For anyone who has been following painting in New York since the beginning of the 21st century, it is not surprising that the mid-career survey devoted to Wade Guyton is currently the main attraction at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Wade Guyton OS, October 4, 2012–January 13, 2013). It is also not surprising that the show has been very well received in newspapers and magazines by the likes of Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz.
Wade Guyton OS — the “OS” stands for “Operating System” — is an attempt by the museum and the exhibition’s curator, Scott Rothkopf, to sum up where painting is and where it’s headed. That the entire enterprise leans heavily on academic discourses about the progress of art is to be expected. Afraid to pick the wrong artists, and needing the financial support of trustee-collectors, museums require a lot of crutches. Not surprisingly, essays possessing a long shelf life (especially in the classroom) from European writers and Ivy League academics — all of which can be grouped under the rubric “Theory — are among the favorite standbys.
The inexorable rise of Guyton in New York can be traced back at least five years. In 2007, Anne Umland included examples of his signature X paintings in the last room of the exhibition, What Is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (July 7–September 17, 2007). For anyone who saw the show, it was quite apparent that the curatorial elite had singled Guyton out. He was the horse the bettors were lining up at the windows for.
The reasons seem obvious but perhaps bear repeating. If you believe art history is incremental, and that Cubism was the logical extension of Paul Cezanne, who was the logical extension of Claude Monet, and that Andy Warhol was the logical extension of Jasper Johns, then Wade Guyton seems to have made the logical step that everyone who believes in the death of painting has been waiting for. Eschewing the brush and paint, Guyton uses a computer, a scanner, and, most importantly, an Epson inkjet printer to make large-scale abstract paintings that allude to such notable predecessors as Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin, and Frank Stella (or Minimalism). As the “OS” suggests, the artist has figured out a way to become what Warhol dreamed of being: a machine. Minimalism (Agnes Martin) and machine-made paintings (Andy Warhol) have been joined in matrimony.
Reverence, citation, mimicry, the absence of the hand, and a destructive impulse — all familiar postmodern positions — coexist in Guyton’s inkjet paintings. While some people are hopping mad because he doesn’t paint his works but makes them with machines (computer, scanner, and printer), this particular aspect of his practice is something I have no problem with (and I certainly harbor no nostalgia for the typewriter and quarts of White-out).
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There is a temptation to mythologize one’s life, to turn everything one has ever experienced — no matter how mundane — into a necessary and revealing detail in a larger, self-glorifying narrative. (Warhol was particularly good at this).
Such stories point out that the individual was special right from the beginning, and that he or she possesses an extraordinary talent whose purpose the audience must learn to properly appreciate.
Wade Guyton seems to have succumbed to that temptation. Consider what Rothkopf, the current exhibition’s curator as well as the artist’s longtime champion, wrote in an essay back in 2005 for Guyton’s exhibition, Color, Power, & Style, at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Germany:
So suspicious was he of any kind of obvious creative expenditure that even that most minimal of gestures inspired a near existential crisis. “Why am I making this drawing,” he recalls asking himself. “It seemed dumb to be sitting here drawing, but it didn’t seem dumb enough. If I was going to do something that required no skill, it shouldn’t require my labor.”
Seven years later, we find that the artist has refined and predated his story about drawing. This is what Carol Vogel wrote in her article “Painting, Rebooted” (September 27, 2012, The New York Times):
Growing up in Lake City, Tenn., Mr. Guyton remembers how his stepfather, a Sunday painter who worked in a steel mill, did his elementary-school drawing homework for him. “I didn’t have the patience for drawing and he enjoyed it,” he recalled.
By his own account, Mr. Guyton — who, even as a child, never “enjoyed” drawing and had no “patience” for it, and who wanted to make something that didn’t require his “labor” — has achieved his goal. He has gotten a mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In another context, you could say that Mr. Guyton has won the lottery. Seemingly without “any kind of obvious creative expenditure,” he has made smart-looking, desirable objects. (Mythically speaking, he has become the goose that lays golden eggs.)
At the same time, his incredibly productive lack of creativity fits right into the by now familiar and even petrified art historical narrative that claims that de-skilling, appropriation, and post-Duchampian/post-studio practice are the only games in town, that everything else is a failure not worth considering.
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Every student in an MFA visual arts program has to answer the following question: is it better to be part of the hegemony or not? Should I join the death-of-the-author club or try and go my own way? (Some of them couldn’t join this club even if they wanted to, but that’s the topic of another essay).
Better not to criticize, oppose or reject a highly valued academic narrative because it might mean that you will be left out in the cold, and who in their right mind would want that? The choices Mr. Guyton made are not necessarily things that you can fault him for. Despite what Ludwig Wittgenstein and Tristan Tzara have written, Mr. Guyton willingly joined the club that believes in language’s ability to thoroughly colonize any important work of art. In that world — one that many innovative poets rejected long ago — discursive language is a stable commodity, one that can be used to assess the exact, fixed character of a work of art.
(In 1922, Tzara said: “Dada is a virgin microbe which penetrates with the insistence of air into all those spaces that reason has failed to fill with words and conventions.” Wittgenstein said something very similar: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.)
