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Christopher
Wool

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Biography

Chicago-born artist Christopher Wool’s works blur the boundaries between art, text and the conceptual, drawing from the influences of graffiti. Inspired by the vibrant and ground-breaking graffiti scene of 1980s New York – his adoptive home – Wool began to experiment with text during the late 1980s, and has since become well-known for both his typographic and abstract works.

Beginnings

The son of a molecular biologist and a psychiatrist, Wool was born in Chicago in 1955. At the age of 17, he moved to New York City, attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. Dropping out before the year had ended, Wool went on to attend the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture: an educational institution in Greenwich Village known for its fresh, anti-academic stance towards artistic education. Whilst at the Studio School, Wool received instruction from Jack Tworkov and Harry Kramer – two leading abstract expressionist painters whose work was inspired by the deconstructive approaches of Cézanne and Matisse.

First Paintings

In the late 1980s, Wool began to create his iconic Word Paintings. Inspired by the stark contrast between the white body panels of trucks and the bold, hard-edged graffiti with which they were often daubed during this period, these works arranged shortened, vowel-less words in a sequence that would have to be read out loud to make sense.

Later works such as Persuader (1989) and Extremist (1989) see Wool arrange singular yet hard-hitting words onto a single page. ‘Stencilled’ onto the print surface, these works are testament to the influence of Street Art and recall the processes of other artists, such as Banksy or STIK.

Success

In 1981, Wool sold his first artwork to the German-born Swiss multimedia artist Dieter Roth. Internationally famous for his use of books and found materials as artistic media, Roth was a lifelong friend of Wool’s father, who himself had a large collection of the artist’s multimedia work in their Chicago apartment.

In 2013, Wool was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition held at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Featuring works from throughout his career, the exhibition placed Wool alongside influential contemporaries, such as Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In a rare 2014 interview, Wool recalled his friend asking him what the most meaningful things that could happen in his artistic career would be. Wool answered, stating that an exhibition at the Guggenheim and a design for an album cover by American band Sonic Youth would be at the top of his list of achievements. In 2006, Wool produced the cover design for the band’s 2006 album, Rather Ripped.

Most Famous Works

Amongst Christopher Wool’s most famous works is the 1988 painting, Apocalypse Now. Referencing Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the same name, and the contents of a letter sent home by an American soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, the piece is a stand-out example of Wool’s Word Paintings. Recalling the catastrophic events of the 1987 stock market crash, Black Monday, it was lauded for its shocking and gritty evocation of its anxiety-inducing subject matter.

Commenting on the piece, Chief Curator of New York’s New Museum Richard Flood one said, ‘It was probably the painting of the year, and one of the most emblematic pictures in the recession to come that would humble the art world the following year. It offered such a simple, reductive solution for moving on that it became a kind of late-eighties mantra’.

Maggie’s Brain, a 1995 painting by Wool, is similarly well-known. Referencing abstract expressionism and Warholian Pop Art. the erratic and dynamic piece combines a multitude of different media, including silkscreen printing and spray paint.

Influences

Wool himself is loath to reference his early artistic influences. Whilst at Sarah Lawrence College, he had been dissuaded from pursuing painting by his tutor, the American abstract expressionist artist and alleged founder of the ‘New York School’ of painting, Richard Pousette-Dart. Pousette-Dart himself was inspired by the likes of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; yet his influence on Wool should be limited to informing his decision to move to the all-the-more liberal and experimental New York Studio School to pursue a career in art.

Under the guidance of Tworkov and Kramer, Wool came to be influenced by the ‘godfathers’ of abstract expressionism: Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Upon leaving, New York’s underground scene became his most important influence, however; pulsating with the sounds of punk rock, New York’s East Village quickly catalysed a thriving arts scene characterised by performance, graffiti, and mixed-media practice.

Later, in the 1980s, radical German artists Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger – both famed for their emphasis on provocation and fiercely conceptual, ‘post-non-representational’ art – became major influences for Wool.

