PARIS — A backshift in the Parisian weather, from spring warm sun to cold gray, complemented the opening of Wade Guyton’s back-titled 26 avril – 7 juin 2008 exhibition at Galerie Chantal Crousel perfectly. His show’s emphasis on recent history and the color black set off a cascade of reflection related to Domenico Quaranta’s new book Beyond New Media Art, a history relevant to Guyton specifically and, more generally, to the art of the late 2000s through the current moment. It is very much in the present inclination to formally re-evaluate contemporary art in terms of a developing post-media understanding, where it is already too late to talk about a ‘New Media Art‘ in a post-convergent era in which every medium has collapsed into digital territory.
26 avril – 7 juin 2008 is a collection of ten of Guyton’s signature uniform, cool, digitally produced, monotone, monotonous canvases, with black as the dominant hue (one gray exception). The gallery floor has been covered again with plywood and painted a shiny black, bringing to his installation a sinister and icy immersive aspect that I enjoyed. Ad Reinhardt’s series of identical black paintings (such as those selected by Robert Storr at David Zwirner last year) sprang to mind, but just as quickly melted away, for this show is less-than-adventurous, less than radical, less than spiritually deep.
As if a classical master, Guyton reuses here the same digital file he used to make ten black paintings in 2008 (shown at the same gallery), but this time on the Mac OS X operating system (code name Lion) and the printer is now an Epson 9900, the model that replaced the Epson 9600. (And the ink is now UltraChrome with Vivid Magenta Technology!) Even so, with his show as new-and-improved replication, I could not but sense that Guyton’s solemnly reductivist neo-modern works, all “untitled” (2014), do not quite live up to the historic and technological possibilities of our computer era.
Indeed, on entering the gallery for the opening, I quietly wondered: is this repetitious activity the indication of a triumphant artist frozen in the headlights of success? Regardless, I have admired the achievement Guyton has secured with his digital paintings, and the great stride forward these paintings have made in taking digital art to a whole other art-world level, playing down connections to new media art and avoiding the category of digital art like the plague. I found his work at the Venice Biennale, “untitled” (2011), strikingly handsome, full of gray flair and bravado. For me that work was a sure signal that the post-media condition had arrived, with the question of (perhaps) whether it no longer makes sense to distinguish between art that uses computers and art that doesn’t. Thus it struck me as out-and-out astonishing that Guyton does not appear anywhere in Domenico Quaranta’s Beyond New Media Art, a book that recalls and explores the formation of that condition.
More the pity, for with the financial success of Guyton in the collector sector (his works regularly sell for more than $1 million, and a 2005 “untitled” Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen established an auction record for the artist when it sold for $2.4 million at Christie’s New York in 2013), the artist, who just recently exhibited massive and chilly digital paintings and a wood sculpture at Petzel Gallery, proves Quaranta’s end point utterly.
But the focus of Quaranta’s book is broader than that. It begins by telling the history of the gap between the mainstream curatorial contemporary art world and the so-called new media art world. This little known history is the crux of this pertinently revised, updated version of an earlier 2010 book that Quaranta published in Italian, Media, New Media, Postmedia. Through it Quaranta contributed a bit to the heated debate outside of Italy concerning the majority of powerful contemporary art historians and curators’ perceived neglect of new media and digital art.
In an art world that seemingly accepts absolutely any hybridity, any material, any theoretical model, any remediation, any critical inspection, and any aesthetic approach at all — the extent of which Jed Perl in Magicians & Charlatans deems a condition of irony-drenched, laisser-faire aesthetics — the peculiar question of the rejection of anything raises eyebrows of concern. What peculiar and dastardly sort of luddite fuckery is at work here? And how can it be eradicated in the new Guyton era, an era in which digital media is powerfully reshaping the political, economic, social and cultural organization of the real world?
This problem is an oddity that has baffled me for over two decades, but now seems to be waning with the success of Guyton, and Quaranta’s book advances that wane but without mentioning the name Guyton. Quaranta makes the point that within a post-media art world, so called technology-based — or new media — art has slipped sideways into the acceptable means of creating art, provided it does not (1) mention by name the technological or digital, (2) describe itself as technological or digital, or (3) lovingly point at anything outside itself that is overtly technological or digital. In other words, technological or digitally-connected art, such as Guyton’s, is now acceptable to select art editors, curators, and critics so long as it is an art that dare not speak its name.
This taboo became evident with Nicolas Bourriaud’s out-of-hand rejection of digital art on the panel that Edward Shanken, author of Art and Electronic Media, conducted at the 2010 Basel Art Fair. This rejection struck me as perversely odd, as Bourriaud often defends his metaphoric references to networks and computer culture as inspirations for his own curatorial work, while refusing the actuality of computers in art. This, what might at first assumed to be an anomalous event of unwarranted tactical minorization of art and technology within a technological society, has been the dominant trend, and has also been quietly analyzed by Shanken, grappling with this seemingly irrational historical breach between mainstream contemporary art and media art.
We saw this situation pointed out again in September 2012 around Claire Bishop’s essay in Artforum and I whimpered about it more recently regarding David Joselit’s After Art. These and other further technophobic persuasions of powerful people within art institutions convinced Quaranta to rewrite his 2010 book and release this extensive, very understandable, and attention-grabbing book in English only a few months ago.
Quaranta essentially concludes that the first wave of acceptance of new media in the art world around the early 2000s waned due to a combination of hubris and blatant self-interest. The self-interest came in the form of technology-related corporate sponsorship. The hubris came from those making overly revolutionary and technologically determined evaluations by way of claims to superiority based on the wonder of technological newness alone. But the major, systemic, and deep failure was that of the critical and curatorial art communities, with their failure to take an informed and even-handed interest in art that uses technology. And this is what has changed just in the last three years, a change that started with the Whitney retrospective for the work of Cory Arcangel, curated by Christiane Paul, author of the seminal book Digital Art, soon followed by some concentrated coverage in Artforum and elsewhere. Unfortunately, Quaranta’s book basically winds up here; pointing at a hopeful convergent new authenticity that is conceptually perverse: where now we can accept so-called new media (or digital media) art so long as it does not utter its origin. Regrettably, Quaranta misses the best evidence for his thesis with his exclusion of Wade Guyton.
Nevertheless, I genuinely suggest a discrete viewing of the bleak and dispassionate Guyton show proceeded by the hushed downloading of Quaranta’s account of an almost secret anti-history that occurred in the dark over the last twenty years. The two together demonstrate that seldom has the art world converged solidly with developments in new media. Quaranta’s book explains the why nots and the so whats of that anti-history while Guyton’s digital paintings point us ahead to a post-media fusion that is curative and incontrovertible, given the proliferation of ubiquitous computation, while remaining oh so very shy.