Property of a Distinguished European Collection
Distinguished by its towering scale and the elegance of its monochrome palette, Christopher Wool’s Untitled continues the themes set forth in the Gray Paintings first developed around 2000. Stripped down to its essence, Wool luxuriates in the action of the painting’s surface, built up over countless revisions and erasures, to create a ravishing world, in which black and white come together to create an abstract universe that verges on the sublime. As a postmodern artist, whose paintings revitalized a languishing genre in the era of image saturation, Wool creates provocative canvases whose abstract, self-referential imagery refers back to previous paintings to quote and re-quote past work. Carrying on with the ideas developed in his Word Paintings of the 1980s and ‘90s, and the Pattern Paintings that followed, Wool continues to break down painting to its bare essentials, whilst finding ample opportunity for variation and brilliance.
Suffused with a lambent inner light that lends an auratic quality to this otherwise spare black-and-white painting, Untitled displays a stunning array of painterly effects. Wide, brushy passages of thinned-down enamel are applied in back-and-forth strokes that linger with the touch of the artist’s hand. Floating atop this ethereal backdrop, Wool approaches the linen canvas graffiti-style, with his spray-gun loaded with black enamel paint. These languorous black lines that curve and wend their way through the canvas seem to hover above the surface, while at times they disappear beneath a segment of brushy gray, only to reappear on the other side. Akin to walking a labyrinth, the eye follows the meandering black lines into, over and through the canvas itself, delighting in the line’s uncanny ability to appear on top of one section, beneath the other, or—at times—to exist within the same plane as the brushy gray paint.
While the Gray Paintings might at first seem simple, recalling the rapid-dash tags of a graffiti artist on the fly, they are in fact the result of a painstaking system of process and elimination. The graffiti style of Wool’s black enamel—applied via spray gun—belies the complexity of their creation and the prowess of the artist himself. What might seem like a quick, off-the-cuff gesture is undoubtedly slow and calculated in its method. Wool continually effaces and reworks the painting’s surface so that an accumulation of discreet gestures, broad sections of erasure, and countless layers of overpainting all come together to produce a ravishing painting that gives off an effortlessness and slack.
As legend would have it, Wool discovered the process that helped formulate the Gray Paintings in 2000, while working on a painting that had begun to irritate him. In a burst of frustration, he grabbed a turpentine-soaked rag and applied it to the painting in an effort to erase the section that he disliked. At that moment, serendipity and chance intervened. The blurred effect of the obfuscated paint, dragged and smeared by the rag, retained a compelling immediacy that Wool embraced, having effectively combined the element of chance with the gesture of the artist’s hand. In the present work, the artist continues to use the broad, gestural back-and-forth motion he discovered in the original turpentine-soaked rag. The painterly sense of bravura that results pays witty homage to the past masters, particularly the rich Baroque splendor of de Kooning’s paintings of the late 70’s. As de Kooning had mixed his oil paints into a thick, viscous yet airy consistency and applied them in heavy impasto-laden strokes, Wool veers toward the opposite end of the spectrum, creating a barely-there scrim of a surface that’s been leached of all color, save for the effects of black and white.
Christopher Wool is widely regarded as being one of America’s greatest living artists. He has developed his career deliberately and progressively over the course of several decades while steering clear of prevailing trends. Having spent his childhood in Chicago, Wool moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence college in 1972. While there he was granted permission to enroll in two rigorous painting and photography courses, only to drop out and move into Manhattan a year later. By 1973, Wool was living on the Lower East Side and had enrolled in the graduate program at the New York Studio School, where he studied under the Abstract Expressionist painter Jack Tworkov. Contrary to the training he’d encountered at Sarah Lawrence, the Studio School offered a much more traditional program. Under Tworkov’s instruction, Wool mastered the basic principles of three-dimensional modeling and other formal properties of design—a proper artistic training that’s become more apparent as Wool’s paintings progressed. During a few years in the early 1980s, Wool worked as an assistant to the sculptor Joel Shapiro, and his early work clearly displays Shapiro’s influence on the young artist.
