Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
From time to time, Christie's may offer a lot whic… Read more
Christopher Wool (b. 1955)

Bad Dog

Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
Bad Dog
signed, numbered and dated 'WOOL 1992 S71' (on the reverse)
alkyd and graphite on aluminum
43 x 30 in. (109.2 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1992.
Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Special notice
From time to time, Christie's may offer a lot which it owns in whole or in part. This is such a lot.

Lot Essay

A Wool 'word' picture hits you like a sudden collision. Hauling language and materials from the streets, Wool drags grit from the underbelly of the industrial urban environment into the history of fine art. Central to Wool's artistic practice is his signature word paintings, none more so than the present work, Bad Dog, 1992, a gnomic and startling scrawled reprimand fitted out in aggressive block lettering, loose paint dripping from its edges. The artist's bold, edgy and uncompromising censure bursts its framing structure. As a statement of rebuke within the format of a painting, Bad Dog's brashness is reinforced by the materials of its making. Substituting aluminum for canvas and enamel paint for oils, Wool has slyly tweaked art historical tradition while accosting comprehension.

Functioning at the edge of meaning, the statement--"Bad Dog"-- scrambles referents: where--or more insidiously, "who?"--is the "bad dog?" The viewer? An actual dog out of range? Or is the referent, in fact, a more comprehensive concept, referring perhaps to the act of painting in general? After all, the moment of Wool's emergence in the late 1980s was a moment of divided understandings in terms of the relevance of painting to high art. Questions about painting's viability, its pertinence, in the final decades of the twentieth century were at the forefront of postmodernist theoretical discourse. Whether a rebuke to the artist who continues the tradition or to the artistic tradition's spatial context, its materials, its images or its audiences, Wool agitated the art world, sounding an alarum with his oversized signage, in glaring, sumptuous, black markings.

Wool's stenciled blocks combine both Minimalist aesthetic--saturated hard-edged black on cool white ground--and expressionistic abstraction. With its thick, somewhat loose, wide drips and smears, Bad Dog partakes of the legacy of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, while calling up Pop Art masters such as Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana--for example, Ruscha's OOF, 1962, or his cinematic series of 2003-2004, The End, or the lettering on Warhol's Brillo Box (Soap Pads), 1964, or Robert Indiana's Love, 1967--dangling as it does between found and constructed image and between mundane reproof and absurd outburst. In its vernacular, geometric, yet painterly rendering, Wool treats materials and language as a dynamic ambiguity between sign and referent, conventional artmaking and a postmodern anti-aesthetic.

Christopher Wool grew up with a generation of artists deeply embedded in and critical of the simulacra of its age. Like Ruscha, Wool paints "the idea of the idea of the idea..." (E. Ruscha, "Doug Aitkins talks to Ruscha," Frieze, June/July 2004, p. 102). Taken up by artists as diverse as Wool, Jeff Koons, Robert Gober and Richard Prince, with whom Wool collaborated in 1988, these artists mined the frisson arising from a tension between the real and the simulated. Mediated by cinema, television and other forms of mass advertising, Wool's generation involved the viewer in a kaleidoscopic sequence of appropriations. Wool, reaching deeper into the art historical past, appropriated catchphrases from the vernacular, re-imagined them as painted images, and by doing so called meaning into question. His stacked vocabulary disrupts understanding and works metaphorically both as an iconic symbol and cunning cipher. Despite myriad cultural references to mythic-sized word play to the history of the medium, Wool remains emphatically an artist in the traditional sense: "I always considered myself involved with painting I can't imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it's a painting. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else" (C. Wool, "Conversation with Christopher Wool," with Martin Prinzhorn, Museum in Progress, 1997,

From the 1970s on, Wool has worked in a multiplicity of styles and techniques, from allover gestural abstraction to printmaking, incorporating mechanical means such as stenciling, rubber stamps, rollers and silk-screens in a wide range of formats. From photography to his recent spray and drip paintings using the most elemental of binders, alkyd, Wool continues to expand his repertoire of images, ranging from monochromatic lettering to smeared calligraphy in over-painted and erased abstractions. Throughout this vast creative repertoire, Wool has maintained a commitment to process. From his first encounter with the constructed works of Robert Gober, Wool has placed significant value in the act of making. Rather than the Duchampian readymade, Gober had actually fashioned replicas--of sinks, chairs, doors--by hand in a meticulous, labor-intensive process, which impressed Wool with "the quality that went into making it being so important to the strength [of] the piece" (Ibid.). In similar ways, Wool's contemporaries from other disciplines impacted the artist's evolving style. Whether it was the No Wave post-punk downtown scene of the late-nineteen-seventies or the experimental films of Amos Poe and John Lurie, Wool has been drawn to his contemporaries, the urban and the anti-traditional, as much as to the historical artisan's craftsmanship,"for I've always been most influenced by artists my age. For whatever reason, no matter what I might have learned from older artists" (Ibid).

Yet the influence of older artists suggests itself in Bad Dog, just as surely as the urban beat of the streets. In a recent exhibition-- organized by Wool of the youngest of the Abstract Expressionist generation, the American painter Richard Pousette-Dart with whom Wool studied at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1970s--one finds composed formal elements and a kind of searing ferocity that resonate with the present work. The formal arrangement of lettering, the diagonal breaks in the letters themselves, which emit light like scattered shards of glass over the surface, as well as the smears and thickened calligraphy, echo Pousette-Dart's statement that he had "gone to black and white because of my need for a kind of intensity, the most intense light and the most intense darkness and the instantaneous balance between opposites" ( -river-studio).

Such awareness of this contrast in formal properties, of line, placement and light--hard edges with drips, impasto with liquid washes, allover handling within spatial voids--operates with both a spontaneity and compositional intention in the present work. As Wool concedes: "there were certain formal issues that I was really only intuitively involved with, but very aware of the word [paintings] I started in the left hand corner and I went like you would with a typewriter" (C. Wool, Museum in Progress, ibid).

An iconic work by any standard, Bad Dog stretches the boundaries of what might be understood as painting in the traditional sense, mixing urban scrawl with billboard advertising lettering and traditional painterly gestures. An act of self-criticality in the act of putting paint on ground in easel format, Wool questions as he celebrates the tension between act and image, high art and the urban landscape, order and randomness. Struck by the aptness of a title the art historian Dore Ashton chose for a monograph on Philip Guston, "Yes, But," Wool considers this phrase an analogue for his own artistic practice, which perches on the edge between affirmation and doubt: " 'Yes,' painting, 'But' also something else, I mean[...] within painting. Every time--it's art, it's not even painting--it's life!" (C. Wool, ibid., 1997).

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