Christopher Wool - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Christopher Wool’s Untitled, 2005, is a preeminent example of the artist’s groundbreaking series of what are known as the “Gray Paintings”. Painted in 2005, Wool puts forward a cerebral surface that at once exhibits its creation and destruction, imbuing the historic medium of painting with a new phenomenology. Wool adorns his expansive surface with a gloss of enamel and sweeping sprays of linear gestures that he subsequently scumbles and erases in a manner that effectively effaces his own creative gestures. The result is a composition that proffers at once the presence and absence of the artist’s hand. Witness to an interminably paused moment of creative tension, we are caught within a liminal pictorial space that professes no resolution. This paradox expresses the ineffable downtown cool of the urban milieu where the artist first developed his idiosyncratic method.

    The “Gray Paintings” extend from Wools’ near-dogmatic investigations since the late 1980s into the conceptual limits of painting and abstraction. When Wool emerged as an artist in the experimental arts scene of lower Manhattan in the 1970s, he found himself at the center of a heated conceptual debate about the continued direction of art. The publication of Douglas Crimp’s seminal text “The End of Painting” in 1981, which declared the medium’s demise, perhaps served as a catalyst for Wool's defiant shift to painting at the time, and his ultimate artistic breakthrough in 1986 with a series of works that sardonically attacked the stigma of painting as merely decorative whilst drawing from contemporary urban existence. Appropriating the kind of stamped rollers that New York landlords would use to cheaply create the illusion of floral or geometric wallpaper, Wool challenged the expressive impulses of contemporary painting, privileging banality and placing the medium in a paradoxical dialogue with the history of the readymade.

    Wool soon moved from his stamps and rollers to silkscreens which allowed him to play with scale. While the technique undoubtedly recalls Andy Warhol, this process also inaugurated a key innovation of self-referentiality that Wool would continuously return to. The constant referencing of his own works served as a metaphor for the endless recycling of forms and information in a media-obsessed society saturated with visual signification. As noted by Joshua Decter in 1995, “Wool offers us access to a world where things are layered to the point of implosion, where iconographic elements are built up only to virtually fall apart” (Joshua Decter, “Christopher Wool: Luhring Augustine Gallery”, Artforum, 34, September 1995, p. 89).

    In Untitled we encounter, what Wool has declared as, “erasure as a picture itself” (Christopher Wool, quoted in Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 176). In these “Gray Paintings”, Wool first draws large gestural swirls to build a network of black lines on the surface with a spray gun. Tagging the picture plane with broad arcs of sweeping linear sprays, the result would be a curious pastiche of spray paint graffiti coupled with the high art references to the all-over webs of Brice Marden or the automatic scrawl of Cy Twombly if not for his next irreverent step. He then disrupts his own artistic impulses and seemingly erases marks at will with gestural fluidity, wiping his surface down in broad swathes, effacing the discrete marks to create strokes and diffused patches of gray monochromes. This sense of layering and erasure is fundamental to the arresting intrigue of this body of work, granting this work a profoundly detached sense of pathos. As Glenn O’Brien espouses, “Wool embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and he then manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a Pop artist or Dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined in technique and redolent of street vernacular, both high and low” (Glenn O'Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper”, Wool, Cologne, 2012, p. 8).

    Echoing the minimalist tendency for reduction and a focus on material ontology, Wool in these works seemingly succeeds in voiding the medium of its reliance on historic precedents. No longer is the first creative impulse of the artist privileged within the composition as a mark of genius. As with his approach to earlier silkscreen works, Wool imbeds visceral drips, glitches, stutters and serendipitous absence, aping the sensuality of Abstract Expression whilst consciously undermining any superior sense of totality in his vision. The defacement or erasure of such marks, and their own subsequent presence within the composition hold just as much importance. Each mark, whether additive or subtractive, contributes to the success of the compositional whole. As such, this series directly engages with the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, not only within the art historical canon but as a loaded specter within the canon of American painting at large. As Katherine Brinson describes, “excruciatingly aware of the taboo status of gestural mark-making as an index of self-expression, Wool was nonetheless compelled to explore whatever space was left within abstraction for a critical practice” (Katherine Brinson, “Trouble is My Business”, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 37).

    A crucial innovation in his practice, it is in this series that Wool fully embraces the creative potential of “un-making”. With an irreverent nod to Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, Wool embraces erasing and smudging of the preceding vision. The viewer is left to consider what was once there, whilst simultaneously being drawn into the new gestural tides brought about in the wake of this destruction. Considering how Wool in same year also began making his first digital paintings, this process also parallels the editing techniques used in digital media. As Eric Hall has commented, “it's as if he's leeched the life out of his vibrant loops, captured them on film, then searched for a way to bring them back to life” (Eric Hall, in Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008, p. 371).

    By overlaying motifs and gestures over one another, sometimes effacing and sometimes adding to those marks which proceeded them, Wool creates a time-stamped surface that collapses and condenses duration as the moment of creation is suspended and overwritten interminably. In so doing, the resulting composition is at once final and also a physical manifestation of the process of its making. Across a slick surface that is expressive without calling for an antiquated valorization of the artist’s hand, Wool explores and makes manifest the inherent contradictions of painting, instigating a new conceptual appreciation of the medium where his works “are defined by what they’re not—and what they hold back” (Ann Goldstein, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 263)

Property from a European Collection



signed, numbered and dated "WOOL 2005 (P500)" on the overlap; further signed, numbered and dated "WOOL 2005 (P500)" on the reverse
enamel on canvas
96 1/8 x 72 in. (244 x 183 cm.)
Executed in 2005.

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018