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Christopher Wool (B. 1955)
DEATH IN AMERICA: Selections from the Zadig & Voltaire Collection
Christopher Wool (B. 1955)

Untitled

Details
Christopher Wool (B. 1955)
Untitled
signed, titled, numbered and dated 'WOOL 1989 UNTITLED (P112)' (on the reverse)
alkyd and acrylic on aluminum
96 x 72 in. (244 x 183 cm.)
Painted in 1989.
Provenance
Luhring Augustine, New York
Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
Private collection, Europe, 1994
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 11 October 2012, lot 50
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Exhibited
Cologne, Galerie Max Hetzler, Christopher Wool, September-October 1989.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Challenging the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, Untitled is a bold comment on the complexity of painting in the postmodern era. Featuring six replica images of a figure in motion, starkly stenciled in opaque black alkyd against a brilliant white background, the work is related to an important series of works that Wool began in the mid-1980s, which fused decorative motifs with a tough, urban aesthetic. The jaunty, cartoon-like figures in Untitled are arranged in a rigid symmetrical formation like dots on a domino tile, giving the impression that they have been mechanically created. However, a closer look at the figures reveals subtle differences, as though each one has an individual character. The result is an intriguing tension between the original decorative intention of the image and the new readings that are suggested by its new painterly context. Executed in 1989, not long after Wool had begun producing his iconic word-based paintings, Untitled dates from a significant period in the artist’s early career. Other “pattern paintings,” as they are often known, featured heavily in the artist’s acclaimed 2014 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and can be found in major museum collections across the world including Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Art Institute Chicago.

Poised in a stance that suggests indecision, the figures in Untitled are an apt symbol of one of Wool’s guiding principles. “‘Yes, but’ sums it up for me,” he recently told an interviewer. “I can give you the yes today, but tomorrow is going to be the but” (C. Wool, cited in D. Kazanjian, “Line Unleashed”, Vogue, October 2013, p. 340). This mantra of ambivalence has been at the heart of Wool’s work since the beginning. Writing the press release for Wool’s first solo show in 1986 at the Cable Gallery in New York, a young artist named Jeff Koons encapsulated the significance of doubt and ambiguity within the work of his contemporary. “Wool’s work contains continual internal/external debate within itself. At one moment his work will display self-denial, at the next moment solipsism. Shifting psychological states, false fronts, shadows of themselves, justify their own existence.... Wool’s work locks itself in only to deftly escape through sleight of hand. The necessity to survive the moment at all costs, using its repertoire of false fronts and psychological stances is the work’s lifeblood” (J. Koons, cited in K. Brinson, “Trouble is My Business,” Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2014, p.35).

Wool’s breakthrough moment had arrived that very year. In 1986, he had seen a workman paint a corridor wall outside his Lower East side apartment in New York using a rubber roller with a pattern cut into it. He began to make works using this tool. They found immediate traction within the art world, for they cut a stimulating contrast with the heavily gestural Neo- Expressionist painting that was fashionable at the time. Rather than dismissing the practice of painting altogether, Wool’s work questioned the importance of an artist’s touch, and aligned the medium with its more vernacular variants, including street art, decoration and graphic design. Wool has described how he has always considered himself a “painter and an image-maker,” regardless of what artistic movements or mediums are predominating. “My argument has always been that painting and the other mediums are not essentially different, and the same goes for figuration and abstraction. I firmly believe it’s not the medium that’s important, it’s what you do with it” (C. Wool, in D. Kazanjian, op. cit., p. 340).

In 1988, the year before the present work was executed, Wool began to employ a rubber stamp as a stenciling tool, which stimulated a rich new seam of thinking within his practice. As demonstrated by Untitled, it introduced fresh imagery and encouraged subtle idiosyncrasies which disrupted the strict uniformity of the composition. Both elements belie the tools of mass reproduction with which the image has been made, revealing the work to be the creation of a single hand. This produces an invigorating discourse that engages the visual language of pop culture as well as post-war abstract painting. As Bruce Ferguson has observed, “Rather than attempting to secure an autonomous space for painting apart from the vernacular culture of signs, he paints to encounter the culture from within its constraints. He insistently welcomes the impurities of cultural collision because they increase the potential of each painting’s interaction within a political field, however narrow those parameters might prove for art” (B. Ferguson, “Patterns of Intern,” Artforum, No. 30, September 1991, p. 95). 

Wool’s work routinely ventures beyond the conventional parameters of art to absorb the vernacular of the urban environment. His celebrated word paintings, for instance, were inspired by seeing the words “sex” and “luv” roughly spray-painted onto a white delivery van. As with the pattern in this painting, the letters in these works are rendered on such a large scale and positioned so completely out of context that their original semiotic function is transformed, rendering them able to convey an emotional state that might be different to the meaning of the phrase or word. Wool continued to advance this disorientating effect in the 1990s, when he began to use silkscreen printing to repeat the motifs found in his pattern paintings, layering them in an act of controlled chaos. This wry synthesis of high and low art, urban and ornamental aesthetics and abstract and figurative forms posits a powerful challenge to the nature of image production. As the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote in 2004, “Wool is a very pure version of something dissonant and poignant. His all-or-nothing, caustic-cerebral, ambivalent-belligerent gambit is riveting and even a little thrilling. It’s what makes him one of the more optically alive painters out there” (J. Saltz, in “Hard Attack” The Village Voice, 2004).

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