ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Christopher Wool - 2009 - Rubens op een biljarttafel [NL, interview],
A mook! What’s a mook?
A conversation with Christopher Wool
- Micheline Szwajcer said that you never talk about your work.
Christopher Wool: That’s true. I’ve never subjected myself to a formal interview. Maybe I will in the future… I’ve never written about my work either…
- Is there a text that you feel provides a good general introduction to your work or to a particular aspect of your practice?
Wool: That’s a tough question to answer… I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the people who have already written about my work… But generally speaking, I’d have to say that there isn’t… There’s not one text that I’d describe as indispensable. I’ve given up reading about painting. It always leaves me feeling disappointed.
- If someone looks at your work and wants to know what’s specific about it (as in why it differs from other works of art), what would you point out to this person to get him or her going?
Wool: I would say that what matters most to me in a painting is the picture.
- What do you mean by the word ‘picture’? The picturesque? Landscapes? The image that remains when you photograph a painting?
Wool: None of these.
- It’s already something to know what it isn’t.
Wool: If I remember it correctly, this is what someone once wrote about my work: that it’s only possible to know what it isn’t. What I mean is this: the painting is the material part, whilst the picture is the visual part.
- It’s awkward to separate paintings from a ‘picture’ they might contain, because intellectuals are far too eager to reduce paintings to ‘images’ and ‘meanings’, thus denying the fact that paintings are objects i.e. new textures added to reality.
Wool: For me, the word ‘picture’ doesn’t have this intellectual connotation.
- It makes people look for ‘meanings’ in paintings, reducing colours, drawings and textures to so-called ‘signs’. I don’t trust people who do this. I don’t like their disregard for the actual object.
Wool: Me neither. The worst thing is that they aren’t even interested in a possible, real or deeper meaning. They just want the object to have meaning, that’s all.
- Let’s approach this from a different angle. Could you tell me which painters or paintings move you?
Wool: That’s another tough question. I don’t want to hurt any of my friends by not naming them.
- I’m not fishing for comments on your contemporaries. I’m just trying to understand what you mean by the word ‘picture’… I can hardly imagine Saenredam being cross that you forgot to mention him.
Wool: (Smiles.) It’s also difficult to list famous masters from the past, because it might suggest that I’m comparing myself to them… But if you insist… It changes all the time as well… But currently I’m looking a lot at Picasso’s late works… I would also mention Willem De Kooning and the last period of Jackson Pollock. People consider these paintings a step back, because they are more traditional, but I think that’s a mistake.
A painter once told me that he felt your paintings are closer to De Kooning’s than to Pollock’s, because Pollock’s paintings seem to extend themselves beyond the frame, whereas De Kooning tried to contain the painting within the frame.
Wool: I like Mondriaan.
- Especially his last works, I presume.
Wool: Yes, I saw one of them in Madrid. It was magnificent…
- I now realize that it’s a bit confusing to speak about ‘paintings’ that extend beyond the frame. But this is definitely a place to speak about the ‘picture’ that extends beyond the frame of the painting.
Wool: I agree…
- Looking at the erased surfaces in your work, I wonder whether you are an admirer of Rothko’s paintings.
Wool: I don’t dislike them, of course, but they don’t interest me all that much. I think Rothko was more involved with spiritual matters. And he wasn’t interested in composition… I prefer Clyfford Still, although he was also very spiritual…
- Mondriaan also. But finally we find ourselves in front of canvases covered with paint. And why not? Any story that leads an artist to something new has served its purpose.
Wool: In that sense, maybe I’m a spiritual painter too?… Maybe what bothers me about Rothko is not his spiritual side, but the fact that he’s not interested in composition.
- Do you like Rogier Van Der Weyden’s ‘Descent from the Cross’?
Wool: That’s my wife’s favourite painting. I prefer Rubens or Velázquez.
I’ve just read Roger Fry’s poignant account of Rubens. He explains that Rubens’s specific contribution to art history consisted of his ability to suggest a realistic depth (with numerous leaps into a deeper space) without having his paintings fall apart. He was able to lock all of these so-called depths into one harmonious, flat surface. Rubens combined a talent for volume with a new way of creating general colour harmonies through slight changes of tone e.g. by adding white to a colour. ‘It is surprising’, Fry writes, ‘what brilliance of local colour can be suggested by tints actually far from bright. A dull earthy red will appear to be vermilion, or with more white will give vivid carnations – a grey that is little more than black and white will suggest an atmospheric blue, and so on.’ According to Fry, this method gives the greatest possible unity to a picture.
Wool: I would love to read that page by Roger Fry. It sounds great. Can you send it to me?
