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Some of the Priciest Word Paintings in the World - Most Expensive Christopher Wool Art Pieces at Auctions

November 17, 2015
Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

Christopher Wool’s long-lasting and quite close relationship with text began in the 1980s, when the artist saw a new white truck spray-painted over with the words “sex” and “luv”. At the time, he was already experimenting with blank white canvas by applying decorative patterns on it using commercial rollers. It seems as though this act of urban observation introduced him to a whole new world of art-making possibilities, as from then on he went to create Word paintings featuring big, black stencil letters which compose entire phrases. To date, these artworks remain his most popular works, although Christopher Wool also does photography, prints, posters and books, and paints with other techniques, such as silkscreen and hand painting. And they’re not just most popular – seven of his Word paintings are also his most expensive pieces at auctions as of 2013. We apologise in advance for the many caps locks, but we also ask you to blame it all on Christopher Wool. He’s the one yelling in his paintings.

Click here to see all Christopher Wool artworks’ performance at auctions.

Scroll down to see Christopher Wool’s 10 most expensive Word paintings at auctions.

Untitled (S 69), 1992

Here it is, the Word painting that started it all. Untitled (S 69), much better known for its protagonist words SEX and LUV, is what came to be after Christopher Wool saw that white truck with graffiti on it. This is where he starts studying semantics, semiotics, the power of words not just in their meaning, but also their physical structure, their graphic and stylistic unity. His work is manual, yet mechanical, as he thoroughly explores the design of each letter, individually and in combination with the other ones. The painting was sold at Phillips, De Pury & Luxembourg in New York in 2012, for its exact high estimate – $3,500,000.

See SEX LUV here.

And If, 1992

First sold at Phillips in 2013 for $3.5 million and then at Christie’s New York a few months later for $6.1 million, Christopher Wool’s And If is a part of several Word paintings – the others depicting statements like FUCK EM IF THEY CANT TAKE A JOKE or IF YOU CANT TAKE A JOKE YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE (seen further down on our list). This one reads: AND IF YOU DONT LIKE IT YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE with the same tone, in the end proving to be not so hard to read and comprehend than initially thought. Through such works, it is as though Christopher Wool created blocks of color black as sort of compositions which live independently from the writing they’re built upon.

See And If here.

Blue Fool, 1990

Here, we have the first of a few FOOLs. This 1990s piece, entitled Blue Fool, was sold at Christie’s New York in 2010 for double the price it was estimated at – $4,400,000. It would seem that the artist wanted to depict, in an unusual way, the Punk years in New York City, through both visual and contextual tools. As always, Wool’s stark letters densely positioned next to each other and outstanding from a blank background, pronounce the word as if it was an indisputable matter of fact, something no one can argue with. But who is the fool here, the artist? The audience? Art? That’s for whoever to decide.

See Blue Fool details here.

Untitled (W38), 1996

This one might be a little trickier to read than the rest of the Word paintings. We’ll give you a hand, it says: CRASS CONCEITED VULGAR AND UNPLEASANT. It is clear as day that Christopher Wool loves imperative verbs, phrases one does not often hear in everyday language. According to those familiar with Word paintings, this is precisely the string of words that we might plan in our head when we are anticipating or reflecting on a conversation, but which is never so concisely or effectively available at the opportune moment. Untitled (W38) was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2012 for $4,500,000.

See the artwork here.

Untitled (W3), 1990

When it comes to words, we know that they have been “invented” to convey a clear meaning and to express thoughts in a direct way. Yet, it happens more than often that words have multiple senses, and one good example of that is the Untitled (W3), which simply reads HAAH. Only two letters, put in two combinations, yet they provide many observations, explanations, interpretations. Is it “HA AH”? Or “HAAH” as in laughter? Is it serious or playful? A specific language or all of them? It can be anything we want, so simple but so complex, conceived at a time when the existence of painting had been questioned and when the medium had been reinvented. The work was sold at Christie’s London in 2014 for $9.4 million.

See Untitled (W3) here.

Untitled (Riot) (W14), 1990

At Sotheby’s New York in 2015, Christopher Wool’s Untitled (Riot) (W14) had a little fiasco – at $12 million hammer price, it didn’t even reach its low estimate, set at $18 million – let alone its high at $26,5 million. And it is one of his most iconic pieces. Screaming RIOT, it is a fine example of his artistry in general, his rebellious, anarchy-fighting language that aims to be provocative, button-pushing and conceptually brilliant. It is a statement and a threat, a composition relying on a rectangular grid and giving out numerous interpretations – although it would seem like it couldn’t be more direct as a message.

See Untitled (Riot) (W14) here.

Untitled (W11), 1990

It was the year 2012 when Untitled (W11) set a new artist record for Christopher Wool, with $6,9 million – beating his previous work, called Blue Fool which is the same writing saying FOOL, only painted in blue, and not black, like Untitled (W11). But then, in 2014, at Christie’s New York, its price went even higher, settling at $12.5 and well under its high estimate of $18 million. Still, it’s a good result for the artist himself. Apparently, since the letters correspond to those of his own name, Wool made a witty self-portrait through this work, at the same time poking fun at its viewer.

See Untitled (W11) here.

Untitled, 1990

Although its official title is Untitled, Christopher Wool’s 1990 painting reads ”CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER” and it is more famous by that name. Executed in 1990, this enamel on aluminium work depicts yet another catchphrase from a movie, this time the 1957 film-noir Sweet Smell of Success, staring Tony Curtis, whose character pronounces the line. For this artwork, the artist shortened and condensed it, that way giving it a whole new meaning in an entirely different environment – something that could be said for all of his Word paintings. It’s like a visual block of letters which creates a kind of a punching impact.

See Untitled here.

If You, 1992

Another one of Christopher Wool’s bold statements, described by Christie’s as “the ultimate ‘fuck you’ statement in contemporary art”. And, if you read it, it ultimately is: ”IF YOU CANT TAKE A JOKE YOU CAN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE” is an aggressive take on the audience, which uses a US military font like his many other Word paintings, and is inspired by mass advertising, the art world, claustrophobic typography and psychology. Sold at Christie’s New York in 2013 for $21 million, If You wasn’t that successful after all, as it barely went over its low estimate of $20 million and had ended up far from its high estimate of $30 million.

See If You here.

Apocalypse Now, 1988

”SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS” – that’s what Christopher Wool’s most expensive word painting says. If you’re heard it before, you’re right: Apocalypse Now features words from a famous line said by Marlon Brando’s character Richard Colby in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film of the same name – subsequently based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness. The artist was often applauded for his choice of words, described as as relevant today as they were at the time of their creation and that they could work perfectly even put out of their context completely. The work was sold at Christie’s New York in 2012 for as much as $23,5 million, surpassing its high estimate by 18%!

See Apocalypse Now here.

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