Eleni Koroneou Gallery, Athens
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997
Initially begun in 1986 and continually revisited over the following decades, Untitled from 1993 belongs to a series of paintings that were inspired by the cheap wallpaper used by landlords to decorate New York apartments. Easily available as an interior decoration quick-fix, the rollers and rubber stamps used for floral wall-covering patterns were about as anti-art as a source could be, and yet, they captured the punk aesthetic of the time and offered an unexpected way forward for painting. Undermining the conventional narratives of abstraction, which was historically rooted in a highly academic or expressive understanding of forms, Wool’s innovative paintings brought to light the potential of abstraction without a high-brow referent. Appropriating the last thing high-art is supposed to be – decoration – he re-purposed quotidian floral patterns into source imagery for abstract painting. Akin to Warhol before him, who in 1964 adopted a banal and decorative photograph of flowers for his ironical eponymous series, Wool looked to extend the notion of high-art via the low-brow. Unlike Warhol however, who was concerned with elevating the mass-produced into the high-art realm, Wool took on the quotidian as a means of extending the history of abstract forms: "Wool’s pattern painting evokes a peculiar disjunction between the prettifying intention of the rollers and the ascetic formal language in which he deployed them, described as an interesting friction generated by putting forms that were supposed to be decorative in such severe terms” (Katherine Brinson, Christopher Wool, New York 2013, p. 38).
Interestingly, the present work seems to have originally been conceived as one of Christopher Wool’s iconic word paintings. Clearly discernible in the upper left corner as the pentimento of his creative process, the stark black and white text of his signature font emerges from underneath a white layer of paint. Just readable are the first letters of two lines of text, which appear to form a classic Wool text: CRASS, CONCEITED, VULGAR AND UNPLEASANT. The reverse of the painting offers a clue into the history of the work, which had initially been dated 1992 and given an earlier number (S84), which were crossed out a year later when the artist added two layers of vine and coral motifs on top of the text painting. This dense layering is highly typical for Wool, and would become a defining feature of his later abstract paintings – but in the present work is executed in a rare combination of text and two of the artist’s signature patterns (vine and coral). Capturing the dark spirit of the punk generation, the pessimism of the words underneath the abstract painting mirror the stark aesthetic of Wool’s iconoclastic appropriation of decorative rubber stamps.
Seemingly anathema, the all-over composition of Untitled – where layered patterns fuse together so that the source imagery is only just discernible – nonetheless references Abstract Expressionism. As Joshua Decter remarks, “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. These recent paintings are also his most emphatically ‘painterly’ to date: the more Wool endeavours to blot out, the more complex things get” (Joshua Decter, ‘Christopher Wool: Luhring Augustine Gallery’, Artforum, No. 34, September 1995, p. 89).
Brilliantly capturing Christopher Wool’s ambitious and clever formal programme – which opened up the possibilities for painting from an unexpected angle – Untitled represents a key moment in the history of abstract painting. In the words of Glenn O’Brien, Christopher Wool “embraces and engages action painting as his primary source and then he manipulates it, with the cool reflection of a Pop artist or Dada collagist, creating art that is both intense and reflective, physical and mechanical, unconscious and considered, refined and redolant of street vernacular, both high and low” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Apocalypse and Wallpaper’, Wool, Cologne 2012, p. 8).
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