Christopher Wool is what one might call a phenomenon; he produces little work, rarely expresses himself and his work began to change hands for tens of millions of dollars at a relatively early stage in his career. We take a look at his 350 million dollar portfolio.
Graffiti on a white van; legend has it that Christopher Wool’s famous word paintings were inspired by graffiti on a white van, with the simple words ‘sex luv’. In 2012, 20 years after its creation, Phillips sold the mother of all wall paintings for a hammer price of 3.5 million dollars.
Christopher Wool is one of those rare artists to have had various strokes of luck. Born in Boston in 1955, he grew up in Chicago in middle class family. In 1973, at the age of 18, he moved to New York to study art at the New York Studio School under the supervision of Harry Krame and Jack Tworkov, before swiftly abandoning the course to make the most of what the Big Apple had to offer. During the early 80’s he made the most of this newfound freedom by working from time to time in the studio of artist Joel Shapiro. It was during this time that he developed his most popular series; from his famous word paintings and flowers to his patterns and eagles series.
A contemporary of Basquiat, he was one of the first artists to integrate graffiti and street art techniques (spray paint, stencils, rollers) into work on canvas. Above all, Wool is an artist who takes an avant-garde approach to painting, whilst everyone else is preoccupied with finding new media. In just 10 years, he has firmly established his position in the market.
Christopher Wool has already been the subject of numerous exhibitions; no less than 400 over the course of the 30 years he has been working. He is also as well represented by commercial galleries (175 appearances) as by museums (180); surprising for an artist so young and so established in the market. Luhring Augustine (31 exhibitions) in the United States and Max Hetzler in Europe (17) are the principal representatives of the artist, though Gagosian (9), Skarstedt (8) and Simon Lee (7) have also contributed to his visibility across the international art scene. When it comes to museums, the MoMA has held no fewer than 14 exhibitions (all of them group) of Christopher Wool’s work, adding up to 1,569 cumulative days, or nearly 3 and a half years! Other noteworthy exhibitions include his first large-scale retrospective in 1998 at the MoCA, then at the City of Paris Museum of
Modern Art (2012) and finally a show at the Guggenheim in New York (2013), which moved to the Chicago ICA (2014) a year later. Wool has clearly received most exposure in the USA with 170 appearances (almost 50% of his total). Presence in Switzerland (23 appearances), the United Kingdom (21), and Germany (more than 50) make Wool an artist with an extensive reach! Wool has featured in sixty monographic presentations (15.6%) for a cumulative duration of nearly 7,000 days out of a total of over 93 years (group shows + solo shows)! Not bad for an artist just 62 years young!
The star of multiple shows, Christopher Wool also knows how to get people talking about him. Over his 30 year careers, he has had no fewer than 2,279 articles devoted to him. Many of these articles come as a result of good auction results: the curve representing the number of articles published follows that of turnover generated at auction very closely. Consequently, the years 2015 to 2015 demonstrate the most prolific coverage, with over 350 articles on Wool. Not surprisingly, 50% of written texts are in English- a long way ahead of the 16.6% written in German and 13.7% in French. With a finger always on the pulse of the art world, AMA has already devoted close to 100 articles to Wool, surpassed only by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal!
King of the market
Sex Luv, despite being integral to the conception of the series, is not Christopher Wool’s oldest wall painting. In 1988, the artist created Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids, which would go on to become one of his most emblematic pieces. From Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), the phrase was sent by protagonist Captain Colby (Marlon Brando) to his wife when he lost his mind and symbolizes the loss of connection with reality for a generation. The filmic masterpiece was originally featured in Christopher Wool and Bob Gober’s joint show at the 303 Gallery in New York in April 1988, where the piece was purchased by the Dannheisser’s for around 7,500 dollars, before going on display at the Whitney Biennale the following year. After offering it as a gift – which was refused – to MoMA, the piece was then sold to Bryant, who in turn sold it to François Pinault in 2001 for 400,000 dollars (+ 5.233.3%). Just a year later, it sold for 2 million dollars (+ 400%), and was sold again before reappearing at auction at Christie’s in November 2013, where it reached a hammer price of 26,485,000 (+ 1.224.25%). In a quarter of a century, the piece will have increased in value by an astronomical 353.033.3%, representing an annual return of 38.65%. Not bad at all!
