How To Talk About Art

How to Talk About Art: Christopher Wool Edition (#H2TAA)

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Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim (photograph by Howard Hurst for Hyperallergic)

These post-2013-Fall-Auction days, you can feel quite free to talk about Christopher Wool as one of those who made the grade for realz. Because even though Wool has been blue-chip long enough (since 2010) to make him a staple on a newbie collector’s wish list and the likely star of many a speculator’s wet dream, post-auction media rhapsodizing about the “record price” “achieved” by his 1988 painting “Apocalypse Now” has become the gateway to any conversation about him, at least for the next week or so — or until the show at the Guggenheim ends.

Which reminds me of a little tip for those of you bold enough to bore everyone to death with auction results: find a record to talk about. It’s easy, there’s a “record” reached in just about every other modern and contemporary art sale because an artist or a work can make a record in any one of what seems to be a billion different categories ranging from most expensive sculpture ever sold date, to highest price gained on a rainy Tuesday by a postwar American artist with a speech impediment.

So when New York art dealer Christophe van de Weghe won “Apocalypse Now” for $26,485,000, he paid more than anyone ever had for a painting by Chris Wool and Christie’s got to say that the “subtle postmodern fusion of black humor and concrete poetry” achieved a record price. For that artist.

By the way, I guess you can tell that auction talk is really dull going if you don’t know how to spice it up. Make it sound dynamic and competitive by saying that the artist or work “achieved” a record price.  That sounds like the auction is a horse race. Christophe van de Weghe ‘won’ “Apocalypse Now” by a nose, I’m guessing. Makes me want to don a funny hat and sip a mint julep.

All of which is not to downplay the import of Wool’s auction sales, mind you. To quote Christie’s, “Christopher Wool’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the sixth most valuable work ever sold at a public auction.” Take another hint from that one: “sixth most valuable” sounds swell, but it sounds sweller with “most valuable work ever sold” tacked onto it. Never mind the loaded “at a public auction” part. (Private sales have garnered more and who knows what slot “Apocalypse Now” would be in if every sale were in the ratings?)

So what does all this auction talk really tell us?

It tells us Christopher Wool is money—number 9 on Skates Market Research’s List of Top 20 Most Valuable Living Artists, with a 12.26% estimated rate of return.

It also tells us that Christophe van de Weighe is a serious player.

Mark-making, text, and concept

Text, text text! Is that all you care about? We began to think so in the 1980’s when we found the gallery walls covered in it. What in hell had happened to create such an explosion of textual appetite?

Well, as usual you can trace the heart of this modernist mischief back to Picasso and Braque, who were using newspapers and books to add a bit of kitschy atmosphere and cultural reference to their breakthrough collages. Keep in mind, also, that Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince picked up their use of cultural flotsam later.

But if all that’s too peripheral for you, then jump ahead and yap about Magritte’s 1929 painting of a pipe. Called “The Treachery of Images,” it is inscribed with the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” and thus uses language — in the title and its relation to the inscription — to make the viewer look at the painting as a painting. This early pre-postmodern turn re-directs our phenomenological experience by making us think twice about what it is we are seeing, how we choose what to focus on, and what that means. It also makes us roll our eyes.

Magritte went really far with this by the way; the pipe is one of his most famous paintings, but our surrealist pal did other, earlier, pure word and text paintings, such as “Living Mirror” and “Lost World 1 and 2” — which, in my not-so-humble opinion, are the best things he ever did. (Which is not saying much since the bulk of his work is leaden, flat, and obvious to the point of being downright stupid.)

After the Surrealists and Dada — yes, we’re going to dash right past Duchamp’s puns and word games and ignore Kurt Schwitters’ Merz collages (move along, folks, there’s nothing to see here) and go swiftly along into the 60’s when a whole bouquet of conceptual art began flowering—John Baldesarri’s text and photography lead to his seminal 1971 broken promise “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” — and then Sol LeWitt’s sets of instructions for mark-making inspire similarly word-driven mark-making wall art by Lawrence Weiner (and echoes of the same by the singularly unimaginative Mel Bochner).

Our ironically named Christopher Wool is of that particularly wooly late 70’s/early 80’s period when text moved beyond blossoming — and became an invasive species, a Kudzu draping and tearing through the walls of galleries and museums: Barbara Kruger’s “Picture/Readings” and Jenny Holtzer’s LED installations of Truisms were quickly followed up by Richard Prince’s hand painted and stenciled Jokes series.

That is when art became the philosophy of art made manifest. Text about images, images about text, text about making, making about making about text about text …

Origin Story

Wool, of course claims to have been influenced by graffiti — mark-making at its purest. According to the tale, he saw a white truck with the black letters UV SEX LUV scrawled on it and his lights went on. His subsequent LUV SEX LUV is the milestone for his iconic black letter on aluminum and steel paintings. I doubt this. It feels too pat. But hey, that’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Besides, it’s Googleable. So if you’re at a loss for words, you may as well buy some time with it.

Say ‘gesture’ and ‘subvert’ in one sentence!

Bonus: if you talk about Christopher Wool’s abstract works, which, though not as popular, are amply better looking and a lot more fun than the text paintings, you get to talk about mark-making, process, and erasure.  Along with that you get to come off as the better aesthete — the one who appreciates the less obvious work.

Wool’s abstracts reference Robert Rauschenberg’s lyric “Erased DeKooning,” where Rauschenberg could be said to have subverted DeKooning’s abstract expressionist bravado by erasing his marks just enough to leave their identity without their impact.
Since Wool marks his canvases and then, partially erases his own drawing, you get to note that he subverts the implied intent of his initial gesture with the latter one of erasure. It could make an art speaker giddy to realize that Wool’s abstracts show more gesture in their erasure than in their markings since the erasures are done with solvent soaked rags, leaving drips and smudges that capture the action quite well.

If you’re breathing heavily, I get ya. Smearing is much textier than text.

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