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Post Lot Text
In the early 1990s, Christopher Wool reinvigorated the genre of painting with a revolutionary series of works based on decorative flower motifs that he silkscreened in black enamel upon large-scale aluminum supports. The resulting works keenly illustrate Wool’s reinvestigation of the genre of painting, its historicizing tendencies toward “decoration” and the emotive power of the painted gesture. Amazingly, these paintings break with historical tradition while simultaneously employing those same techniques, from Warhol’s silkscreen to Pollock’s drip. In Untitled, Wool presents a complex monumentally-scaled, densely-layered painting in which a series of silkscreened flowers are overlaid repeatedly on top of each other, then marked out with the sureness of Wool’s enamel-soaked brush. The result is a dizzying palimpsest-like arrangement in which multiple layers of silkscreened imagery rise to the surface to vie for the eye’s attention. In this way, “Wool offers us access to a world where things are layered to the point of implosion, where iconographic elements are built up only to virtually fall apart…The more Wool endeavors to blot out, the more complex things get.” (J. Decter, “Christopher Wool,” Artforum, September 1995, p. 89).
Wool looked back to his earlier stamp and roller-brush paintings of the early 1990s for the flower imagery in Untitled, a self-referential process that would inform later works in which he literally used his old paintings to make new ones. Wool’s early “allover” stamp and roller-brush canvases depicted the cheap decoration used by slumlords to cover the inside walls of the tenements and apartment buildings that Wool had seen while living in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. The simplified flower forms are stripped of their evocative, emotional content. Devoid of the beauty they were once meant to convey, the decorative flower imagery becomes quite the opposite, crossing over into the arena of kitsch. Wool seized upon this aspect of the roller-brush flower, and in the present series of works went a step further, seeking out banal clip art flowers as well. This generic flower imagery perfectly suited Wool’s purposes. Pared-down, simplified versions where the actual “flowerness” of the depicted flower is many times removed, the flowers themselves—those most beautiful, evocative symbols of love, passion, of the natural world—those have become empty signifiers.
In Untitled, Wool goes a step further, stripping the imagery of even color, reducing it to black and white by means of flat enamel paint. In this way, Wool’s representations of flowers are quite actually the very opposite of a flower, which by nature is colorful, fragrant, alive and beautiful. The most obvious precursor is Warhol, whose silkscreened flowers of 1964 were similarly flattened and exaggerated facsimiles of the flowers they were supposed to represent. Wool exploits all these ideas to create a body of work that is emblematic of the highly-charged postmodern era in which they were produced, in which the “death” of painting had already been announced. A decade earlier, Douglas Crimp published his infamous “The End of Painting” in 1981, in which he declared that the medium of painting had lost its potency. An entire generation of painters who came of age during the postmodern era—Wool himself included—were forced to grapple with art-making in this hyper-critical environment. By using such overtly decorative imagery in his paintings, Wool seems to acknowledge the changed nature of painting. How can an artist paint a new flower? How can painting still be considered relevant? With this series, Wool deliberately flaunted the critics who decried the end of painting, making an “in-your-face” rebuttal of their harsh doctrinaire attitude.
In Untitled, Wool depicts a dense layering of silkscreened flowers, the framed edges of the silkscreen still visible, forming a network of grids that, in some cases, is applied directly on top of the printed flower image. The grid, of course, not only nods its head to modernism and Mondrian, but also mimics the geometric shape of the painting’s frame, thereby reinforcing the notion of the painting as a painted object. A few years later, Wool began to spray a rectangular painted “frame” directly over the image itself. Furthermore, in these flower paintings of 1993-1994, the viewer is finally privileged enough to see Wool’s hand, in the wide swaths of white enamel paint applied directly to the canvas by means of a loaded brush. In the painting’s upper register, a widely-brushed area of white enamel paint acts to block out the larger flower pattern beneath so that a new layer of painted daisies can be applied over it. In this way, Wool’s application of white paint is both additive and reductive, as the paint acts like a sort of eraser, like “Wite-Out” but rendered in the artist’s own expressive hand. Oddly enough, Wool learned the principles of modeling at the New York Studio School, which focused on the centrality of drawing and the precise use of an eraser to render modeling. In this way, Wool’s methodology is rather traditional. In quite another respect, Wool’s erasure might also evoke the provocative and experimental nature of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing of 1953, in which the artist purchased a small drawing by Willem de Kooning and simply erased it, a bold gesture meant to symbolize a break from the past and the beginning of a new era.
In Untitled, Wool bravely tackles the centuries-old question of image-making while commenting on the conflicts and pitfalls of contemporary painting in a postmodern era. His paintings reference the history of Post-War American Art, from Pop Art’s flat, mechanized silkscreen process to the gesture of painterly abstraction. In Untitled, Wool explored all of these paradigms—uniting the abstract and figurative, painting and print—to explore the dynamics of contemporary painting. In an important review of the artist’s work for his recent 2014 career-spanning retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York, the preeminent critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “Like it or not, Christopher Wool, now fifty-eight, is probably the most important American painter of his generation...If you are put off by the harshness of Wool’s rigor, as I was, it means that you aren’t ready to confess that our time admits, and merits, nothing cozier in an art besieged by the aesthetic advances, as well as the technical advances, of photographic and digital mediums. Once you stop resisting the gloomy mien of Wool’s work, it feels authentic, bracing, and even, on occasion, blissful” (Peter Schjeldahl, “Writing on the Wall,” New Yorker, 4 November 2013).