The wall paintings take centre stage in Christopher Wool’s portfolio- people are clamouring to get their hands on them! Particularly sought-after are those produced between 1988 and 1992, which represent 195.2 million dollars of turnover (56.8% of the total); the 9 pieces highest prices achieved are for works from this period. Following on from these pieces are a flowers painting and two of his creations from the 00’s- more abstract, with painting assuming a greater importance. Riot (1990) is therefore the most expensive work of the artist, achieving an impressive 29.9 million dollars (including fees) at auction at Sotheby’s in 2015 – a record for an artist of this age. If you can not take a joke, you can get the fuck out of my house (1992) – third place on the podium – was sold by Christie’s, New York a year earlier for 23.7 million dollars. Please follow. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please (1988), Cats in bag. Bags in river (1990), Fool (1990), and Chameleon (1990) achieved 17.2, 17, 14.2 and 13.9 million dollars respectively. In total, Christopher Wool has sold 8 pieces for an individual price of over 10 million euros with 76 pieces going for over a million dollars each!
Appearing on the second market for the first time from 1990, it took barely four years for Wool to secure his first exhibition, to great aplomb, at Christie’s: In the Year of the Goat (1985) sold for 26,400 dollars (including fees), exceeding its estimated maximum sell price of 20,000 dollars. With 78.5% of lots achieving their estimated price or higher, Wool looks set to maintain this strong track record.
The number of lots to go on sale increased steadily and by 2013, around 60 pieces a year were being auctioned. Turnover and the average sales price took a little longer to get off the ground . It wasn’t until 2012 (following the global recession) that turnover surpassed 10 million dollars a year. Furthermore, 2012 marked the beginning of the increase in average value of Christopher Wool’s work, growing from 406,200 dollars in 2011 to 845,100 dollars the following year. The year 2015 smashed all the records, with 90 million dollars in turnover (11,9% of the total) and Wool’s pieces reaching an average sell price of 1,926,900 million dollars.
A highly segmented market
Wood’s market is quite clearly American: 67.6% of auction sales take place in the USA and 73.9% of turnover is generated there. The UK claims to bring 26.4% of lots to the market, generating around a quarter of the overall figure. Other countries offer a weaker representation; the 6% of works offered outside of these key territories represent only 0.6% of total turnover.The same goes for auction houses beyond Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillip’s, who between them bring in 99.54% of Wool’s
turnover! Christie’s takes the lion’s share, with over half the total (53.5%), thought Sotheby’s still achieves a respectable 113.4 million dollars. Tax on unsold goods is low, at only 16.9% (including multiples) or 15.9% without.
Whilst Wood is first and foremost a painter, he has also tried his hand to other mediums, most significantly photography, through his black and white series Absent without Leave (1993) which lead to its publication by Berlin-based DAAD in the same year. With deeply contrasting blacks, the series focuses on tragic urban landscapes of a Europe in decline. A year later, his series East Broadway Breakdown (1994-1995) sticks to the same formula, but this time with imagery immediately identifiable as New York. Although Christopher Wool’s photography is regularly presented at auction, the average sell price remains low (10,500 dollars); 2 and a half times lower in value than multiples (26,900 dollars)- a medium Wool has used since the beginning of his career.
Mastering a broad range of techniques (including printing, engraving, lithography, heliography, screen printing, aquatint), Wood is attached to a wider diffusion of his works. With nearly 200 prints going under the hammer (30.5%), this constitutes almost half the volume of the paintings he has produced. Nevertheless, this is where the market is; 64.1% of the lots offered bring in 98.7% of turnover! Seemingly born under a lucky star, bringing him both talent and fortune, Christopher Wool is marking out his career in letters… and measuring its success in numbers!