Lot 12
  • 12


3,000,000 - 5,000,000 GBP
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  • Christopher Wool
  • Untitled
  • signed, dated 2006 and numbered (P534) on the overlap; signed, dated 2006 and numbered (P534) on the reverse
  • enamel on linen
  • 243.8 by 182.9 cm. 96 by 72 in.


Simon Lee Gallery, London (acquired directly from the artist)
Acquired from the above by the present owner


London, Simon Lee Gallery, Christopher Wool, October - December 2006, n.p., no. 11, illustrated


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although the colours are slightly brighter and warmer in the original. Condition: Please refer to the department for a professional condition report.
"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. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

“Every painting has a time signature, and sometimes Wool plays with this. What came first here? What was added?”
Glenn O’Brien, ‘Apocalypse and Wallpaper’ in: Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne 2012, p. 11.  

“I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint’”
Christopher Wool cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 256.


Executed in 2006, Untitled is a work of impressive size and dramatic aesthetic; an exemplar of Christopher Wool’s feted series of abstract monochrome paintings. This artist’s oeuvre is focused almost entirely upon the exploration and expansion of the limits and possibilities of painting. Wool is a pioneer, constantly deploying new strategies of appropriation and subversion, and perennially incorporating techniques, processes, images, and language from vernacular culture into his practice. The present work should be viewed as evidence of his dedication to the advancement of the painterly tradition within the art historical canon. Its complex composition simultaneously reveals its construction and deconstruction, registering the process of its execution in the work’s final form, and boldly juxtaposes elements of creation and negation. His work, in this sense, is evocative of Gerhard Richter’s opus of blurred and smudged photo-realist paintings, as much as Robert Rauschenberg’s celebrated aesthetic which blends abstract and figurative elements to compelling effect. As if taking this one step further, Wool appears to obfuscate the abstract, blurring, smudging and laying it into indecipherability. As the artist noted in an interview in 1998, “I became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint’” (Christopher Wool cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 256).


Like a vandal taking a spray-can to the wall, Wool simultaneously defaces and makes anew in the present work. A mood of urban toughness and street-smarts abounds, as it does in so many of this artist’s best-known paintings. From the very outset of his career, his identity has been associated with an abrasive urban sensibility, and many of his works lend themselves to a comparison with graffiti. His dramatic word paintings find their origin here, appropriating text and phrases from every-day vernacular in an equitable manner. However, with their snaking spray-paint lines, the Abstract Paintings, the series to which the present work belongs, provide the most obvious reflection of the graffiti aesthetic. Indeed, reminiscent of the sloping white on black scrawls of Cy Twombly, as much as the abstract minimalist vocabulary of Brice Marden, the messy, erratic and gestural vernacular of Untitled abounds with the raw and vital energy of street art.  


Destruction, deletion and abandon become the hallmarks of a deeply personal visual process for Wool, whose pictorial practice illuminates a profound oscillation between negation and affirmation, doing and undoing, doubt and determination.  In Untitled, Wool presents an iconic breakdown in formal systems, as abstract forms are continually obliterated in never-ending layers of chaotic overpainting. The urban vernacular of New York prevails on the surfaces of Wool’s abstractions, exposing a vivaciously cool, punk language informed by the artist’s experiences as part of the city’s underground film and music scene of the seventies and eighties. In Untitled's frenetic passages of monochrome enamel on linen, Wool dismantles the tradition of painting, reviving it for a truly contemporary generation. In a decisive age where artists have increasingly abandoned the medium of paint, here by contrast, to quote curator Marga Paz, “we are confronted with work that deals with the possibilities and mechanisms that keep painting alive and valid in the present, an issue that, despite all forecasts, is one of the most productive and complex issues in contemporary visual art” (Marga Paz, ‘Christopher Wool’ in: Exh. Cat., Valencia, IVAM Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Christopher Wool, 2006, p. 200).  


The Abstract Paintings are a body of work founded upon juxtaposition and dichotomy. In aesthetic, these works draw out the tension between mark-making and unmaking, between gesture and erasure; and in conceptual terms, they can be viewed not only as a melancholy rumination on the future of painting, but also as an exultant celebration of the freedom of line. The series was instigated in 2000, upon an accidental discovery of the interaction between turpentine and enamel paint. In a moment of creative frustration, Wool had taken to the canvas with a turpentine-soaked rag in an attempt to erase his painterly efforts. However, rather than a wiped-blank clean slate, he was left with a blurred mass of chaotic grey wash – a compelling abstract composition in itself, redolent of the broad brushstrokes of gestural painting. Thus, an act of destruction evolved into a process of creation. As the series developed, these paintings began to alternate the act of erasing with the act of drawing, resulting in a series that embraced the qualities of line and reasserted the importance of gesture within this artist’s praxis. The present example is a distillation of this process: drastic asinine lines swirl through the surface, puncturing and entangling veils of hazy grisaille wash. There is a pervasive sense of layering and depth and of false perspectival recession. We are reminded of Glenn O’Brien’s judgement of these series: “Every painting has a time signature, and sometimes Wool plays with this. What came first here? What was added?” (Glenn O’Brien, ‘Apocalypse and Wallpaper’ in: Hans Werner Holzwarth, Ed., Christopher Wool, Cologne 2012, p. 11).


The gestural kineticism central to the present composition draws viewers inwards, its reductive language equally compelling and disorientating as one walks around the space of the work. The artist himself claims, “I define myself in my work by reducing the things I don’t want – it seems impossible to know when to say ‘yes’, but I know what I can say ‘no’ to… It’s easier to define things by what they are not than by what they are” (Christopher Wool cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 48). Wool’s large-scale monochrome canvases are undoubtedly reminiscent of Franz Kline’s reductive, black and white abstractions, a vast series of works also influenced by the chaos of urban life in New York City, albeit fifty years prior. Like Wool’s gestural articulations, Kline’s immense ideograms of abstract motifs powerfully offer an impression of velocity, similarly embracing the unpredictable nature of ‘action painting’ or ‘process art’. In the fifties and sixties, Kline’s wide brushes produced tiny splatters and inflections upon his canvases, and Wool’s chaotic pictorial process evokes such idiosyncrasies of his predecessor’s celebrated work. Yet Wool’s patterns are seemingly more delicate, almost whispered on the surface of his canvases in a deeply personal, intimate meditation on what painting in contemporary America should be today. Thus most significant to Wool’s oeuvre is its profoundly self-reflexive quality: “What Christopher’s work is about… is what all good artists’ work is about… the self and what’s immediately around the self. Tried and True. It’s all self-portrait. Always has, always will be” (Richard Prince, ‘Wool’ in: ibid., p. 239).   


Wool’s drive to experiment with a plethora of artistic languages established his practice alongside other contemporary visionaries, such as Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, who likewise dared to challenge the status quo of painting from within the medium itself. This small body of artists sprung up around the rejection of an ideal that was voiced by the art historian Douglas Crimp in 1981 as ‘the end of painting’. Since then Wool has embarked on a series of career progressions from paintings of vines and floral prints, stencilled word pictures, through to the reductive strategies employed in his series of Abstract Paintings, and the series of silkscreened works based on these original compositions. The Abstract Paintings, as exemplified by the present work, should be understood as the ultimate demonstration of his dissident progressive attitude, for which – to quote the artist himself – “the traditional idea of an objective masterpiece is no longer possible” (Christopher Wool cited in: Kate Brinson, ‘Trouble is my Business’ in: ibid., p. 47).