Signed, titled and dated 'WOOL 1997 UNTITLED (P271)' on the reverse.
£1,300,000 - 1,800,000
Sold for £1,665,250
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Provenance Luhring Augustine, New York
"I am an abstract painter. I am interested in visual language. It’s not easy to put words to it.” Christopher Wool
Christopher Wool is one of the most recognised and critically acclaimed mid-career American painters working today. He came to prominence in the early 1980s, at a time when painting was being called into question as a viable medium, if not actually declared dead. The conceptual and minimalist movements of the 1970s in the United States had deliberately removed themselves from the act of painting. With artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt exploring geometric sculptural forms, and Dan Flavin making constructions with neon lights, painting was seen as the least appropriate artistic method available. But then a new generation of American artists – including Wool himself, Richard Prince and Jean-Michel Basquiat – began to reconsider painting as a vehicle for critique from within. The act of painting, they posited, did not have to be a conservative gesture; instead, it could effectively embody its critique by working within those conventions. With this in mind, in 1981 Wool returned to painting after a two-year sabbatical to pursue film-making. He began to explore a processbased practice, heavily influenced by the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and works associated with post-minimalism. At this time, he was finding it increasingly difficult to identify meaningful imagery and subject matter, and soon lost interest in representation altogether. Instead, it was the physical properties of paint that had begun to rekindle Wool’s enthusiasm for the medium: “I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint’”, he has stated.
In 1997, Wool’s explorations led him to start applying black, spray-painted, rectangular ‘frames’ to the surface. “Streaming with drips, these ‘frames’ hover over the surface, reinforcing its form while at the same time alluding to the convention of the painting as a ‘window’. Like a disembodied picture ofa picture, they frame a painting within a painting” (A. Goldstein, ‘How to Paint’, in Wool, Taschen, 2012, p. 175). The present lot, Untitled (P271) (1997), is a stunning example of the ‘frame’ paintings produced by Wool between 1997 and 1999. Reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s mature style, they incorporate the use of rectangular fields of colour with light acting as a portal. Within this framing device, Untitled (P271) contains a mesh of patterns and marks familiar from Wool’s earlier works. These tropes emerged when, in 1986, the artist began to use rubber rollers intended for applying decorative ‘wallpaper’ patterns to walls, so that they could be repeated without a definitive beginning or end. He used banal imagery such as flowers, vines, clovers and dots, favouring designs that were neutral or naturalistic rather than overtly stylised or kitschy. The result was a loose yet formal repetitive aesthetic which Wool started to manipulate and complicate year by year. In 1988, he introduced the use of a rubber stamp; as with the roller, this enabled Wool to fuse painting and process together whilst extending his image repertoire. He would construct a pattern by repeating the stamped image, interlocking the individual stamped images like links in a wire fence.
The present lot is a combination of Wool’s signature techniques. The primary layer is silkscreen and the rectangular frame is spray-paint, both on aluminium. It was not until the early 1990s that Wool turned to silkscreened imagery, a technique he continues to use. This enabled him to experiment with scale and process, with paintings from the early 1990s featuring large blow-ups of imagery taken from his earlier ‘roller’ and ‘stamp’ paintings. We can see these appropriated stars, dots and abstract marks within the window frame of Untitled (P271). There are imperfections throughout, such as overprinting, slipping and clogged screens, all associated with features of the silkscreen process. Wool embraces these imperfections, each one contributing to the individuality of the work.
The use of the spray gun dates from 1995, when Wool started to use this implement as a drawing instrument. He explored various styles of mark-making, starting with single lines, then intertwining lines, and later the rectangular ‘frames’ as seen in Untitled. Certain areas of the sprayed lines are highly liquefied, causing the paint to drip freely to the lower edge, while the loose spray-painted frame appears to levitate above the silkscreened carpet of pattern below.
Taken in its entirely, Untitled (P271) encapsulates a complex web of appropriation and layering that has become synonymous with Wool’s celebrated oeuvre as a whole. His sophisticated exploration and development of process-based painting has received vast critical acclaim and paved the way for younger generations of artists. Yet in many ways, this elegant work is made precisely so as not to be understood: “It seems every time I prove something to myself, the opposite is equally valid,” he has said (in N. Wakefield, ‘Christopher Wool: Paintings Marked by Confrontation and Restraint’, Elle Decor, February-March 1999, pp. 58–60).