Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more CONSTRUCTING MINIMALISM: WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF MARC AND FRÉDÉRIQUE CORBIAU
Christopher Wool (b. 1955)

Untitled

Details
Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
Untitled
signed, numbered and dated 'WOOL 2004 (S170)' (on the reverse)
enamel on linen
56 1/8 x 42 1/8in. (142.5 x 106.8cm.)
Painted in 2004
Provenance
Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Special notice

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Lot Essay

‘The literal loss enacted in the realization of these paintings endows them with the character of a lamentation, chiming with the potent strands of angst and melancholia that have always run close to the surface of [Wool’s] work, despite its game face of cool indifference’ – K. Brinson

‘I define myself in my work by reducing the things I don’t want – it seems impossible to know when to say “yes,” but I do know what I can say “no” to … It’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are’ – C. Wool

With its mesmerising concoction of sweeping gestural smears, hypnotic black scrawl and gleaming white pentimenti, Untitled is a captivating example of Christopher Wool’s celebrated ‘grey’ paintings. Executed in 2004, the work bears witness to an important turning point in the artist’s practice, marking his embrace of free gesture and wilful erasure after nearly two decades of structured engagement with stencilled grids, letters and decorative motifs. During the 1990s, Wool had tentatively begun to experiment with effacing his own work, manipulating silkscreens of pre-existing paintings and overwriting his own gestures with thick brushwork. It was not until his chance discovery of the effects produced by erasing his work with turpentine that the grey paintings were born: lyrical theses on the relationship between addition and subtraction. In this series of works, which alternate incessant mark-making with a continual erosion of the pictorial surface, Wool had finally uncovered a means of expressing his own convictions about the transient, unstable nature of all art-making. The liminal state embodied by the grey paintings speaks to the very core of Wool’s aesthetic: challenging the traditional notion of a completed artwork, they are eulogies to painterly process and, by extension, to the never-ending possibilities latent within the medium. Through their twisted dialogue between assertion and destruction, declaration and denial, the grey paintings are both shrines to the continued survival of painting, and deep expressions of doubt as to the very nature of image production in the postmodern age.

Wool’s reinvigoration of painting coincided with a period of soul-searching in the art world about the continued viability of the medium. His word and pattern paintings, created using an arsenal of rollers and stencils, represented a bold and measured response to the gauntlet laid down by Douglas Crimp’s 1981 essay The Death of Painting. However, despite the rigid formal properties of these works, with their stark grids of motifs and letters, as early as 1991 Wool had begun to imbue his practice with notions of erasure and distortion. The trajectory was set in motion with his artist’s book Cats in Bag Bags in River, in which he dragged photographs of his word and pattern paintings repeatedly through a photocopier, revelling in the grainy effect of reproduction as well as experimenting with cropping and colour. By 1993, Wool had transferred this approach onto a larger scale, deploying silkscreen techniques to create ruptured versions of his roller works, and often painting over his efforts with a large brush. This was to become his primary modus operandi for the next few years, supplemented from 1998 onwards by a deliberate appropriation of his own works, transforming them into new paintings through his now highly developed panoply of techniques. In 2000, an accidental discovery gave rise to the first of the grey paintings: whilst struggling with a sprayed yellow enamel work, in a burst of frustration he attacked his composition with a cloth soaked in turpentine. Entranced by the blurred mass created at the centre of the work, Wool reverted to black, applying his distinctive looping patterns to canvas with a spray gun, sweeping his rag across the surface and repeating the process to create a series of hazy grey apparitions: a palimpsest of veils and lines that intermingle in interminable abstract layers.

Coming to prominence within the urban milieu of post-Punk New York, Wool’s vocabulary of inscribing and erasing was steeped in the caustic visual language of graffiti that nourished his earliest works. However, the grey paintings ultimately go beyond this Zeitgeist. Instead, they may be understood as polemical visual expressions of the ways in which painting – with its inherently fluid condition – has the potential to continually undermine and redefine its own parameters. Wool has spoken of his admiration for Dore Ashton’s publication on Philip Guston Yes, But… – a turn of phrase that he felt summed up his aesthetic outlook. As the artist has explained, ‘I define myself in my work by reducing the things I don’t want – it seems impossible to know when to say “yes,” but I do know what I can say “no” to … It’s easier to define things by what they’re not than by what they are’ (C. Wool, quoted in A. Schwartzman, ‘Artists in Conversation I: Chuck Close, Philip Taaffe, Sue Williams, Christopher Wool’, in Birth of the Cool: American Painting from Georgia O’Keeffe to Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich, 1997, pp. 32-34). Nowhere is this sense of productive doubt more aptly expressed than bold yet ultimately unstable surfaces of the grey paintings: articulated with the gritty assertiveness of street art yet riddled with ambiguity, uncertainty and vacancy, they embody the central tenets of Wool’s practice.

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