Jordan Wolfson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “I know that if I didn’t do as I felt and I policed myself I would be living a lie. Can’t I talk about violence without being violent? There’s nothing off limits to me, nor should anything be.”
    —Jordan Wolfson


    A provocative and irreverent force in a contemporary art world still rigidly conditioned by matters of taste and propriety, Jordan Wolfson works across of range of media including digital imaging, installation, film, performance, photography, and animatronics, exploring the intersections of real and virtual worlds and selves. Filtering the registers, images, and language of online and media discourse, Wolfson crafts enigmatic and confrontational works which reflect this darker underside of our contemporary, virtual life – the banal everyday digital clutter of memes and YouTube clips repurposed into darkly revealing psychodramas. Featuring the recurring character of the green Witch, juxtaposed with stock images of the Manhattan skyline, press photos of the late John Kennedy Junior, and a large pot of boiling water, this untitled 2018 work exemplifies Wolfson’s use of appropriation and juxtaposition to make manifest our unconscious, unfiltered impulses and desires.  


    Evoking common descriptions of New York as a ‘melting pot’, its history shaped by generations of immigration and rich cultural diversity, Wolfson’s selection of a banal image of a boiling pan with plumes of steam rising from its surface pushes this familiar concept into more confrontational territory, where urban tensions run high, and violence lurks just beneath the surface. The inclusion of a repeated press photograph of the late John Kennedy Jnr speaks to such an assessment of urban America at the turn of the millennium. Scion to the Kennedy dynasty and son of the late president, Kennedy Jnr is a complex figure in popular consciousness – a figure who embodies both the optimism and tragedy of the ‘American Century’ and as a more divisive figurehead of the neoliberal policies pursued by his father and uncle that have given rise to a litany of socioeconomic ills well into the 21st century including banking crises, recession, and rampant income inequality. However, as is characteristic of Wolson’s artistic project, there is no moralising dimension at play here, the artist simply showing us images from our collective digital unconscious rather than telling us how we should feel about them and remaining ‘more concerned with the psychological power of the uncanny and the confrontational than any direct critique.’i


    Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure, 2014, Messe Basel, 2014


    Dominating the composition, the cartoon Witch has a sinister and menacing air here; covering the eyes and mouth of an obscured male figure she looks out at us and seems to elicit our complicity in silencing the man in her grip. Recurring across a series of Wolfson’s works in various guises, the green-faced Witch is a pop culture icon, immediately familiar from The Wizard of Oz and typically associated with the media of our childhood. However, the Witch also occupies a long-standing and much more troubling cultural cliché of a transgressive and threatening femininity, and the present work certainly draws on this compounded and somewhat contradictory position of the Witch as both childhood antihero and malignant womanhood. Her appearance here also serves as an important early example of the motif that would go on to become one of Wolfson’s most controversial and iconic – his animatronic Female Figure from 2014. Creating a sensation on its debut with David Zwirner’s Gallery in New York, the figure is uncannily lifelike, fitted with motion sensors and with facial recognition software that allows her to make direct eye contact with viewers as they approach, or to absorb herself in her own reflection. Dressed in a platinum blonde wig, knee-high boots, a short white dress and besmirched with dirt, the animatronic figure gyrates and dances in front of a large mirror, a metal pole running through her torso. Her face covered by the ghoulish green mask, the figure shifts awkwardly between attraction and repulsion, compliant sex object to devouring monster.  


    Although Wolfson has attracted criticism for his appropriation of problematic material, especially those related to gendered and racial violence or identity politics, he steadfastly refuses to censor himself or let his imagination be policed by the dictates of polite society; to confront the world honestly, he suggests, you have to be prepared to accept everything – high and low, avant-garde and kitsch, the beautiful and the banal. As Wolfson explains: ‘I had this idea from Adorno that to see the world you need to look at it through a cracked glass. If you imagined your day is a piece of string extending over 24 hours, so it includes your dreams, that string would be punctuated if you witnessed sex or violence, or dreamed about them. The rest of life is kind of flat.’ii


    In this respect his work has often drawn parallels to Jeff Koon’s appropriation of a visual language borrowed from commodity culture, advertising, and the entertainment industry in order to more adequately explore the meaning and functions of art in our image-saturated age. Courting controversy with important early series like Made in Heaven and Banality, Koons tested the boundaries between high and low culture, a querying into aesthetic hierarchies and the limits of good taste that Wolfson’s art also explores. In his series (2000-02) Koons sourced images from popular culture and advertising, juxtaposing these unrelated visual fragments of everyday commodity items and body parts in refined, painterly compositions, a cornucopia of modern consumption that resonates with the present work.  


    Jeff Koons, Niagara, 2000, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Jeff Koons

    Like Koons and Warhol before him, Wolfson appropriates these disparate images, bringing them into unexpected and revealing new relationships through his collage-based approach to composition here. Using the products of popular culture in this way and presenting them to viewers uncritically Wolfson turns a mirror onto the society that produced them in the first place. In this respect Wolfson, whose mother is a trained psychiatrist, demonstrates a nuanced understanding of psychoanalytic theory and its structures. Although not referenced explicitly, his interest in impulses, instinctual drives, and the tension between the Superego and Id – or censorship and total freedom of expression – help to illuminate the more conceptual elements of his practice. Under his treatment, the vast streams of visual information flowing through the internet functions itself like some raging collective Id, all aspects of our visual culture collected in one place, circulating freely, with no sense of internal hierarchy, and with nothing off limits.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Born in 1980, American artist Jordan Wolfson is known for his provocative and confrontational work in a range of different media.


    • In 2006, just three years after his graduation the artist was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial alongside other enfants terribles of the downtown art scene Dash Snow and Dan Colen. Wolfson has been the subject of solo exhibitions in New York, Canberra, and Austria and his work is held in major institutional collections worldwide.


    • The present work includes his iconic figure of the green Witch, anticipating the sensational 2014 debut of his animatronic Female Figure.


    Dana Goodyear, ‘Jordan Wolfson’s Edgelord Art’, The New Yorker, 9 March 2020, online.

    ii Jordan Wolfson, quoted in Stuart Jeffries, ‘Jordan Wolfson: “This is Real Abuse, Not a Simulation”’, The Guardian, 3 May 2018, online.

    • Provenance

      Sadie Coles, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner



UV printed inks, gloss varnish, oil based gloss enamel, marker and hardware on aluminium panel
213.4 x 213.4 x 2.2 cm (84 x 84 x 0 7/8 in.)
Executed in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

£80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for £196,850

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024