Living in New York City in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Wool immersed himself deep into the underground film and music scene that centered around the East Village, finding a kind of nihilistic camaraderie in the punk rock aesthetic that thrived amidst the city’s crumbling decay. Though he briefly studied filmmaking at New York University, by 1981 he had decided upon painting as his primary medium, and spent the better part of the decade assimilating experiences and information until--in 1987--his “eureka” moment helped inspire the series for which he is best known. As the legend goes, Wool was walking around his neighborhood in the Lower East Side when he spied the words “SEX” and “LUV” sprayed in black paint across the side of a white van. The striking graphic effect of the words, writ large across the white metal instantly galvanized the artist, and he immediately set upon the word paintings, which he continued--off and on--until 2000. To this day, Wool maintains a studio in Lower Manhattan, and his paintings still evoke the “aesthetics of decay” that he found so visually appealing upon his initial move to New York City.
Critics admired Wool’s painting’s such as the present example from the moment they were first exhibited, having been impressed by his disciplined and restrained method through which the artist was able to evoke such dazzling and captivating effects. Reviewing this series in 2008, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described his process. “Mr. Wool sprays on black lines, smears them into fields of brushy gray and sometimes rubs them out entirely before repeating the process,” Smith described. “This layering of studio and street—of macho yet ghostly, half-meant bravura painting and lax, abstract graffiti—has an undeniable liveliness. The primary energy comes from the lines, which vary in thickness and suggestion (roadmaps, cursive writing) and are often fringed with drips that defy gravity. Painterly incidents pile up, but the surface never thickens. More is definitely better” (R. Smith, “Art in Review: Christopher Wool,” New York Times, May 30, 2008, p. E29).
Though the Gray Paintings retain an altogether contemporary spirit—displaying the type of painting now evocative of the 21st century—they are in fact the continuation of the automatic gestures espoused by Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings nearly fifty years before them. Whether homage or parody, the grandness of Wool’s gesture and the luxurious drips that seep from the spray can as they run down the painting’s surface remain their greatest triumph. This parallels the sort of artistic training that Wool under Tworkov. Indeed, part of the Studio School’s instruction relied upon the delineation of forms using charcoal and partial erasure, a technique which may have influenced the Gray Paintings. “There’s never a cynical note sounded in his paintings,” the critic Eric Banks has written in his essay for the artist’s 2012 monograph. “He’s never abandoned the path he went out on decades back” (E. Banks, “Propositions in Paint,” in H. Holzwarth (ed.), Christopher Wool, Cologne, 2012, p. 349).
“What interests me about Wool” the artist and critic Joan Waltemath has said, “is how, at a time when painting was not on the map, he really did the nuts and bolts work to find a way to make it possible to get back into that grand narrative. The focus was on [the] Pictures Generation, appropriation, Jenny Holzer, Art and Language. The one thing the scene didn’t give permission for was a kind of formal language in painting. Wool mines the past and brings forward all these tropes, devices, ideas, anything that will work as part of his vocabulary and connect him into that narrative” (J. Waltemath, quoted in “A Critic’s Roundtable on Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim,” Artcritical, January 22, 2014).
Indeed, Christopher Wool’s work continues to mine the past in order to bring forth ideas and gestures long since buried with the “isms” they represent, while also reaching out to quote his own paintings as themes, gestures and details are repeated across the series. He’s somehow managed to create a new kind of painting in the era after its demise, all the while deliberately limiting himself to the sparest, most elegant means. Black and white, enamel on linen, a bit of turpentine or solvent, and no recognizable imagery allowed. What does that leave for him? Gesture, stroke, or the drip—an entire universe at his fingertips, that he spins into captivating paintings that leave viewers breathless.
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Property of a Distinguished European Collection
signed, numbered and dated ‘WOOL 2008 (P563)' (on the reverse); signed, numbered and dated again ‘WOOL 2008 (P563)’ (on the overlap)
Christopher Wool (b. 1955)
Antwerp, Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Christopher Wool, January-March 2009.
Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Antwerp
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009