Rollers and Stamps
Painting is a visual medium, and they’re to be looked at. Like listening to music, it’s an emotional experience.1
Between 1986 and 1987, Christopher Wool made a decisive breakthrough in his work with the discovery of a new tool that also provided him with new subject matter. One day, he watched a worker paint the walls outside his loft with a specialized roller. The roller covered the wall with repeating designs. It was manufactured with patterns (such as blossoms, vines, or abstract geometries) incised in the surface and acted as a cheaper version of wallpaper. Soon after, Wool began to make paintings with this kind of roller, applying glossy black enamel to an aluminum surface primed with white paint. Wool called the result “an interesting friction generated by putting forms that were supposed to be decorative in such severe terms.”2 He wanted his paintings to have a visual power that transcended decoration.
The limitations of this new process actually afforded Wool more creative freedom. The found forms of the roller avoided both figurative compositions and the clichés of earlier eras of abstract painting, circumventing what Wool called “a modernist kind of decision-making.”3 Wool embraced the accidents that the new tool inevitably led to, such as drips or smudges—what the curator of the exhibition calls the “visual noise emitted by methods of mechanical reproduction.”4 Soon after beginning to work with the rollers, he expanded his practice by using rubber stamps to create all-over patterns, often layering these found forms so that they created “pictorial discord.”5
At the time when Wool chose to focus on painting, an important critical question had surrounded the medium for much of the twentieth century: had the possibilities of painting been exhausted? One important critic, Douglas Crimp (b. 1944), had written an influential article called “The End of Painting” in 1981, declaring that the medium was no longer interesting to radical artistic practice or historically or politically relevant. As critic Suzanne Hudson puts it: “In the early 1980s, the question was . . . how to paint as though it mattered at a time when so many had reason to believe . . . that it didn’t.”6
Show: Untitled (1987)
- Ask students what they notice about the work. Ask them to talk about the materials that the artist used. What can they guess about how it was made?
- Wool made this artwork using a paint roller incised with patterns of vines. He used glossy black enamel paint on aluminum painted white. Now that students know more about the special materials Wool was using, what can they tell about the process? How much control do they think he had over it?
- Ask students to look at this list of opposite words and vote on which they think apply best to Wool’s painting:
Manufactured – handmade
Controlled – accidental
Pop culture – fine art
Discuss their votes. Critics and even Wool have said that his work lies somewhere between these opposites. What could be interesting about making artwork that lies in between opposites?
- When Wool was making paintings, many in the art world were wondering whether painting had reached its end. In other words, had painters explored everything there was to explore about painting? One critic puts it this way: “In the early 1980s, the question was . . . how to paint as though it mattered at a time when so many had reason to believe . . . that it didn’t.”7 Ask students to respond to this idea. How did Wool paint? How is Untitled (1987) different from other paintings students have seen?
- Experiment with “found forms” by having students make paintings using patterned rollers and/or stamps. Students can make their own patterned rollers by gluing string, cardboard, or Styrofoam shapes to paper towel or toilet paper rolls. They can make their own stamps on flat cardboard surfaces or they can use manufactured stamps. They can use black ink, tempera, or acrylic on thick paper. Let them experiment at first and then complete a more “finished” painting. Reflect on the process. How did using premade patterned rollers or stamps affect their sense of control? Did they feel the tools limited their creativity? If so, what were the benefits and drawbacks of these limitations?
- In 1981, the art critic Douglas Crimp wrote a seminal article called “The End of Painting” in which he declared that painters had explored everything there was to explore about painting and that it was no longer relevant. Ask students if they think this could ever be true. Why or why not? Stage a debate in which one half of the class argues Crimp’s side and the other half argues against him. Students should research the types of paintings that are referenced in the essay, such as Abstract Expressionism, as well as the types of paintings that were being created in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Which arguments were the most compelling? Who presented the best evidence?
- Crimp’s essay is available on the Internet. You may want to direct them to pages 75–76 in which he says that painting has been dead and lingering on death row ever since the invention of photography. “After waiting out the entire era of modernism, photography reappeared, finally to claim its inheritance. . . . Photography may have been invented in 1839, but it was only discovered in the 1970s.” Students can find a link to Crimp’s full essay here: paintingandnewcontexts.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/douglascrimp_ the-end-of-painting.pdf
- As an alternative or extension to the debate above, ask students to write a piece of criticism in which they argue for the end to some other cultural phenomenon. For example, they could argue for the end of books (in favor of digital readers) or telephone calls (in favor of texts). Ask students to share their criticisms and for other students to play devil’s advocate with their arguments.
English Language Arts