Christopher Wool on Word and Image

Just auctioned for $4M.

Christopher Wool is one of my favorite artists, living or dead. And so on the occasion of one of his paintings selling for $4M, I thought I’d post selections from a 2008 conversation he conducted with Richard Hell and Glenn O’Brien:

Christopher Wool: With Jean-Michel or Picasso, the fact that they could do it so easily is what makes the work, in the end, so great. They had absolute fearlessness. If you’re not fearless about changes, then you won’t progress.

Glenn O’Brien: Richard, did you know Christopher’s work before he asked permission to use your words?

Richard Hell: I didn’t really know it. It’s funny, when I first saw his stuff, I was kind of aghast. When I first saw his word paintings, I thought: I can’t believe what they’re getting away with these days. [laughs] But I grew to really, really love them, and all of his stuff. It’s really interesting with art-movies too, but art especially-to see how your attitude toward artists and works and your level of appreciation of them is always shifting and changing over the years. That’s happened to me with a lot of artists, more so than other media, and it’s part of what makes art so interesting.

Glenn O’Brien: I remember, as a teenager, hearing songs like “Paint It, Black” for the first time and thinking, Wow, there is something really wrong with this. Two days later, it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard. At first you have to be insulted, almost.

Richard Hell: Right, right. Not too long ago, I saw that somebody said something like, “If I hate it, I know I like it.” [laughs] It might have been John Waters.

Richard Hell: It’s really hard to figure out how you can mix words and images to give you a third thing. Not just two things side by side. It’s great if you can get them to somehow expand on each other, like the way W.G. Sebald did when he used photographs in his books, or Breton did, with -photographs, in Nadja.

Christopher Wool: The problem is: If you take text and image and you put them together, the multiple readings that are possible in either poetry or in something visual are reduced to one specific reading. By putting the two together, you limit the possibilities. Text and image don’t always work together in the way music and song lyrics become part of each other.

Richard Hell: There are great exceptions though, like the Sonia Delaunay/Blaise Cendrars “The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France,” where the poem is printed multicolor in one 2-meter-long accordion fold, and she does watercolors lightly all around the text. Or the outrageous, perfect, exploding translation that Ted Berrigan did of “The Drunken Boat,” which Joe Brainard then drew as a cheapo stapled mimeo pamphlet. Brainard copied out the words in his hand and drew pictures around them and opposite them to make a completely integrated work.

Glenn O’Brien: I think, at best, collaboration is like dub music in reggae. The artist remixes. They’ll take the finished thing and then deconstruct it.

Christopher Wool: And hip-hop came out of that.

Richard Hell: The major change is that we live in a state now where media is our nature. It used to be that artists thought of nature as their environment. Now media is our environment. It has been for the past 50, 70 years. It’s what you see on TV, on the computer, what is in the magazines and newspapers. That’s the environment now, rather than woods and hills and oceans. And so that’s what you make your art out of.

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