Why the rise of Christopher Wool?
Artist’s market booms as buyers aggressively chase limited supply of best works
By Gareth Harris. Art Market, Issue 249, September 2013
Published online: 20 September 2013
The market for the Chicago-born, 58-year-old artist Christopher Wool has moved with such force over the past five years that some in the trade suggest that commercial, rather than critical, appreciation is driving the demand.
“Wool’s works can now be flipped at auction for at least $2m. There’s a huge amount of speculation,” says one dealer, who asked to remain anonymous. “A primary-market Wool is probably priced at around $650,000, and could sell on the secondary auction or private market for at least twice that much,” says the Boston-based collector Bridgitt Evans, who owns three pieces by the artist, including a black, white and blue enamel painting on aluminium (Untitled (P232), 1995).
The feverish activity, fuelled in part by dealers (including Larry Gagosian) who have moved vigorously into the artist’s market, indicates that Wool’s art “has become a parking lot for money”, says one high-profile European curator. Like the market for Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool’s market is in danger of being controlled by a small, powerful group of players, he says. “Certain sections of the market are seen as a good bet by principal [market] players,” he adds, saying that a monograph published by Taschen in 2008 sealed Wool’s status as a “must-have artist” among collectors of blue-chip contemporary art.
Some collectors are trying to buy multiple examples of Wool’s work, from text-based pieces to abstract works, silkscreens and paintings made with rubber pattern rollers, says Lock Kresler, the head of private sales, post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s London. It is Wool’s punkish deadpan paintings, comprising in-your-face stencilled words and phrases, that have really struck a chord with private and public collectors. Word paintings made between the late 1980s and early 2000s are the most sought-after pieces (seven “word” works feature in Wool’s top ten auction sales), followed by mid-1990s floral works, then anything with colour and gesture, says the New York-based art adviser Lisa Schiff.
The demand for the artist’s work was confirmed in April when nine works on paper, consigned by a single owner, sold at the Wright auction house in Chicago. Untitled, a 1989 work on paper with the word “prankster” stencilled in paint, was the highest-priced lot at $506,500 (with buyer’s premium; est $200,000-$300,000).
Despite appearances, this is not a market bubble, according to some in the trade. Although Wool’s record at auction was set last year (when Untitled, 1990, an enamel-on-aluminium work emblazoned with the word “fool”, sold for £4.9m [$7.7m] at Christie’s London), the shift began in 1999, when Christie’s New York sold the black-and-white word painting Untitled (Fool), 1990, for $420,500—more than seven times its high estimate of $60,000.
Demand outstripped supply even in the 1980s, according to the Wright catalogue, which states that, when New York’s 303 Gallery organised a joint show of works by Wool and Robert Gober in 1988, “Luhring Augustine [gallery] had a waiting list of collectors interested in Wool’s word pieces before they were even completed”.
“Before 2000, his market always had a steady following of serious interest, both curatorially and from collectors,” says Lawrence Luhring, the co-director of Luhring Augustine, which has represented Wool since 1987.
Luhring says that the primary market is geared towards institutions. “Wool makes few works and we work hard to place them well, mostly with museums and institutions,” he says. The gallery liaises with an established network of dealers, including Simon Lee of London and the Berlin-based Galerie Max Hetzler, to ensure that Wool’s primary market remains stable.
The artist has “always wanted to keep prices down”, says the New York-based art adviser Thea Westreich Wagner, adding that he does not want his works to end up “with the ultra-rich”. Control of his own output and market appears to be a priority. “He is a rigorous and ruthless editor,” Simon Lee says.
It is ironic, then, that the artist’s strategy of keeping the primary market steady has prompted such an ascent in prices on the secondary market as major collectors aggressively track down a limited supply of works. The general consensus is that Wool has secured his place in the art historical canon, but for a man reported to be a reluctant market darling, the fact that his work is now considered a tangible asset may be hard to stomach.
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