On Wednesday evening, many art lovers not dining at David Zwirner for the Friends of the High Line benefit could be found several blocks east at the Strand, where painter Christopher Wool (above, at far left) and writer/musician Richard Hell (center) sat down to talk about words with Barry Schwabsky (far right), the poet and art critic. Hell and Wool, which only sounds like an unstoppable vaudeville duo, teamed up to create Psychopts (JMC & GHB Editions), a slim paperback that collects 57 images of deceptive word pairs that caught Hell’s attention over decades of reading. Out of the corner of his eye, he would spy “incest.” The word was “nicest.” He saw “Sinatra” in “sirens” and mistook “salve” for “slave,” while “facts” turned into “farts.”
“I’ve been collecting these pairs of words for years, but hadn’t been able to figure out how to use them,” Hell told the capacity crowd, which included painter Dana Schutz and a group of art students visiting from Stockholm. “For 30 years these things had just been mildly frustrating me.” The idea for the collaboration was born after Hell and Wool, already friends, saw the 2006 exhibition at the New York York Public Library on artist/writer collaborations. They spent more than a year of Thursdays together to choose word pairs from Hell’s list, experiment with typefaces, and figure out how to combine them into a single image. At first, Hell said, they “looked too much like design, something that could be in an advertisement.” A breakthrough came when they turned to one of Wool’s favorite tools. “We attacked the words with a Xerox machine,” said Hell. The resulting images (like the salve/slave example, pictured above) wobble and glow with the ghostly fuzz of degraded copies.
Wool described the project as a true collaboration. “We actually worked together on everything from the beginning,” he said, adding that aside from the Xerox interventions, all of the work was done on a computer. “As a painter, I work by myself so much, but the give and take and the play was great. That’s what it was all about.” Meanwhile, Hell championed one example over the others, even demonstrating it on a piece of a paper for the audience’s benefit. “Take the word ‘perils.’ If you do that in like a Helvetica, no serifs, that really looks like ‘penis,’” he said. “You could really mistake those two words.” Schwabsky noted that he detected a certain “adolescent sexual anxiety” in the book. “It never seemed adolescent to me,” said Hell. “It was all very adult actually.” Although he added later, “I was a little nervous about showing the book to my mom.”