I think of myself primarily as an abstract painter, but I find that in making paintings there is a little bit of investigation into what abstract painting can be.8
Around the same time Christopher Wool was developing his pattern paintings, he began to experiment with using words. Like rollers and stamps, words were preexisting forms that provided a paradoxically freeing limitation to his experimentation. The story goes that his Eureka moment for using language as his subject matter came in the form of a brandnew white delivery truck. Someone had spray-painted SEX LUV across its surface. In a 1987 work on paper, Wool painted exactly these letters using blocky stencils. Wool had long been fascinated by the way words are transformed when “exposed to the cacophony of the city,” writes the curator.9 In graffiti, on billboards, in advertisements, words change in both form and function when they became a part of the urban landscape.
The language in Wool’s paintings is often treated as much as abstract shapes as words with a communicative function. They are not subjected to conventional spacing or punctuation rules. They are fractured; letters are left out. Reading them for meaning can often be like putting together a puzzle. The experience, says the curator, is like learning to read for the first time all over again.
There is also an overarching mood of paranoia and anxiety to many of Wool’s chosen texts. One of his best-known word paintings, which was first created as a work on paper, focuses on the command, SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS, a quote from the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Set in the Vietnam War, the words come from a scene in the movie in which we see a letter a captain sent to his wife while missing in action. In its entirety, the letter read: SELL THE HOUSE/SELL THE CAR/SELL THE KIDS/FIND SOMEONE ELSE/FORGET IT!/I’M NEVER COMING HOME BACK/FORGET IT!!!
Show: Apocalypse Now (1988)
- Ask students what they notice about the artwork. Describe the way the words are written.
- Wool has created many artworks in which he uses stencils and paint to create words. Some say he uses his words like shapes. Do students agree? Why or why not?
- Ask a volunteer to read the words dramatically. Then ask students to imagine which words might come next.
Can students imagine these words embedded in a scenario? Who are the characters? What is happening? In small groups, challenge them to act out a short scene in which these words are one line of dialogue.
These words were taken from a film called Apocalypse Now, the same title as the painting. Set in the Vietnam War, the words come from a scene in the movie that reveals a letter a captain sent to his wife while missing in action. In its entirety, the letter read: SELL THE HOUSE/SELL THE CAR/SELL THE KIDS/FIND SOMEONE ELSE/FORGET IT!/I’M NEVER COMING HOME BACK/FORGET IT!!! Ask students why they think Wool was interested in this excerpt. Have they ever repeated lines from movies? Why? What mood do his chosen words create in the viewer?
- Wool is interested in words embedded within urban public spaces: in graffiti, on billboards, in advertising. How is it different to see words in these contexts—or on the walls of a museum—than on the pages of a book?
- Wool finds his phrases in many places. The first phrase that inspired him to make word paintings was spray-painted on the side of a truck. The Apocalypse Now phrase is from a film. Ask students if they’ve ever been fascinated by a line, phrase, or word they’ve encountered in a movie, book, or even on the street. What struck them about it? Was it the rhythm? The humor? The spelling? The context? The meaning? The visual impact? Ask students to collect phrases from all over their life: the street, their homes, their favorite media sources. They should keep a journal for at least a couple days of these phrases. Then, in class, ask them to look at the phrases and think about what kinds of phrases or lines appeal to them. Finally, ask them to write each one on a separate index card or Post-it®.
English Language Arts
- Challenge students to select just one of their phrases, lines, or words, and using stencils with paint or colored pencils, create an artwork with the words. They can break it up or lay it out in any way they want. They can use any color(s) they want. Talk about the works as a class. Which kinds of phrases did students pick? How did they lay them out? What effects and/or moods do their choices create?
- Wool is not the first artist to use words in his artwork. Words appear in Pablo Picasso’s (1881–1973) collages using newspaper. Conceptual artists Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), and Lawrence Weiner (b. 1942) also have used words in their work. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) used words like graffiti and as political and social critique. Make artworks by these artists and others available to the class. In small groups, students should discuss the different approaches and outcomes to incorporating words. Next, students can investigate one of the artists further and write a letter to that artist telling them what they think of their use of words and asking them questions about what they do and why.
English Language Arts