Christopher Wool - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 13, 2015 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Taka Ishii Gallery, Japan

  • Exhibited

    New York, New York Studio School, The Continuous Mark: 40 Years of the New York Studio School, Part 2, 1972-1978, February 17 - May 7, 2005

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Is it a painting or a process?....You take color out, you take gesture out --- and then later you can put them in. But it’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are.” Christopher Wool

    Looking objectively at the conventions of painting, wrestling with its traditions and questioning its foundations from within, is a seemingly volatile stance for any artist. Herein lays the mastery of Christopher Wool’s work: his unrelenting pursuit of his chosen medium of painting can be, at times, unforgiving. Every approach he adopts is carefully balanced. Wool’s renegade use of technique is weighted with a sense of admiration for the painterly tradition. For the artist, the physical act of painting and its resulting spontaneity have carefully mapped lines; he creates rules and boundaries within his method and process. Amidst the seeming chaos of the tempestuous and hazy strokes, Wool carefully structures his approach to medium and subject. The resulting work is visually arresting, almost alarming, retaining a delicate and intricate quality.

    Decisive and yet undefined, coherent and yet frantic, Christopher Wool’s Untitled, 2005, confronts us, unabashedly, in the artist’s signature style. Swathes of untamed grey and navy enamel course throughout the canvas, obscuring what might perhaps be a more representational composition underneath. Perhaps initially, we are struck with how Wool has visualized a sort of destruction—the marks seem to reflect the moment in which the artist is tearing something up, washing it over, and starting again. Questions loom. What are we witnessing? We know this isn’t an artistic tantrum; each layer of paint is definitive—purposeful in its interaction with its surroundings. Logic has been applied; there is structure. This is Wool’s way of painting from within.

    Described by Jerry Saltz as, “one of the more optically alive painters out there,” Christopher Wool’s simultaneously reductive and additive process incorporates a visual vocabulary and syntax adopted from pop culture. Wool’s work is “a very pure version of something dissonant and poignant. His all-or-nothing, caustic-cerebral, ambivalent-belligerent gambit is riveting and even a little thrilling.” (J. Saltz, “Hard Attack,” The Village Voice, November 2004). In the instance of Untitled, 2005, Wool expands the limits of painting through a nuanced and subtle appropriation of the graffiti he absorbed on the streets of 1970s New York. The artist subsequently took photos of the street art that intrigued him, contributing to the genesis for works like the present lot, Untitled, 2005.

    Drawn to the order in the disorder and its innate spontaneity, Wool’s oeuvre draws parallels to the primal touch of the Abstract Expressionists. Paintings like Untitled, 2005, are deeply rooted in the heritage of Post-War abstraction as well as the gritty vernacular of street culture, celebrating and expanding painterly potential. Using a spray gun filled with enamel, the artist created a complex network of incoherent shapes and symbols, which belie a linguistic degeneration. This sub-layer painting is an elegant transformation of text into image; Wool takes the vernacular of street “tagging” and removes the guise of linguistic order, abstracting the textual forms, while still keeping them recognizable. The drips of the enamel paint, for instance, enliven Wool’s strokes, providing further visual allusion to the dialectical tone of street art.

    Through erasure and addition, the artist’s mark-making is further transformed into a bold play of surface and depth. Wool uses a solvent-soaked cloth to blur and wipe away portions of the monochromatic composition, effectively reconstructing the surface of the canvas. This physical act of reduction emphasises the formal qualities of the paint medium: its tonality and texture. Admittedly, the artist concentrates on his multi-layered technique as opposed to focusing on the work’s subject matter. He has stated, “I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint.’” (C. Wool, interview with A. Goldstein, “What They’re Not: The Paintings of Christopher Wool,” Christopher Wool, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, p. 256)

    His use of enamel further illustrates his dedication to a singular process: enamel offers less potential for painterly touch and, unlike oil paint, is not traditionally used because of it’s quick drying nature. The cloth soaked in solvent, which the artist uses to erase and transform the sprayed pigment, acts as a brush that negates the pre-existing stroke. This “negative” painting process celebrates the artist’s ability to explore our many-layered modes of perception. Wool further elucidates the motivation behind his method by explain: “You take color out, you take gesture out—and then later you can put them in. But it’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are.” (C. Wool in “Artists in Conversation I,”Birth of the Cool, Zurich, 1997, p. 34)

    In the 1980s, when critics declared that “painting was dead,” Wool continued to explore painting’s vitality and potential for innovation. Wool’s outsider position was not an easy one. The artist was primarily motivated by his personal relationship to the medium: “With the paintings the inspiration is really internal. I get inspiration from the work and from the process of working. Painting is a visual medium, there to be looked at. For me, like listening to music, it’s an emotional experience.” (C. Wool, interview in “Crosstown Crosstown, artist talk at DCA,” 2003) The artist’s technique of spraying paint and then quickly reworking with a rag cloth doused in solvent gives his works a loose, almost ghostly appearance. Each work is a completely unrepeatable moment of exploration for the artist. However, within these landscapes of spontaneous monochrome color we find one unwavering constant—the artist himself. The resulting works embody their creator, anchoring him firmly as the protagonist. This is an empowering position for the viewer to be in; allowing us to survey the work as deeply reflective, honest and emotional.

    The resulting body of work created in the last 30 years has seen the artist push his medium forward. Each of the periods in the artist’s career has been filled with works that directly exert their impact on the viewer. This assault on vision is rooted throughout Wool’s oeuvre, first developing his output from early drip paintings, which immediately recall the work of Jackson Pollock, to his Word series, which plays on the subliminal messaging and blaring advertisements that saturate our world today, to painterly abstractions like Untitled, 2005, which reference the abstraction of artists like Franz Kline. With the shadows of erasures and the resulting complexity of their pictorial fields, Christopher Wool’s paintings, “deal with the possibilities and mechanisms that keep painting alive and valid in the present, an issue that, despite all forecasts, is one of the most productive and complex issues in contemporary visual art.” (M. Paz, Christopher Wool, Valencià, 2006, p. 200) As the viewer, we are constantly being pressed to question what it means to truly observe. In Untitled, 2005, the words of Wool’s infamous text paintings ring in our ears: “The harder you look, the harder you look.” Indeed, any self awareness is met with humility, leaving the viewer with the sense that we are privileged to be a witness to what is before us.


Untitled (S176)

enamel on linen
52 x 38 in. (132.1 x 96.5 cm)
Signed, titled and dated "Wool 2005 (S176)" on the reverse of the mount.

$1,400,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $1,685,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Evening Sale 14 May 2015 7pm