- Would you care to tell us which movies you like?
Wool: I would rather name moviemakers than movies. Scorsese, for example.
- ‘Mean Streets’. With Robert De Niro fighting on the pool table.
Wool: (Laughs.) Yeah! ‘A mook? What’s a mook? You can’t call me a mook!’ One of my favourite lines.
- De Niro’s legs swinging over the pool table remind me of Rubens.
Wool: (Smiles.) Raging Bull is also a very baroque movie, with baroque camera movements and a baroque story… I also like Cassavetes.
- ‘Faces’ and ‘Husbands’, with these three tall men running through the streets, playing basketball and going for a swim…
Wool: ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’.
- Do you like Bergman’s movies, with their beautiful shades of grey?
Wool: My wife loves them. They’re too complicated for me though, they’re too heavy. But I recently saw Polanski’s Knife in the Water. That’s a beautiful grey movie.
- Let’s return to your own shades of grey. What kind of rags do you use to create them?
Wool: I buy big rolls of cotton and make my own. I think it’s a textile used to make t-shirts.
- Do you still paint with enamel?
Wool: I’m actually trying to switch, because I’m painting in Texas now and the paint dries too fast. I tried to paint with oil, but it didn’t work.
- It dries too slowly and it drips too much.
Wool: Exactly… Now I’m trying out different mixtures of enamel.
- What kind of spraying device do you use?
Wool: It’s a device used to spray furniture or cars. It comes with different tips. I use a tip which produces a round dot instead of a line. It’s also the most concentrated dot possible, instead of a diffuse one. Additionally, you can vary the effect by controlling the amount of air and the amount of paint.
- You used to paint on aluminium, but now you paint on canvas. Why did you change the support?
Wool: At the time, I liked to paint on aluminium because it was faster and more direct and because, visually, the works were loud and strong. They had teeth. Especially because of the white finish.
- What kind of finish was this?
Wool: Mercedes Benz primer… But all of this is about materials and techniques, which I don’t consider to be relevant.
- I do. I wondered, for instance, whether this change of support had an effect on the pictorial space of your paintings, whether they had previously possessed a kind of third layer?
Wool: Well, the white wax was really active in the paintings… I also used aluminium because I thought it was a neutral support. But I later realized that it couldn’t be neutral, because it wasn’t traditional. Today, my paintings tend to be rather traditional drawings, made of sprayed black paint, partly erased with a rag… Another reason why I switched to canvas (apart from wanting a really neutral background) was because it became too complicated to paint on these aluminium supports. I was having them made in an auto body workshop, which was rather painstaking, and they were very difficult to handle.
- One of the characteristics of the paintings that you are showing today seems to be that their pictorial space is made up of two basic elements. Firstly, a seemingly flat surface with traces of erased paint. Secondly, the intertwined sprayed lines that suggest a fragmented drawing. They are always painted in black enamel.
Wool: They are.
- Did you ever try to use another colour?
Wool: I did, but it didn’t function. Firstly, it caused chromatic problems, related to what Fry wrote about Rubens. Adding white to colours, other than black, completely changes their intensity. Dark red becomes stronger, brighter. Blue becomes less intense when you add white. Yellow also. Now, when I start erasing a colour, the white of the canvas shines through and this influences its intensity, which also impacts upon all the shade variations of that very same hue. This problem doesn’t occur with black. Secondly, if I use two different colours, and erase them horizontally and vertically, it creates variations of depth within the painting, which aren’t what I want.
- The very same problem that Mondriaan tried to solve by adding the black and grey stripes between the coloured surfaces, as a way of preventing the red from advancing and the blue from retreating?
- You want the erased parts to stay together in one field, in one thin veil, in one flat pictorial layer, to contrast with the black sprayed lines that seem to curl around it, spring from it, come out from underneath it or hover in front of it?
- I understand why Mondriaan is your favourite abstract abstractionist…
- At the same time, however, you try to create the maximum possible contrast between the values of the erased parts.
- I imagine that the rags you use to erase the various parts of the drawing are soaked in turpentine? Does their degree of wetness determine the level of transparency?
Wool: Yes. I can also wipe more than once or I can exert more or less pressure… I also like results such as this. (He points out an erased section that looks more disintegrated, clogged almost, with swerving black particles in a grey field.)
- The paint was drier when you went over it with the rag.
Wool: Yes it was.
- What also strikes me is the size of the paintings and the swiping gestures. They seem to be slightly oversized, which creates an impressive physicality.
Wool: They represent the limits of what one person can do in a single movement.
- I think you’re tired.
Wool: I am.
- Thank you for your patience.
Montagne de Miel, 29 January 2009