painting and that's really exciting to me, and you sit here and you say something and if you contradict yourself the next sentence, you sound like a fool.

MP: What would be a contradiction?

CW: The word-paintings and the other paintings I was doing at that time, in a very similar way, I took composition out of this work. But the word ones I started in the left hand corner and I went like you would with a typewriter, and the other paintings I was doing were basically acompositional also.

MP: You would have no narrative? But of course you did. I remember looking at your flower-paintings – in a way they seemed very pattern-like and non-compositional, as you said – but then, you would add secretly some composition, and that would create a different tension.

CW: You don't understand – it's not that the paintings didn't have composition. I wasn't making traditional hierarchical compositional decisions while making the paintings. There had to be composition, but it was not going to be Cézanne. 

MP: How do you decide this? If you make a flower-painting and you have this non-compositional, non-hierarchical attitude to it – and then there is something happening and you bring in a compositional moment. How do you decide this?

CW: That was then. That was then, and, I must say, I'm not interested in that any more, so it's hard, you know

MP: Yeah, but I want to know how it.

CW: How it was then or how it is now?

MP: How it was then, first. And then how it is now.

CW: I don't remember how it was then.

MP: Then, how it is now.

CW: Now, I'm, even though as I work I don't, I avoid making those decisions, it's all just composition, I'm interested when it's just like wrong. Or just short of right. Or right in the middle, or an extreme.

MP: You are always talking about avoiding decisions. And I cannot really believe this to be your kind of working model.

CW: Yes, you're right.

MP: Try to formulate decisions you make. Because it now, as you talk about it, it seems that your only strategy in your artistic practice is to escape any decision.

CW: It's not, no. OK, let's get the record straight. At that time, whenever that was, for some reason it seemed important to me to not have to make composition. In the same way that colour was not something that was interesting to me or getting rid of it seemed to help. The same with compositional decisions. Not necessarily composition, just that kind of hierarchical picture-making. Now I'm much more interested in that. I try hard to get it wrong, in the traditional way. 

MP: Well, the traditional way would be kind of dichotomistic, like figurative vs. abstract, or painting vs. non-painting? And that seems to apply, because, at least at first sight it's very hard to file your paintings under one of those topics.

CW: What I meant was: in that traditional way of making a successful painting – things either being balanced or in a certain kind of tension or all the modernist notions of a "good" picture, whatever.

MP: But there is, for sure, no anti-painting attitude in this? It's just you try a different strategy of painting.

CW: A little sceptical is always a little healthy. The reason I work in so many different ways is because I don't believe in any of them. In the seventies, Dore Ashton wrote a book on Philip Guston. It was titled "Yes, But" – that was the whole title – and I thought this was a really good description of the painterly condition. Every time there's a "yes", there's always that "but" that goes along with it.

MP: So how would you see this strategy in work of other painters, and let's stick to the examples we were talking about before – to Albert Oehlen and Herbert Brandl. Would you say that they also have this "yes, but" attitude? And in which way is it different from yours?

CW: You really put me on the spot there. Saved by the bell! I don't want to talk about other painters, because I may misinterpret their work and it's already tough enough that all of the conceptual artists hate me!! Certainly Albert Oehlen – there's always an element of scepticism about painting in his work. Brandl less clear, I think Albert maybe even goes further than just scepticism – he downright doesn't believe in it and that makes it very interesting to actually make a painting for him.

MP: But with Guston? Guston cannot hate you anymore. What would be the "yes, but"?

CW: No, there's no scepticism for him about painting. He's very – the "yes, but" would be much more within the parameters of painting: "If I do this, there's always the possibility of doing that." I didn't mean "yes, but" – "yes", painting, "but" also something else, I meant within painting. Every time – it's art, it's not even painting – it's life!