An ominous phrase appears stenciled in black letters nearly two feet high on an aluminum panel. The absence of punctuation, conventional spacing, and definite articles heightens the sinister tone of the message by evoking the pared-down language of danger signs and telegrams, which typically deliver their urgent messages in the sparest of terms. A sense of detachment and expediency springs from the seemingly artless choice of letterforms, which resemble those of the commercially available stencils used to mark shipping crates. (In fact, the artist made his stencils by hand in order to achieve the large scale he desired.) Despite their apparent simplicity, the words these letters form are not easily or immediately legible; by disrupting their regular spacing, Wool invites the viewer to gradually piece the meaning together.
This work is part of a series of language-based black-and-white “word paintings” Wool began making in the late 1980s. In an effort to impose limits on his abstract compositions, he tied them to phrases of his own invention or borrowed from other, often popular sources. The lines “The cat’s in the bag. The bag’s in the river” come from the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, where it serves as film-noir code to convey the successful execution of a scheme to bring about the downfall of one of the characters.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
This work is part of a series of language-based black-and-white paintings Wool began making in the mid-1980s. While he wrote many of the phrases he used in these works himself, he borrowed or adapted others from alternative sources. This line appears in the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. It is a bit of code uttered by one of the characters to indicate that a dirty job has been completed. Wool recalls being struck by the poetry of the phrase and its sinister terseness.
Gallery label from What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection, July 7–September 17, 2007 .