The origin story surrounding the genesis of Christopher Wool’s legendary word paintings is definitive of a formative moment in downtown New York City history. In 1987, while walking the streets of his Lower East Side neighborhood, Christopher Wool encountered a new white truck that had just been freshly branded with graffiti. Scrawled across its side was a spray-painted tag reading ‘SEX LUV’ in crudely rendered stenciled letters. Captivated by the graphic immediacy and pictorial power of these words, Wool returned to his studio and made his very first text composition, stenciling the letters ‘SEX LUV’ in gleaming enamel on a single sheet of white-painted paper. This initial composition laid the groundwork for the series that would become Wool’s singular declaration of the continuing relevance of painting at the end of the Twentieth Century. Five years later, Wool returned to the very same text in the present work, rendering the words ‘SEX LUV’ on an aluminum ground. Bearing the text that began Wool’s entire series of word paintings, Untitled occupies an unrivaled place in his output—it is these two words that became the very basis upon which Wool ultimately advanced the project of painting in the face of postmodern skepticism. Concurrently provocative and aesthetically seductive, Christopher Wool’s brilliant Untitled is the very quintessence of his most immediately recognizable and significant body of work.
The abbreviated quality of the words SEX LUV is paralleled by the quadrilateral brusqueness of Wool’s rectangular grid, in which the geometric blocks of black text assert a regimented space. Like street signs or tabloid headlines, the words are both matter-of-fact in their presence and manifestly urban, revelling in the short bluntness of their hard-edged consonant letters and the imperfection of the misspelled, abbreviated ‘LUV’. Marked off by faint remnants of Wool’s penciled lines, denoting the predetermined gridded structure for his painted letters, the surface of the present work makes visible the armature that defines the compositional direction of Wool’s practice. Moreover, as is characteristic of Wool’s paintings, the edges of the stenciled enamel letters reveal arresting glitches of process—rich incidents of dripping, skipping, or distortion that corrupt our reading of the words. In this way, the words become a visual rather than purely linguistic device, centering attention toward the material application of enamel on the aluminum—process rather than content here takes reign. The formality of the grid and the truncation of the word imply constriction, while the obstruction of such rigid boundaries by process-driven interruptions articulate a palpable painterly virtuosity along every edge.
Here, the composition is minimal and the individual letters have been reduced to a bipolar, stenciled schematic. Whereas the execution of the work achieves the perfection of Minimalist reduction on the one hand, on the other it includes overt suggestion of its handmade manufacture, with the irregular outline, smudges and drips heavily in evidence. Through his text paintings Wool interrogates not only the definitions of subject matter, conceptual content, and creative authorship in painting, but also demonstrably exhibits a love of the act of creation, insistently leaving remnants of the process of its making, such as the luscious drips of ink-like paint in the present work, to designate the hand of the artist. Wool is interested in the way that text can function as image, harnessing the pictorial qualities of his stenciled letters to accentuate their status as shapes and de-naturalize their communicative utility.
The initial rendering of the words S-E-X and L-U-V in 1987 was the catalyst that inaugurated Wool’s signature form—large black letters, stenciled abutting one another upon a smooth white background. Wool began this series in 1987 by painting prominent stenciled black capital letters on aluminum surfaces, revelling in their elusive quality and ambiguity; associated with both the punk poetics of the downtown scene in the early 1990s alongside the increase in postmodern critical thinking, Wool’s paintings investigate the limitations of language as descriptive signifiers, challenging the legibility and objectivity of language by its visual capacity for incessant re-interpretation. Perhaps curator Madeleine Grynsztejn phrased it best when she wrote, “Wool deliberately choreographs a collision between different components of language—grammatical, semantic, visual, imaginary and spoken—that conveys an emotional magnitude beyond the range of everyday speech and closer in spirit to the true proportions of Wool’s subject: the inherent inefficacy and near-constant failure of language.” (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 267) Capturing an historic catalytic moment in the artist’s oeuvre, Untitled bristles with the feeling of discovery that sparked an artistic revolution.
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