Art

The Enduring Power of Experimental Paintings from 1975

Working during a period when it was proclaimed from every quarter that painting was dead, Reed and a sizable New York cohort of like-minded artists carried on below the fray.

"Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975" (2016), courtesy Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University (photos by Charles Mayer unless noted)
“Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975” (2016), courtesy Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University (photos by Charles Mayer unless noted)

WALTHAM, Mass — The new exhibition at the Rose Museum, Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975, is old. In fact, it’s a reprisal of a show that first appeared in New York in 1975 at the Susan Caldwell Gallery, now slightly rearranged and accompanied by historical photos. The new show was curated by Katy Siegel and Christopher Wool, and Reed’s collected paintings emanate with a sense of importance. The artist is known for his lively vertical or horizontal brushwork, which he pushed across a wet surface, leaving, with the help of gravity’s pull, the paint to sag and spread out upon his narrow  joined canvases. For a conceptually minded painter like Reed, these individual strokes were part of a larger idea. Working during a period when it was proclaimed from every quarter that painting was dead, Reed and a sizable New York cohort of like-minded artists carried on below the fray.

Installation view of the 1975 show at Susan Caldwell Gallery (phogo by Lisa Kahane)
Installation view of the 1975 show at Susan Caldwell Gallery (photo by Lisa Kahane)

Reed and Siegel have collaborated before: They joined forces, with Reed in an advisory role, to present High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975 at the National Academy Museum in 2007. That show was one of the most notable in New York that year, despite a rather tepid and somewhat pesky review by Roberta Smith in the New York Times, who claimed that the show “passe[d] over the artists who dominated painting” at the time, and that the project felt “a bit hollow at the center, like a time capsule from a time that didn’t quite exist.” Looking back, what she glossed over was the sheer vitality of the work, which was created in an ever-shifting and transient moment in regard to what and how to paint. That Reed worked through that snippy cauldron of critique and continued to redefine what a painting could be — despite the almost vacuum-like absence of critical interest — is in itself a remarkable feat.

Given their past histories, it’s no surprise that Siegel and Reed, along with Christopher Wool, who actually saw the original exhibition, have come full circle to revisit it some 40 years later. Interestingly, what’s still apparent is that these paintings are part of a larger trajectory of experimentation. Looked at individually, the work presents the distinct imprimatur of a simplified palette and a repeated reliance upon a nominally altered pattern of single brush strokes swiped across a wet ground. Reed is fully confident in letting go, allowing the wet surface of the paintings to droop and sag. But it’s the repetitiveness of his technique that is hypnotic. No single painting hovers above the rest; rather they all seem to glide into each other while also breaking apart. Reed used thin, joined canvases that could technically stretch into infinity, and the addition and subtraction of panels propels the work back and forth in accordion-like fashion. That’s not to say that the individual paintings aren’t themselves interesting — they are. Gravity pulls the paint down into odd, sloping-yet-assertive dripping patterns, and dammed-up hummocks of color sit like the edge of a glacier, frozen in place.

David Reed, "Painting Paintings," installation view
David Reed, “Painting Paintings,” installation view

But it’s better to think of the current show as an installation of Reed’s work rather than as a simple exhibition of his paintings. Looking at a single work of his is, to a degree, missing the point. The exhibition title here is the key: Painting Paintings connotes a series of actions informed by conceptual ideas, rather than a singular result. And what unfolds is almost like a durational performance. It’s a series of blunt-looking paintings, very much in line with other process-based work of the time, except, somewhat unexpectedly, they were painted, and painted again… As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

David Reed, "Painting Paintings," installation view
David Reed, “Painting Paintings,” installation view

Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975 continues at The Rose Museum @ Brandeis University, Gerald S. and Sandra Fineberg Gallery (415 South St Waltham MA) through December 11.

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