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Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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London

Christopher Wool
B. 1955
UNTITLED
signed, dated 1992 and numbered (S81) on the reverse
enamel on aluminium 
109.1 by 76.2 cm. 43 by 30 in.
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Provenance

Luhring Augustine, New York
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above)
Sotheby’s, New York, 17 May 2000, Lot 6 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Catalogue Note

Executed in 1992, the present work is a pivotal example from Christopher Wool’s celebrated series of Word Paintings, masterpieces that combine elements of Pop art and Abstract Expressionism with a conceptual investigation into the inadequacy of language as a means of communication. His words and phrases scream at the viewer, barely constrained by the confines of their aluminium substrates, explosions of text that disrupt the severity of monochromatic backgrounds. However, the words and letters are not placed to be read. Wool removes punctuation, spacing and sometimes vowels, disrupting the act of reading and forcing his audience to truly consider the letters to make any sense of them. This decision constitutes the central tension of the series, a conscious juxtaposition of visual and textual meaning, and is borne of the much mythologised “origin story”, which stemmed from a piece of graffiti. The story goes that Wool was walking in his neighbourhood in the Lower East Side and came across a white truck that had been freshly graffitied with the tag ‘SEX LUV’. Struck by the singular aesthetic and conceptual intensity of the image, Wool returned to his studio to create the first Word Painting, laying the groundwork for what would become his signature technique. Truncated words, incendiary, aggressive phrases and industrialised aluminium supports link the works inextricably to the street and its manifestations of anger and disgust, and to the punk sensibility that pervaded New York at the time. This aesthetic power is allied to Wool’s intense awareness of postmodern critical theory to create an entirely novel form of linguistic abstraction and semiotic investigation. Conjuring sensations of anxiety, anger and humour, the Word Paintings are primal and essential works that perfectly reflect the zeitgeist that defined the era of their production.

One of only three works employing the phrase WANTTOBEYOURDOG, the largest of which is housed in the collection of the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in Zurich, the text of the present work is presumably derived from The Stooges’ iconic 1969 proto-punk single, I Wanna be Your Dog. The band were infamous for their wild live shows, and Iggy Pop, the lead singer of the group, would regularly punctuate his performances with self-mutilation, flashing and stage dives. However the lyrics of the song, which describe Pop’s subversive longing to be subdued by a dominatrix, stand in stark opposition to his public persona, and thus epitomise the duality of insecurity and defiance that characterised the punk movement in the late 1980s, some fifteen years after its birth. By that point the movement had changed from an act of defiance to a style and an indicator of cool – black and white clothes, motorcycle jackets, something aspirational and rebellious that you could wear rather than perform. As Andy Warhol pointedly observed, “Just think about all the James Deans and what it means… someone had the same fantasy as you… and so he went to the store and bought the look you both like” (Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 53). In turn, Wool’s painting alters the meaning of Iggy Pop’s lyric, not least by making it indexical, dependant on the context in which it is received. This is the case with many of Wool’s phrases – YOUMAKEME, IFYOUDONTLIKEIT – there is no clarity over who is addressing whom. Who, in the present work, wants to be whose dog: is this the submissive artist addressing the viewer? This ambiguity is pivotal. As Marga Paz, curator of the artist’s 2006 exhibition in Valencia, commented, the Word Paintings are “sometimes mysteriously hermetic and incomprehensible, sometimes ironic, sometimes distressed or critical, but always elusive when it came to revealing a meaning that was not uncertain” (Marga Paz, ‘Christopher Wool’ in: Valencia, IVAM Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Christopher Wool, 2006, p. 201). Rather than declarative statements, the works explore both punk poetics – “a subtle post-modern fusion of black humour and concrete poetry” – and, through the obstruction of legibility, challenge the legitimacy of language as an objective method of communication (Ibid.).

This is a key differential between Wool and other artists of his generation who began to use words in their artworks. Unlike Richard Prince or Barbara Kruger, for whom the text guides our interpretation of an image, for Wool the text is the image. This technique enables Wool to avoid the historical baggage of the medium by, as Katharine Brinson the curator of his 2013 retrospective has put it, “making the act of production correlate precisely with the visual content of the work” (Katharine Brinson, ‘Trouble is My Business’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Christopher Wool, 2013, p. 38). Phrases culled from his surroundings and from popular culture are the self-defined paradigm in which Wool can operate, teasing out the aesthetic subtleties available to him. This alignment of process and subject collapsed the opposition that Wool describes as a hallmark of his earlier work, his oft-quoted observation that he “became more interested in ‘how to paint it’ than ‘what to paint’”(Christopher Wool cited in: Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 258). Through the circumscription of both content and style, the Word Paintings and the concurrent Roller Paintings made these two concerns synonymous – both subject and process are pre-defined.

This conceptual bent to Wool’s work, which sees him interrogate both process and linguistics, operates in tandem with the fact that Wool’s aesthetic not only reflects a punk sensibility but acts as a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art. His use of stencils and strict parameters within which to work constrain the possibility of expressionistic gesture and link him to Pop art, however the otherwise hard edges of the black letters wobble when Wool removes the stencil, and the Jackson Pollock-esque drips of black paint betray the artist’s hand. These deliberate slippages and imperfections, which pre-empt the work of artists such as Wade Guyton and Wolfgang Tillmans, assert the import of the act of creation to the artist, even when engaged in an ostensibly mechanical form of production. Echoing the work of artists such as Robert Gober, who advanced the Duchampian notion of a readymade by meticulously sculpting mundane utilitarian objects such as sinks and closets, and whose studio the artist visited in the early 1980s, Wool revels in the seemingly accidental revelation of the hand’s capriciousness, and the assertion of the primacy of painting. In Wool’s words, “I always considered myself involved with painting. I can’t imagine someone seeing one of those and not realizing it’s a painting. I think, the way I used text was not didactic. I was not speaking about art, I was just making paintings. The text was more subject than anything else” (Christopher Wool cited in: Martin Prinzhorn, ‘Conversation with Christopher Wool’, Museum in Progress, 1997, online).

Recalling the brazen daring of graffiti or accusatory intensity of a tabloid headline, Untitled confronts the viewer with a rebellious immediacy that testifies to the heretical brilliance of Christopher Wool’s oeuvre. Masterfully fusing his semiotic investigation into the power of words with a rebellious punk aesthetic, Wool parodies and confronts his audience’s desperate search for meaning. As critic Jim Lewis describes, “Wool can take a word and worry it, turn it this way and that, beat on it a few times, paint it, paint over it, paint it again, try to break it, auscultate it like a doctor tapping the chest of a sick patient and listening for the echo inside; try to humiliate it with paint splatter, and then to deify it as if it were the word of God; and then, when it’s been stripped of sense, when he’s sure it can’t be understood, and he’ll erase it and paint it again, and leave it there as the embodiment of his efforts – and leave us wondering if it’s the word that means something, or the painting” (Jim Lewis cited in: Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Christopher Wool, 1998, p. 284). Combining conceptual rigour with stylistic flair, Untitled epitomises the anarchic appeal of Christopher Wool’s work, which constitutes a primal, immediate and insistent assertion of the power of painting.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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London