Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
signed, numbered and dated 'Wool 1992 (S83)' (on the reverse)
enamel on aluminum
43 x 30 in. (109.2 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1992.
Luhring Augustine, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993

Lot Essay

Christopher Wool's commanding statement jumps off the surface of the present work with the same force as if the words had been shouted at full volume. The sense of energy and power that emanates from these five words, rendered in a simple, almost utilitarian script, is palpable as the words expand out to fill the entire picture plane. Restrained only by its outer margins of the aluminum, the large letters try to escape their confines and reach out towards the viewer. This tension between the physical properties of the painting and its psychological effect is central to Wool's work, as he subverts the use of language and renders it with a surreal, almost sinister sense of urgency that belies its outwardly simple aesthetic.
Both the formal and physical qualities of the stenciled letters that the artist renders in enamel on aluminum speak to an industrial process: its functional font recalls the down-to-earth lettering used on packing crates across the world, a commercially derived letter type customarily used to convey information in as straightforward a manner as possible. This industrial nature is enhanced by Wool's choice of aluminum as his support. The metal's solidity and rigor not only adds to the crispness of the overall composition but also to the manufactured nature of the work. Yet despite these factors, the work remains inherently painterly. From the Pollock-like drips that break free from the strict formalism of the lettering to the areas of shadowy bleeding between the black lettering and the white ground, the work bears all the evidence of its creation, while the hand of the artist remains apparent.
The phrase Wool chose for this work, "Want to be Your Dog," is inherently ambiguous and refuses to locate itself in one particular meaning. Is it a real request or some kind of strange invitation? Is it related to the 1969 classic song by Iggy Pop, "I Wanna Be Your Dog," or are these questions actually not to the point? In the act of reading them, these questions, however, gain in significance as we recite the statement, digest it, and, in so doing become part of the artistic process. As the words in turn are directed at us, we intuit the underlying intent present in the phrase, which even so retains an elusive air, refusing to be easily deciphered and thus remaining all the more ominous.
There is a post-Pop intensity to the stenciled letters in Wool's word paintings. With the same renegade authority as the graffiti message that originally inspired them--the words "SEX LUV" painted on the side of a white truck--the compulsion felt by the viewer first to read the words and then flee, gives this text a sense of "street power." For, Wool's art is not the descendent of advertising that Pop was, but rather is the product of the disjointed writings of the urban landscape, the warnings, boasts, insults, and territorial markers represented in the scrawled markings of graffiti. At the same time, the no-frills stenciling of the letters recalls Minimalism, especially the word works of Joseph Kosuth, for example, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) The Word "Definition," 1966-68. However, where Kosuth's works were deliberately self-contained, hermetically sealed by the words that they formed, Wool's work is rogue: it is a disjointed phrase that points to the ambiguity of language and syntax. On the one hand, this allows Wool to question the content of paintings, the narrative elements of art. Yet on the other hand, stripped of any context, the order to 'Want to be Your Dog' becomes surreal and unsettling, a sinister echo rendered incarnate in its functional yet brutal stenciled letters.
Wool's emergence as a painter in the early 1980s coincides with a period of soul searching within the art world about the status of painting. In his seminal 1981 essay "The End of Painting," the influential curator and art historian Douglas Crimp condemned the belief in painting and the investment in the human touch that was perceived to be crucial to maintaining painting's unique aura (Cf. Douglas Crimp, "The End of Painting," October, Vol. 16 (Spring 1981), pp. 69-86). It was into this environment that Wool began his exploration of the painterly process and the different techniques that could be used to expand its properties. His first collection of word paintings was created during an intensely creative period and focused on words or phrases with multiple meanings. The effect was often only achieved when Wool broke them up in the composition of the painting. His "AMOK," for example, became "AM OK" when enlarged to fit the scale of his canvas. Like his contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool's word paintings took their inspiration from the graffiti-covered streets of New York. But his work also reflects a wider range of influences. After spending a period of time working with Richard Poussette-Dart, Wool began making all-over abstractions of accumulated mark-making. Of particular importance to him was also the process-based art of Richard Serra, particularly Serra's "splash pieces," such as Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969/1995, in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. These sculptures became central to Wool's ideas about process and to the importance for him of the notion of layering in relation to painting, and specifically to picture-making.
Wool's word paintings have become powerful examples not only of the art of their time but also continue to be of robust relevance today. Showcasing the ongoing debates that raged about the relevance of painting, they also reflect the life experiences of a new generation of artists growing up in the tough urban environment of the early 1990s. Untitled's directness, both aesthetically and conceptually, stands as an exceptional example of the artist's work from this important period. In formal terms, the ambiguity of the syntax is as uncanny as it menacing, while at its heart, this work allows Wool to fundamentally question the content of paintings and re-interpret the narrative elements of art in a thoroughly modern context.

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