Artist to Know: Christopher Wool

Liz Catalano
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Phillips’ Evening & Day Editions Auction to Feature Works by Postmodern Artist

In Christopher Wool’s early career, he spotted a white truck vandalized by the spray-painted words “sex” and “luv.” The stark simplicity of the image stuck with him for the next 15 years. Wool began creating black-and-white paintings covered in stenciled phrases, seeking to reflect the stress and unrest of the 1980s and 90s. 

Wool’s name is now listed alongside other Pop and Postmodern artists who shifted the New York art world. He remains active today, contributing his ominous paintings to conversations around current events. Phillips’ upcoming Evening & Day Auctions sale, held in London on September 10th, 2020, will highlight several works by the artist. Live bidding in the auction house’s digital saleroom will start at 1:00 PM WEST (8:00 AM EDT), with an evening session at 7:00 PM WEST (2:00 PM EDT). Get to know Christopher Wool before the auction starts.

Christopher Wool with his paintings. Image from Interview Magazine.
Christopher Wool with his paintings. Image from Interview Magazine.

Wool received his education at Sarah Lawrence College and the New York Studio School. It was not until he began creating the stenciled word paintings, however, that he found a real window into the contemporary art world. Still his best-known works, the hard-to-read words, short phrases, and full sentences were spray-painted on sheets of aluminum. Phrases such as “RUN DOG RUN” and “CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER” appeared frequently during this period.

“When I first saw his word paintings, I thought: I can’t believe what they’re getting away with these days,” says Richard Hell, a punk musician, writer, and now friend to the artist. This attitude is echoed by many of Wool’s critics. However, his craft is intentional, designed to evoke thought and emotional responses in the viewer. The arrangement of the letters is intended to subvert everyday comprehension and perception. The vocabulary is deliberately confrontational.

One of Wool’s most notable pieces from this period is Apocalypse Now, a 1988 painting on aluminum inspired by the Francis Ford Coppola film of the same name. It reads “SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS,” a line directly drawn from a desperate scene in the movie. Measuring seven feet tall by six feet wide, it sold at Christie’s in 2013. Bidding crossed the painting’s high estimate of USD 20 million before reaching $26.5 million.

Christopher Wool, Apocalypse Now, 1988. Image from Christie’s.
Christopher Wool, Apocalypse Now, 1988. Image from Christie’s.

The upcoming Phillips event features Black Book, a bound collection of 17 text images that Wool published in 1989. On each page is an eight or nine-letter word describing archetypes that together read like a poem. The words range from ‘chameleon,’ ‘prankster,’ and ‘celebrity’ to ‘terrorist,’ ‘hypocrite,’ and ‘extremist.’ The book is listed with a presale estimate of GBP 15,000 to 20,000 (USD 20,000 – 26,700). 

Around the turn of the millennium, Wool shifted the direction of his art. He worked his way into full abstraction, painting and repainting layers before scraping them off or covering them up. The predominantly gray pieces “seemed to eschew the sense of a human hand producing them,” Richard Hell later wrote in an editorial for Gagosian Gallery. Hints of pink appear in Wool’s more recent paintings.

From 2014 is a set of six lithographs made in this style, available in the upcoming sale. Each print is centered on a splatter of gray paint that covers the white and black beneath. They are together offered with an estimate of GBP 12,000 to 18,000 (USD 16,000 – 24,000).

Christopher Wool, Portraits (b/w), 2014. Image from Phillips.
Christopher Wool, Portraits (b/w), 2014. Image from Phillips.

His art has found many loyal collectors over the last 30 years. The record established by Wool’s Apocalypse Now painting in 2013 was broken two years later when Sotheby’s auctioned off an untitled work that reads “RIOT” for $29.9 million. Thanks to the artist’s many lithographs and prints, however, his average artwork is priced between $10,000 and $50,000. Interest in Wool reached its height in 2013, boosted by the success of a major retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Wool continues to create art that comments on the mood of the world. Recently, he crafted a special edition cover for Document Journal’s Spring/ Summer 2020 issue. Showing a dark gray, undefined form beneath a stark black medical cross, the piece is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The apparent chaos and pessimism in Wool’s art may resonate with the current situation, but there is a note of hope underneath. 

“Despite all the attention paid to art right now, you could easily argue that it’s dead, too,” he has said about his work. “But art’s not dead.”

The Phillips auction will take place on September 10th, 2020. Lots 61-261 will be sold at 1:00 PM WEST (8:00 AM EDT), and lots 1-60 cross the auction block at 7:00 PM WEST (2:00 PM EDT). For more information and to place an advance bid, visit the Phillips website.

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