That Mr. Guyton doesn’t expand the academic narrative or make it more inclusive is another story. This is something that seems to have been conveniently ignored. Amnesia has its place in the art world’s scheme of things.
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Let’s start with Guyton’s obvious achievements. His paintings are just the right size — they fit perfectly into the high-ceilinged rooms and long walls of museums and McMansions. They are very handsome, with just the right touch of louche shabbiness about them. (Their human counterpart is the young Francesco Clemente sporting a three-day growth of beard).
By shabbiness, I mean the printer’s stutters, slips and skips when inking the linen. These disruptions infuse the paintings with a pleasurable frisson for those who grew up on minimalism or believe it was the apotheosis of painting. But, just as I have no nostalgia for the typewriter, I have no longing to return to the heyday of Minimalism, as much as I love the work of artists such as Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman.
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Jerry Saltz said something smart in New York Magazine (October 29, 2012): “In 2002, Wade Guyton invented a new paintbrush. Its name was the Epson printer.” Saltz goes on to say: “He’s talked about the difficulty of trying to make a mark ‘when you were overwhelmed by the history of art.’”
Herein lies the problem with Guyton’s work, which consists of a largely monochrome palette (whites, grays and blacks, of course, with some red and green), stripes (vertical and horizontal), X’s and U’s (symmetrical signs, rather than letters), and circles — a series of well-known readymades.
When Guyton inkjets a sheet of plywood black and leans it against the wall, knotholes and all, I think: Richard Serra meets Sherrie Levine. Another board, partially inked with stripes, leans in the corner like a bad art school imitation of Andre Cadere. In the paintings there are allusions to Agnes Martin (gray monochromes with faint striations), Ellsworth Kelly (multi-paneled paintings with misaligned black and white horizontal bands) and Kenneth Noland (horizontal stripe paintings). Also included are reproductions of work by Frank Stella, images of Joseph Beuys (partially x’ed out), and a childhood photo of Martin Kippenberger (surrounded by vertical and horizontal stripes, as if he is imprisoned). Everything Guyton does reminds me of something I have already seen, which makes me think of him as a grad student who hasn’t gained his own authority.
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If you love gray monochrome and you can’t get your hands on a vintage Agnes Martin and want to show that you are in the know, Wade Guyton is your go-to guy. This is his singular genius — he has found a way to make endless numbers of gray monochromes, white monochromes, and black monochromes — supposedly timeless works — without picking up a brush or using paint. And no two of them will be exactly alike because the printer isn’t perfect, no machine is. And that predictability is precisely Guyton’s biggest problem, which he shows no signs of being able to surmount.
Guyton may have invented a paintbrush, but the only thing that he has done with it is allude to a lot of works by other artists. In the instances where he prints over pages from art books and magazines, he includes all the right people (white males). This is yet another iteration of Guyton’s reliance upon a preexisting, generic vocabulary, which, like his abstract work, is scuffed or smeared during the printing.
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Guyton is being touted as the logical step after Andy Warhol, who in 1962 began using the mechanical process of silkscreen to make paintings. Warhol, of course, is the linchpin of the discourse that advances that painting, the author, and originality all died in the early 1960s. He is, one could say, keeping the death of the painting alive.
The second time I went to Guyton’s exhibition, I thought about Warhol’s deep desire to fit in, which I think is best exemplified by his series, “Camouflage Self-Portraits” (ca 1986) — his last self-portraits, in fact, completed shortly before he died. In this series the artist superimposed different camouflage patterns over Polaroid photos of himself, the hair of his wig often sticking straight up, as if he has just stuck his finger in an electric socket. His desperate need to fit in and therefore disappear (the camouflage) overlays his equally desperate need to be singled out and noticed.
One reason I thought of Warhol’s “Camouflage Self-Portraits” is because of an ad that Guyton designed for his exhibition at Galerie Francesca Pia, Geneva, Switzerland (October 22, 2011–November 26, 2011). In it, Guyton superimposed three lines of type (the artist’s name, gallery, and date of exhibition) diagonally over a nude man lying on his stomach at the beach, sand clinging provocatively to his butt and feet. Together, the diagonally placed type and the man with his legs spread form an X. I can think of two other ads the artist designed in which he superimposed type over the image of nude or nearly nude, buff male torso (one for a show at the West London Projects in 2006 and the other for his show at Portikus in 2008). This adds a wrinkle into how his work might be viewed.
I am not the first to point this out. In “Rites of Silence” (Artforum 46, no. 10, Summer 2008), after writing about some of same ads, Johanna Burton goes on to say:
If this content seems utterly incompatible with the rest, which seems so general — or so specific — as to resist the kind of reading suggested, it’s important to remember how many of Guyton’s drawings and paintings are given over to literally “flaming” effects and, less literally, how his entire practice is about “passing.
Let’s go a step further. Guyton places his U’s (or butts?) above the “flaming” effects. The ad for Galerie Francesca Pia suggests what the X might stand for. The seam between the misaligned sections in his abstract monochromes can be read as an encoding of the male body as well as the negation of desire, all of it “passing” as postmodern abstraction.
Do these readings make the work better? I would say no because if Guyton is abstracting his desire, he is resorting to a subterfuge — at once campy and coy — that recalls America’s closeted past.
Wade Guyton OS is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 13, 2013