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signed, titled and dated ‘WOOL 1997 UNTITLED (P259)’ (on the reverse)
enamel on aluminum
198.7 x 152.7 cm. (78 1/4 x 60 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1997
Luhring Augustine, New York, USA
Anon. sale, Phillips de Pury & Company NY, 10 November 2005, lot 63
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Museum of Contemporary Art, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Los Angeles, USA, 1998 (illustrated, pp. 20 and 101).
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., New York, USA, 2013 (illustrated, p. 132).
Athens, Greece, Eleni Koroneau Galerie, Christopher Wool, May - June 1997.
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Lot Essay

As a postmodern artist, whose paintings revitalized a languishing genre in the era of image saturation, Christopher Wool creates provocative canvases whose abstract, self-referential imagery refers back to previous paintings to quote and re-quote past work. Carrying on with the ideas developed in his Word paintings of the 1980s, the Pattern Paintings in the 1990s, as represented by Untitled , continues to break down painting to its bare essentials, whilst finding ample opportunity for variation and brilliance. Selected for the artist’s retrospective organized Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1998 and again at the Guggenheim in 2013, Untitled was produced at the beginning of a period when Wool began to use his own work as source material, taking his painterly investigations to a new level. Engaging with the history of postwar American Art in a bid to revitalize contemporary image-making, Wool registers Pop Art’s methods of mechanized production, Minimalism’s emphatic denial of the author and abstraction’s privileging of form over content. In Untitled, Wool embraces all of these paradigms – uniting the abstract and figurative, painting and print, picture and process – to explore the boundaries of contemporary painting.

Christopher Wool is widely regarded as being one of America’s most influential living artists. Living in New York City in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Wool immersed himself deep into the underground film and music scene that centered around the East Village, finding a kind of nihilistic camaraderie in the punk rock aesthetic that thrived amidst the city’s crumbling decay. Wool’s complex investigations into abstraction began in the late 1980s when, inspired by the urban graffiti of Chicago, he produced a series of paintings which took familiar words and phrases and, by removing key lexical elements, broke them down into abstracted combinations of letters and forms. Received with critical acclaim, Wool’s word paintings became some of the most celebrated works by a new generation of artists who were reacting to the dominance of Minimalism and Conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s.

By 1993 Wool had migrated to appropriating graphic floral motifs in increasingly complex arrangements which he applied to the surface of his work using the distinctly Warholian process of silkscreening. Following on from his use of roller-painting, this process enabled Wool to embrace the notion of chance, and the inexact nature of silkscreening gave rise to a series of drips, pooling and shadows – the remains of the physical exertion needed to push the ink through the screen. Untitled from 1997, is a unique and key painting in the transition between the artist’s signature word paintings and this new stage in his production. At the time he began to use his own paintings as the source material for a new body of work in which he would take a finished picture, create a silkscreen and then use it as the basis for a whole new image. Fractured, divided and repeated across the picture plane, these new paintings were the latest stage in Wool’s dismantling of the traditional figure-ground relationship – producing a fatter, more anonymous image with seemingly scant regard for the time-honoured aura of the artist’s hand.

Katherine Brinson, the curator of Wool’s major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, says of these paintings, ‘Whereas the source paintings are characterized by ghostly layers and subtly rendered details, in the second generation all visual information is fattened into a crisply delineated silhouette of the original, creating a stark, monochrome polarity between ground and image’ (K. Brinson, ‘Trouble Is My Business’, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 35).

Traces of the “wallpaper paintings,” in which Wool used patterned paint rollers like those used to imprint a painted wallpaper-esque design in the hallways of New York City apartments buildings, can most directly be seen at Untitled ’s right edge. Here, the curls of an arabesque and a blooming floral motif are recognizable as the vernacular painting phenomenon to which they refer, but more specifically to Wool’s citation of this phenomenon in his first series of paintings. The decorative motif contrasts with the grid handdrawn upon it, which overlays the entire support. An assortment of lines, circles, dots, drips, and hash marks—all references to the marks made while painting as well as to specific canonical artists such as Jackson Pollock’s all-over spills, the Ben-Day dots of Lichtenstein and other pop artists, the grid formulation of Cubist and Minimalist painters, and the diffused mark making of graffiti,—dance between this grid structure and the patterned motif beneath it, to form what Brinson calls “a typology of painterly gestures” (ibid., p. 47).

Both abstract and representational, original and copy, process and object, painting and the wall upon which it hangs, simultaneously, Wool’s Untitled emblematizes a set of concerns the artist has deftly navigated since painting was declared “dead” in the early 1980s, proving through a systematic negotiation of all of its terms that the medium is, indeed, alive and thriving. In all of these negotiations, Wool pushes the definition of abstraction to its limits. As Goldstein has written, “His work incorporates a steadfast criticality and welcomes contradictions... Through process, technique, scale, composition, and imagery, Wool’s work accentuates the tensions and contradictions between the act of painting, the construction of a picture, its physical attributes, the visual experience of looking at it, and the possibilities of playing with and pushing open the thresholds of its meanings. They are defined by what they’re not—and by what they hold back” (ibid, p. 264).

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