Style & Technique

Wool’s visceral, gritty, punk-inspired style makes use of a variety of artistic techniques. Dripping, overpainting, and erasing layers of ink and paint, Wool often imbues his works with a sense of gesture and compositeness. In his printmaking and etching works, the rhetorical themes of reproduction and negation are similarly present: in the 2005 etching 6+4 (Complete Set), for example, Wool inscribes the negative space of 10 rectangular framings with a different kinetic inscription, rendered in contrast-heavy black ink.

Life & Times

Whilst Wool is predominantly known for his painterly works, he is also a keen photographer.

As early as the late 1980s, a period in which the artist began crafting his Word Paintings, Wool began experimenting with photography, exploring how it could both inform and expand his artistic process.

Making photographs of paintings, and using photography to question his paintings’ representational and qualities reproducible, Wool’s photographic process, along with his fondness for the Polaroid, recall the photographic experimentations of much loved British artist, David Hockney.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Wool would often take photographs at night. His 2003 photobook East Broadway Breakdown evidences his imprecise, rough-and-ready approach to photography; many of its images make use of the camera’s flash function to illuminate the similarly untended urban environments of New York City’s East Broadway.

On the Market

Be it his well-known and eminently recognisable 'word' pieces, or abstract expressionist pieces, which recall the likes of Jackson Pollock, Wool’s artworks are some of the most sought-after on the contemporary art market.

In the May of 2015, Untitled (Riot) sold for $29.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York, smashing its $12 million estimate.

Another of the artist’s graphic, typographic pieces – initially inspired by the New York graffiti scene of the late 1980s – sold for the $26.5 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York in November of 2013. This particular work, entitled Apocalypse Now, was directly inspired by the film of the same name, and the infamous ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash of 1987.

Untitled (Riot) by Christopher Wool

Untitled (Riot) © Christopher Wool 1990

1. £23.1M for Christopher Wool's Untitled (Riot)

The most expensive painting by Wool at auction, Untitled (Riot) sold for $29.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York on 12 May 2015, over double its $12 million low estimate. Wool was first inspired to make his word painting in 1987. He was walking in New York’s Lower East Side when he saw a white truck with ‘SEX’ and ‘LUV’ graffitied on its side. The contrast between the words and the white background was a lightbulb moment for the artist, who created his own painted version after returning to his studio. These word paintings are now Wool’s most famous and recognisable artworks.

Apocalypse Now by Christopher Wool

Apocalypse Now © Christopher Wool 1988

2. £17.2M for Christopher Wool's Apocalypse Now

Created in 1988, Apocalypse Now was one of Wool’s earliest word paintings and the first that he publicly exhibited. The text was inspired by a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now, as well as the famous Black Monday Wall Street crash a year earlier. “It was an experiment,” Wool said of making and exhibiting Apocalypse Now. “Previously, I had been making abstract paintings, so it was certainly a departure. I was still young and extremely insecure.” His worries stopped when the gallerist Paula Cooper saw the painting and said it reflected her sentiments exactly. “I immediately relaxed,” recalled Wool.

Apocalypse Now sold at Christie’s in New York on 12 November 2013 for $26.5 million, soaring past its estimate of $15-20 million.

If You by Christopher Wool

If You © Christopher Wool 1990

3. 14.0M for Christopher Wool's If You

The sale of Wool’s If You at Christie’s in New York on 13 May 2014 followed a very successful year for the artist. In 2013, Wool’s major retrospective exhibition opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, establishing him as one of America’s most notable living artists. The sale of Apocalypse Now at Christie’s in November 2013 (no. 2 on this list) also set a new auction record price for Wool. If You, a similarly bold and gritty work, sold for $23.7 million against a low estimate of $20 million. Another version of the same phrase sold for a top auction price in 2016.

Untitled by Christopher Wool

Run Dog Run © Christopher Wool 1991

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