Lot 8
  • 8

Christopher Wool

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Christopher Wool
  • Head
  • signed, dated 1992, inscribed Hole and numbered S96 on the reverse 
  • enamel on aluminum
  • 52 x 36 in. 132.1 x 91.4 cm.


Luhring Augustine, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in January 1993


This work is in excellent condition. There are 2 minute fly spots between 'O' and 'L' and 2 extremely faint minute media accretions below 'H' in HEAD. Very close inspection shows 3 extremely faint and short hairline rubmarks in the upper section of 'E' in HEAD; 2 horizontal ones below 'L' and 1 horizontal one across 'HOL'. There is an extremely faint 1½ inch hairline scratch above 'A' and 'D'. Under ultraviolet light, there are no apparent restorations. The work is not framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

The oft-recounted story of the moment Christopher Wool was moved to create his first word painting is something close to a New York myth. It’s the kind of account that perfectly conveys the magic of the city: in 1987, while walking the streets of his Lower East Side neighborhood, Wool encountered a new, yet graffitied, white truck. Scrawled across its side was a tag reading, “SEX LUV” and the artist was so affected by the sight, he returned to his studio to create his own painterly version. This initial rendering of S-E-X and L-U-V laid the groundwork for what would become his signature technique—large black letters, placed vertically over one another and stenciled upon a smooth white background. Wool’s sudden and unexpected epiphany belongs to a special genre of New York art history lore. Before him, for instance, Robert Rauschenberg famously scavenged the city’s detritus, searching for revelation. Notably, too, Jasper Johns is said to have experienced a strikingly similar moment of clarity. On his way to the airport, and as he was being driven through Harlem, Johns glimpsed a wall painted in the fashion of flagstones. Though he was never able to successfully locate the wall upon his return to the city, the impact of its image remained with him and inspired his 1967 piece, Harlem Light. For noted art historian Thomas Crow, the two accounts are deeply significant and closely related: “Johns appeared to see in his lost crazy-paving wall a serene yearning toward beauty in a dilapidated landscape; Wool by contrast seized on a sneering defacement, a black mark left by his own neighborhood on a pristine white metal surface passing through it. It must have seemed an apt metaphor for the whole of his painting.” (Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 282)

Indeed, for over twenty years, Wool has become known and fêted for his approach to painting on white enameled aluminum, and the present work, Head (1992), is an outstanding example of his slick, metal-based aesthetic. Here, the viewer is presented with three bold, stenciled words, as a stacked composition of “HOLE IN HEAD” floats toward the upper portion of the piece. Like street signs or tabloid headlines, these words are both matter-of-fact in their presence and manifestly urban. Wool’s street-smart approach to art is also like that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who similarly found inspiration in New York’s periphery. There in the fringe’s unfashionable neighborhoods, both artists assembled and defined their own unique vocabularies. Basquiat, for his part, developed an engaged and personalized style of pop culture symbolism; Wool, meanwhile, discovered the promising possibilities of linguistic abstraction. His use of demotic misspelling, symmetrically stenciled words and unexpected breaks in text are the tangible products of an urban landscape.

Wool’s unconventional, colloquial handling of language is splendidly displayed by Head, wherein a primary article—“the,” which should be found between “in” and “head”—is blatantly missing. The words, "HOLE IN HEAD", also appear physically disjoined, as the four letters of “h-o-l-e” and “h-e-a-d,” though perfectly paralleled, are disrupted by the inset two-letter word “i-n.” As such, Wool’s clear disregard for the tradition of linearly composed sentences has the end result of emphasizing the words themselves as the sole subject of the painting. “Hole,” “in” and “head” should not be understood as representations of words; to the contrary, they are words, despite their rather unorthodox scale and formation, and it is through them that Wool presents the viewer with a grammatical fragment, one that is at once aggressive and open-ended.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the case with Head’s sister paintings which feature such riffs on the statement as "HOLE IN YOUR FUCKING HEAD" and "HOLE IN YOUR HEAD." When considered in relation to each other, the slight variation of words present—there are five at most—results in drastic changes to the works’ connotation. In the present painting, for one, the absence of a pronoun such as “your” renders the meaning of Head indeterminate, which, is of course, precisely what Wool intends. In addition to the resulting question of “whose head?,” the viewer is also presented with quandaries relating to the implied action: Where? When? And how? All are sound, logical questions, and this is one of the most extraordinary qualities of Wool’s word paintings: the audience is implicated in the situation, becoming a necessary and active participant in the work. Art critic Glenn O’Brien explains this phenomenon by writing, “Wool deconstructs words and de-contextualizes phrases by stacking letters at faux random. The process generates calligraphic effects, acrostic reverb, and a kind of Rubik’s cubism of meaning… There are no answers here, only good questions about how characters and words work. Or not.” (Eric Banks, et al., Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, p.10)

In the case of Head, the three words "HOLE IN HEAD" collectively convey a certain, if fragmented, sense of violence or imminent threat. Considering that Wool has been known to lift his painted phrases from popular culture (he draws from celebrity quotes, movie lines and song lyrics), it seems appropriate that Wool should highlight here an eerily familiar and filmic phrase. But, then again, the expression might be just as plausibly—and more simply—a token of the colorful language of everyday street talk.

In every way exemplary of Wool’s specialized approach to painting, Head presents the viewer with a formally engaging and intellectually rigorous artistic experience. As one of Wool's word paintings, the present work occupies a place in the history of art—it is through works such as this that Wool ultimately advanced the project of painting in the face of postmodern skepticism. Perhaps curator Madeleine Grynsztejn puts it best when she writes, “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, Ibid., 1998, p. 267)