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Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
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Christopher Wool (b. 1955)

Untitled

Details
Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
Untitled
signed and dated ‘WOOL ‘86’ (on the reverse)
alkyd on aluminum
72 1/8 x 48in. (182.9 x 121.9cm.)
Executed in 1986
Provenance
Luhring Augustine & Hodes Gallery, New York.
Private Collection, Germany.
Anon. sale, Christie’s New York, 13 November 1998, lot 157.
Art & Public, Geneva.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1999.
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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

‘Standing before such paintings for the first time is a curious experience. One thinks naturally of Pollock because of the way the paint is dripped onto the metal support, but to remember Pollock is necessarily to experience a sense of loss. Instead of his looping whorls of paint, seemingly uncontrolled, but in fact highly disciplined, one faces in Wool’s work only the arbitrary order of carefully achieved randomness. Undeniably the work is beautiful; for many observers it resembles stars in the night sky. Yet, especially because of the inevitable recall of Pollock’s work, there is no secure sense of what Wool’s paintings mean. They are uniform, deliberate, absolute, and masterful, but entirely resistant to one’s natural search for meaning, which they seem to deny’
(J. Caldwell, ‘New Work: Christopher Wool’, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat.,San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1998).

Executed in 1986, Untitled is a mesmerizing large-scale example of Christopher Wool’s early engagement with the legacy of abstract painting. Across its vast aluminium surface, the artist choreographs a dense panoply of black drips, lyrically dispersed across the picture plane. With its hypnotic allover pattern, the work demonstrates Wool’s initial exploration of the themes that would come to define his oeuvre over the following decade. The drip paintings produced during this formative year combine the expressive trace of the artist’s hand with submission to the unpredictable, reactive properties of hard-edged industrial materials. In the present work, individual drops of alkyd respond to the punitive surface of the aluminium: as they dry, a warped, transparent skin forms upon the surface of the pigment, disrupting the purity of their original state. According to Katherine Brinson, Wool’s first review in Artforum that year described these works as ‘a cross between a Jackson Pollock and a Formica countertop’. ‘It was at this point’, she writes, ‘that a persistent critical formulation of Wool’s work as a détente between AbEx energy and the deadpan cool of Pop, figured in particular by the polarity between Pollock and Warhol, began to gain purchase’ (K. Brinson, ‘Trouble is my business’, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 38). It was this dialogue – between painterly gesture and conceptual detachment – that would come to define the iconic series of word paintings that Wool began that year. It has subsequently become the touchstone of a practice that continues to explore new possibilities for contemporary painting.

Wool’s emergence as a painter in the early 1980s coincided with a period of soul searching within the art world about the state of its most time-honoured medium. In his 1981 essay ‘The End of Painting’, the influential critic Douglas Crimp condemned the enshrinement of the intangible aura imparted by the artist’s touch. Operating within a world that had declared painting dead, Wool sought to unearth new directions for its development. Much like his contemporary Martin Kippenberger, he adopted a conceptual attitude to the medium, subjecting its traditions to a rigorous endurance test. Over the years, Wool would collide painting with deliberately resistant, heavy-duty raw materials: not only alkyd and aluminium, but enamel, rollers, industrial typeface, commercial motifs, digital technology, and even turpentine. Paint itself was treated with the same ubiquitous banality as Warhol had treated his Coca-Cola bottle and Campbell’s Soup cans two decades previously. By openly confronting the possibility that the medium had lost its expressive capacity – by tackling Crimp’s assertion head-on Wool challenged painting to stand up for itself. From the very start of his career, his works have shown that, however seemingly impenetrable the material framework, the imperfections, slippages and errors of human touch never fail to assert themselves.

In Untitled, we see Wool performing a kind of reconnaissance mission, testing the ground of his new territory. As John Caldwell has written, ‘standing before such paintings for the first time is a curious experience. One thinks naturally of Pollock because of the way the paint is dripped onto the metal support, but to remember Pollock is necessarily to experience a sense of loss. Instead of his looping whorls of paint, seemingly uncontrolled, but in fact highly disciplined, one faces in Wool’s work only the arbitrary order of carefully achieved randomness. Undeniably the work is beautiful; for many observers it resembles stars in the night sky. Yet, especially because of the inevitable recall of Pollock’s work, there is no secure sense of what Wool’s paintings mean. They are uniform, deliberate, absolute, and masterful, but entirely resistant to one’s natural search for meaning, which they seem to deny’ (J. Caldwell, ‘New Work: Christopher Wool’, in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1998). By stripping away all sense of expressive artistic intent, Wool invites paint to reassert itself as an independent, volatile substance, whose properties and potential – far from being dead – have only just begun to be explored.

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