Artist Index: Christopher Wool

As the art world gears up for this year’s November auctions, artist Christopher Wool (American, b.1955) has become a hot topic of conversation. Leading into the Post-War and Contemporary Art sales, auction results for Wool have reached unprecedented highs, and the Guggenheim has spotlighted the artist in its exhibition titled Christopher Wool, which runs from October 25, 2013 to January 22, 2014. With this flurry of recent publicity, Wool’s 1988 word painting Apocalypse Now is a key lot to follow at Christie’s November 12 sale. This lot has the potential to become a record-setting work for the artist (the current highest price stands at US$7.7 million, set in February 2012.)

Untitled by Christopher Wool

Christopher Wool, Untitled, 1990, enamel on aluminum, sold at Christie’s London

Wool is most well known for his graphic, black and white images that experiment with both medium and the creation process. In the 1980s, he entered the New York art world at a time when traditional painting was not in line with avant-garde practice. As a result, Wool’s first set of iconic works were created using paint rollers, which subsequently removed painterly qualities from his work. Many of these works featured repeating patterns of stylized plants and abstract motifs created by incising the roller with the desired image.

Wool also focused on the written word as a subject in his paintings. Using stencils, he replicated words and phrases (sometimes adopted from books or films) in large, block letters. He frequently disregarded punctuation and spacing, and even excluded some letters entirely. The end product often created a sense of discomfort and chaos for the viewer. It is these works that are received particularly well at auction, with the top five lots coming from this series.

During the 1990s, silkscreen became one of Wool’s most-utilized techniques. He often reused the imagery of his early works (particularly the flower) to create densely layered pieces. Wool also experimented with photography during this time.  Silkscreen replicas of these photographs were frequently incorporated into later works.

The most recent works in Wool’s oeuvre are his “gray paintings.” Usually large in scale, these works play with the idea of creation and destruction inherent to the creative process. Wool executed these pieces by adding black enamel to his surface, wiping the enamel away, and reapplying, thereby creating hazy layers of loops and lines.

While evidence of Wool’s artistic evolution is clear, all of his works pose a similar question: What is a painting?

Christopher Wool Overall Market

Christopher Wool’s Overall Market & Word Paintings vs. artnet Contemporary 50™, 2004–2013

The market for Christopher Wool’s paintings has seen substantial growth since 2004, reaching the 1200 mark in 2013. This year has seen an increase in the number of lots offered and the total sales volume at auction from 2012. The number of lots sold is up nearly 85% from 2012. In addition, the 2013 total sales volume has already reached record levels (US$39 million thus far), with the highly anticipated November sales still to come. Since 2009, the average sale price of Wool’s paintings has been greater than the average high estimate each year. Coupled with high sell-through rates, this suggests there is strong demand for his work.

This strong market is supported, in part, by the success of Wool’s iconic word paintings, which have outperformed the artist’s overall market. In fact, word paintings have fetched the five highest prices for the artist at auction, together generating over US$25 million. Untitled (Fool) (1990) achieved the highest price to date when it sold at Christie’s London in February 2012. It brought in US$7.7 million, US$2 million more than its high estimate. More recently, And If (1992) realized over US$4 million at Phillips New York, making it the fourth-highest-selling work by the artist. The work sold this past May.

Despite what happens next week at auction, Wool and his unconventional paintings have claimed a well-deserved spot in art history.

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