Christopher Wool - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Sprueth Magers Lee, London
    Gisela Capitain, Cologne
    Private Collection
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Cologne, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Christopher Wool, 12 September - 25 October 2003

  • Catalogue Essay

    'Painting is a visual medium, there to be looked at. For me, like listening to music, it’s an emotional experience.’


    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 lies the mastery of Christopher Wool’s work: his relentless pursuit of his chosen medium 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 him, the physical act of painting and its resulting spontaneity have carefully mapped limits; he creates rules and boundaries within his method and process. Amongst the chaos of his tempestuous and hazy strokes, Wool carefully structures his approach to medium and subject. The resulting work is visually arresting, almost alarming, while retaining a delicate and intricate quality.

    Decisive and yet undefined, coherent yet frantic, Christopher Wool’s Untitled confronts us in the artist’s signature style. Swathes of untamed grey course over its surface: initially, we are perhaps struck with how Wool has visualized destruction — the marks seem to reflect the moment where the artist is tearing something up, washing it over, and starting again. Questions loom. What are we witnessing here? Should we be looking at this? However, 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.’ (Jerry Saltz, ‘Hard Attack,’ The Village Voice, November 2004). In the instance of Untitled, Wool expands the limits of painting through a nuanced and subtle appropriation of the graffiti he found on the streets of 1970s New York. The artist took photos of the street art that intrigued him, contributing to the genesis for works like the present lot.

    For Wool, the process of painting is inherently reductive. One discovers that ‘each new set of lines is smothered in hazy veils of wiped grey, with further layers sprayed on top, to the point where distinguishing between the various imbrications becomes impossible. The antiheroic notion of mark-unmaking correlates with a conviction lying at the heart of Wool's oeuvre — that linear progress toward artistic mastery is a modernist relic.’ (K. Brinson, ‘Trouble is My Business,’ Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2014, p.47). By abandoning a notion of ‘linear progress,’ Wool operates in a realm where erasure and creation become synonymous. Deletion allows him to document emotions of angst, indecision and uncertainty, which ultimately read as poetic.

    In its innate spontaneity and its draw to the order in disorder, Wool’s work invites parallels with the primal touch of the Abstract Expressionists. Paintings like Untitled are deeply rooted in the heritage of Post-War abstraction as well as the gritty vernacular of street culture, celebrating and expanding painting’s potential. Employing silkscreen, a favourite tool of his since the 1990s, Wool’s sub-layer painting is an elegant transformation of text into image; he takes the vernacular of street ‘tagging’ and removes the guise of linguistic order, abstracting the textual forms while keeping them detectable. The drips, 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 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 emphasizes the formal qualities of the paint medium, in particular its tonality and texture. The artist concentrates on his palimpsestic technique as opposed to the work’s subject matter: ‘I became more interested in “how to paint it” than “what to paint.”’ (Christopher 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). Emphasizing his dedication to the conceptual implications of the painting process, Christopher Wool ‘contrives to pack into his painting energy both abstract and concrete. This in turn references the reality that he photographs without ever having to represent it. By his reliance on the limits of the painting process, Wool makes impulsiveness and control, doubt and certainty, presence and absence come together in a single space. He captures a moment of oscillation, which is a priori imperceptible and inexpressible. In that moment, nothing and everything, the expert and the outsider, being and non-being all coexist. Here, where the meaning of system, value, and form are temporarily suspended, Wool has found a way to paint.’ (A. Pontégnie, “At the Limits of Painting,” in Wool, Cologne: Taschen, 2012, p. 301).

    Wool’s commitment to painting has been a personal endeavour. In the 1980s, when critics decried that ‘painting was dead,’ Wool continued to explore painting’s vitality and potential for innovation. His early years as an artist saw him witness a difficult time for those who were using paint as their medium of choice. As Ann Goldstein writes, ‘At the beginning of the 1980s, painting was called into question, if not declared dead. The continued act of painting was marked as retrograde, if not necrophilic.’ (A. Goldstein, ‘How to Paint,’ in Hans Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2008). While many chose to ‘desert’ painting in favour of new media, there was a young undercurrent of artists who ascertained that the only way to fully critique painting was from within, Wool being the chief proponent. Wool’s ‘negative’ process celebrates the painter’s unique ability to explore our multi-layered modes of perception through a play of presence and absence. ‘You take colour 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 in ‘Artists in Conversation I,’ Birth of the Cool, Zurich: Hatje Cantz, 1997, p. 34).

    In this early period, 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.’ (Christopher Wool, interview in ‘Crosstown Crosstown, artist talk at DCA,’ 2003). Wool’s technique 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 colour 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 works which are ultimately deeply reflective, honest and emotional.

    The body of work created in the last 30 years has seen the artist push his medium forward. Each period in Wool’s career has been filled with works that directly exert their impact on the viewer. Visual confrontation is rooted throughout his oeuvre, first developing from his 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 the present lot.

    As observers, we are constantly being pressed to question what it means to truly observe. In Untitled, the words of one of Wool’s infamous text paintings ring in our ears: ‘The harder you look, the harder you look.’ Any self-awareness is tempered with humility, leaving the viewer with the sense that we are privileged to be a witness to what is before us. An awesome nine feet in height, Untitled belongs to the large-scale series of monochromatic works that have become the artist’s trademark. ‘Wool deploys size as a kind of weapon against those kinds of looking that would attempt to take his paintings. Largeness is rude here, an assault on vision.’ (G. O’Brien quoted in Christopher Wool, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998, pp. 87-88). With their impressive scale and studied finishes, these works create an engulfing sensory experience for the viewer: we are totally absorbed.



enamel on linen
274.3 x 182.9 cm (107 7/8 x 72 in.)
Signed 'WOOL 2003 UNTITLED (P415)' on the reverse and overlap.

£1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for £1,426,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 12 February 2015 7pm