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signed, titled, inscribed and dated 'WOOL UNTITLED P.47 1988' (on the reverse)
enamel on aluminum
72 x 48 in. (182.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Luhring Augustine & Hodes Gallery, New York
Robbin Lockett Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1988
New Work: Christopher Wool, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Art, 1989, n.p.
B. Ferguson, "Patterns of Intent," Artforum, vol. 30, no. 1, September 1991, p. 97.
J. Caldwell and T. Wagner, This is About Who We Are: The Collected Writings of John Caldwell, San Francisco, 1996, p. 120.
Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998, p. 260.
H. Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, pp. 61, 173 and 418 (illustrated).
Christopher Wool, exh. cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013, pp. 40-41, fig. 8 (illustrated).
Chicago, Robbin Lockett Gallery, James Casebere, Stephen Prina, Christopher Wool, March-April 1988.
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Lot Essay

Christopher Wool’s Untitled is the very first painting in the artist’s iconic Word series. By stenciling the letters TROJNHORS in his now familiar grid pattern, Wool’s exhortation itself acts as trojan horse, breaching the boundaries of traditional art with a power and force that took everyone by surprise. Perhaps no other series is so distinctly associated with the artist as these paintings, which combines seemingly simple text on a white ground to dizzying effect. As the first painting in the series, and the only instance of the artist using this particular phrase, it is from this seed that the artist’s celebrated notability and authority grew.

From this point on, the artist catapulted himself into a world where words became subjects and meaning shifted and collapsed as he sought to imbue the urgency of the streets into his textual arrangements. As critic Jim Lewis mused, “Wool can take a word and worry it, turn it this way and that, beat on it a few times, paint it, paint over it, paint it again, try to break it, auscultate it like a doctor tapping the chest of a sick patient and listening for the echo inside; try to humiliate it with paint splatter, and then to deify it as if it were the word of God; and then, when it’s been stripped of sense, when he’s sure it can’t be understood, and he’ll erase it and paint it again, and leave it there as the embodiment of his efforts – and leave us wondering if it’s the word that means something, or the painting” (J. Lewis, cited in: Christopher Wool, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 284). Looking less at his chosen words as text or conveyors of semiotic meaning, Wool forces the audience to reevaluate our relationship with language. Isolated, dripping, and misaligned, the letters become abstract shapes and lines, and become more individually clear in the process.

Visually paving the way for an army of text-based works, Untitled sees the artist applying thick black enamel to a white aluminum support for the first time. Using industrial-style lettering stencils, he embraces the drips and overpainting that result from the process. The shapes are accurate and clear, but the marks themselves veer from absolute perfectionism in favor of an almost painterly attention to medium. As Wool sees it, “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). Untitled is centered around nine letters in three rows of three letters each. Spelling them out, he makes an abbreviated reference to the Ancient Greek military tactic of hiding inside a wooden horse sculpture to gain access to the besieged city of Troy. Like the equine ruse, Wool’s work is full of more meaning than might initially meet the eye. The letters are easily read, but becoming aware of the objecthood of each symbol takes time as one must actively dissociate any learned associations with the alphabet in order to more fully appreciate the composition.

A pivotal moment in Wool’s career, the impetus for his Word paintings came when he was walking the streets of downtown New York City in the late 1980s. Strolling amidst the billboards, graffiti, and urban flotsam of the Lower East Side in 1987, the artist chanced upon a pristine white panel truck that was still sticky with the spray-painted tag ‘SEX LUV’ stenciled across its side. Stopped in his tracks by the immediacy of this graphic incursion, Wool hurried to his studio nearby and repeated the words on a piece of white-painted paper. “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 in Christopher Wool, exh. cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2013, p. 40). Finding the paper used for SEX LUV lacked the substantial weight of the original automotive backdrop, Wool coated a sheet of aluminum with white enamel in an effort to mimic the industrial nature of his urban muse, resulting in the present work and the debut of Wool's most celebrated series - the Word paintings. Heavy with that nascent energy he discovered in his newfound material, Untitled threatens to burst forth. Diverging from representative painting and using text in a more robust and virile manner than his Conceptual forebears, Wool used this very work to break into a new space full of new promise and vitality.

Attempting to separate language from the information it relays, Wool sets himself firmly in the post-conceptual school. Working with a sort of punk poetry, curator Marga Paz asserts 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.” They are “a subtle post-modern fusion of black humour and concrete poetry” that challenge legibility and the perceived objectivity of language (M. Paz, “Christopher Wool”, Christopher Wool, Valencia, IVAM Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2006, p. 201). Like his conceptual predecessors of the 1960s, Wool investigates the place of symbols and semiotics in his work, paying homage to the textual compositions of artists like Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth. Going beyond the connection between meaning and text, he pulls apart the very formal qualities of lettering in an effort to unravel our everyday viewing of similar signage in the wild.

Wool painted Untitled in New York in 1988. The work is a vital reflection of the social and cultural moment happening at that time as a bastion of new artists was forming. As street art and graffiti made their way into the galleries, the urban environment became a veritable treasure trove of inspiration for the artists working there. Painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Wool harnessed the rebellious look of their roots in order to infiltrate the art world. Glenn O’Brien reflects, “Basquiat loved the ‘do-it-yourself’ bilingual bricolage esthetic of Alphabet City, the district of improvisational bootstrap enterprise. Wool, another far-Eastsider, has a similar romance with the fringe New York, the no man’s land, the interzone, the DMZ, and the ruins of concrete jungle. Where Basquiat gleaned pop cues from that world, Wool finds an alphabet of symbolic abstractions” (G. O’Brien, “Apocalypse and Wallpaper,” in H. W. Holzwarth, ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, pp. 10-11). Hiding beneath this outsider aesthetic is a rich knowledge of how symbolic arrangements and punk aesthetics can be used to upset and rewrite the historical narrative. By stripping his practice down to black text on white fields, Wool appeals to the viewer’s need for immediacy in a world of instant gratification. But once we are caught in his compositions, we start focusing on the role of meaning and language in art as Wool challenges what we knew about painting up until that point and forever changes the way we approach the painted word.

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