On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Image World: Property from a Private American Collection


signed, inscribed and dated 'WOOL 1990 W3' (on the reverse)
enamel on aluminum
108 x 72 in. (274.3 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1990.
Private collection, Toronto
Private collection, Los Angeles
Private collection, United States
Anon. sale; Christie's, London, 1 July 2014, lot 32
Private collection, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998, pp. 65 and 245 (installation view illustrated).
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen; Kölnischer Kunstverein and Kunsthalle Bern, Christopher Wool: Schilderijen/Paintings/Bilder, 1986-1990, February-August 1991, n.p. (detail views illustrated).
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Lot Essay

“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.” Christopher Wool

Widely acclaimed for his provocative inquiries into text and image relationships, Christopher Wool’s investigations into the very nature of painting have made for a dynamic and fruitful oeuvre for over four decades. A striking example of his signature word paintings, Untitled marries urban grit with a heady commentary on the continued evolution of painting in the late twentieth-century. Using text as a subject rather than a means of communicating information, Wool’s stenciled letters evoke myriad readings from a seemingly simple composition. Some works (the present example included) take the form of exclamations or onomatopoeic representations of laughter, surprise, or shock. Others, like CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER, 1990, form phrases that proffer meaning at first read but become more ominous and inscrutable the longer one looks. Marga Paz, writing about a 2006 exhibition in Valencia, declared that the word paintings are “sometimes mysteriously hermetic and incomprehensible, sometimes ironic, sometimes distressed or critical, but always elusive when it came to revealing a meaning that was not uncertain” (M. Paz, “Christopher Wool”, in Christopher Wool, Valencia, IVAM Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2006, p. 201). For the most part, they are not sentences or phrases, but “a subtle post-modern fusion of black humour and concrete poetry” that challenges our notions of legibility and textual information (ibid.). Untitled uses the forceful visualization of the interjection “HA AH” to create a dynamic composition that asks for a reassessment of language in painting and questions the nature of authorship.

Striking for both its monumental scale as well as its perceived simplicity, the present work is made up of four black letters on a stark white background. Spelling out “HA” and “AH” in two lines, the artist constructs a bold visual statement with minimal outright complexity. The aluminum support, typical of Wool’s word paintings in this series, creates a knife edge around the work that further dissociates the text from its environment. Using industrial stencils, Wool extricates himself from the painting process and instead supplants a sort of mechanical mark-making that seems more comfortable as a mode of signage on a city street or construction site. There is no attempt by the artist to obscure the stencil’s connecting pieces or to retouch the result of his application of black paint. The lines are sharp but not finessed, the color seeps through the barriers in small errors that hint at process and means of production. The text itself becomes an image, and as Wool noted, “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, cited in: M. Prinzhorn, “Conversation with Christopher Wool”, Museum in Progress, 1997, online). Divorcing the words from their symbolic meaning, one is confronted with geometric arrangements in an achromatic void.

Wool’s ability to use text as both an informational symbol as well as a visual building block has garnered his work much acclaim over the years. Asking for a dual reading of the text, works like Untitled vacillate between geometric abstraction and the semiotic nature of words and letters. In conversation with the rest of the artist’s practice, which expertly highlights the confluence of gestural abstraction and mass-media techniques, the word paintings describe a larger inquiry into the nature of painting in the Post-Modern era while simultaneously illustrating the far-reaching influence of Conceptual and Pop artists on the late twentieth-century art world.

“…with their velvety white grounds and stylized letters rendered in dense, sign painter’s enamel that pooled and dripped within the stencils, the word paintings have a resolute material presence that transcends the graphic.” Katherine Brinson

Wool’s practice sprang from the urban environment of New York City in the late 1980s. Existing as an amalgam birthed in feverish scrawls on abandoned buildings and the artist’s own endeavors to come to terms with Post-Modern views on the place of painting, works like the current lot marry Pop processes with the perceived lawlessness of graffiti. Having spent years in the underground music and film scenes after leaving art school, Wool is intimately acquainted with the outsider ethos. As such, works like Untitled remain distinct products of the artist’s astute observations of text and image relationships from a viewpoint tangential to the prevailing conceptual mode. The curator Katherine Brinson, on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2013, noted, “Wool was less concerned with language as a means to transcend image, or with the problematic conjunction of text and image, than with text as image. He has long been fascinated by the way words function when removed from the quiet authority of the page and exposed to the cacophony of the city, whether through the blaring incantations of billboards and commercial signage or the illicit interventions of graffiti artists. But with their velvety white grounds and stylized letters rendered in dense, sign painter’s enamel that pooled and dripped within the stencils, the word paintings have a resolute material presence that transcends the graphic” (K. Brinson, Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2013, p. 40).

In 1987, while walking in his Lower East Side neighborhood, Wool stumbled upon a freshly-tagged white vehicle. The formerly pristine side of the van was emblazoned with a crude stencil proclaiming: “SEX LUV”. Enthralled with the raw vitality of the application in this urba n environment, the artist rushed to his studio nearby and began work on what would become his Word Paintings series. The white metal panel of the automobile was replaced with a painted sheet of aluminum, and the hastiness of the tag was given over to Wool’s now -trademark stencils in solid black enamel. The resulting untitled work borrowed the words from the graff iti and thus this first instance of this series became a sort of appropriation or textual readymade. The rest of the series therefore always relate to this initial moment and to the primary source of the painted van in the alley.

This interest in reproduction and seriality is key to understanding Wool’s practice. However, rather than focus on the modes of copying and the content seen in visual culture, the artist applied these ideas to a substantial inquiry into the history (and future) of painting. Douglas Crimp’s seminal 1981 essay “The End of Painting” signaled a shift in ideas about the prospects and effectiveness of the age-old medium. Curator Ann Goldstein explained that at this point, “some younger artists began to reconsider painting as a vehicle for critique from within, specifically through strategies of appropriation. The act of painting did not have to be a conservative gesture; rather than seeking to undo its conventions, it could effectively confront and embody its critique by working within those conventions” (A. Goldstein, “How to Paint”, in H.W. Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, New York 2008, p. 183). Wool’s use of stencils (and later silkscreens) is a prime example of a fresh new approach to the artform and the robust inquiry into its processes upon which the artist’s practice is built. Embracing a Post-Modern questioning of the past processes and their relevance to a revival of painting allowed him to resuscitate and reinvigorate a medium that critics had pronounced dead.

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