Whitney Museum (Image via archdaily.com)

Last week the Whitney Museum announced its plan for the 2014 Biennial, which entrusts three curators with organizing the exhibition, but not as collaborators. Rather, each individual will be responsible for a single floor of the museum, dividing it, as chief curator Donna De Salvo told The New York Times, “like a layer cake.”

This is a new wrinkle in the history of the Biennial, and director Adam Weinberg deserves credit for finding a new direction to take a show that has hit virtually every point on the compass.

I read the announcement on the same day that I viewed the Whitney’s commendable Sinister Pop exhibition, and it occurred to me that the museum was already divided into three interrelated layers — or perhaps it would be more to the point to say three case histories — that offer a particular slant on recent developments in American art: Sinister Pop on floor two, Wade Guyton OS on three and Richard Artschwager! on four.

As I was looking around the first room of Sinister Pop, with Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude #57” (1964), Richard Lindner’s iconic “Ice” (1966) and Alex Katz’s cutout oil-on-aluminum self-portrait, “Alex” (1968), one of my random thoughts was, “This was when you could still make a painting.”

By that I meant that the Pop era was arguably the last time one could create a painting without having to justify the means, or more precisely, without the risk of being critically challenged on the grounds of one’s choice of medium. The equivalence between painting and art was still taken for granted.

The dominant idea behind Pop Art was that a painting of an everyday object — a comic strip, a Coke bottle, an American flag — elevated that image to the status of art. Through a conceptual sleight of hand, it arrogated Marcel Duchamp’s anti-art readymade into a traditional high-art context without recognizing a need to defend its actions. As such, it can be considered a reactionary form.

Since then, there have been painting revivals, of course, most notably Neo-Expressionism, which came under critical fire for its ostensible retrenchment. It is instructive to note, however, that the style’s canniest practitioners entered the arena with painting already wrapped in conceptual quotation marks: Anselm Kiefer with his bunches of straw, giant wings and lead surfaces; Georg Baselitz with his upside-down canvases; Sigmar Polke with his chemical experiments.

Which brings us to Richard Artschwager, whose borrowed imagery can be viewed as a bridge between the strategies of Pop (his first show, in 1965, was at the Pop powerhouse Leo Castelli Gallery) and that of the Pictures Generation and the Neo-Expressionists.

Installation view of Richard Artschwager! (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 25, 2012 – February 3, 2013). Photograph by Bill Orcutt.

Artschwager, more in keeping with a painter like Kiefer than any of the Pop artists, approached his imagery as inseparable from his material choices: brushing acrylic paint across the knobby surface of a Celotex panel or masquerading a solid cube as a table through the illusionistic application of Formica.

Artschwager’s paintings and sculpture have never tried to be endearing, to say the least; they are often forbidding and unpleasant. Yet they retain a currency that Pop art lost ages ago.

In his review of Artschwager’s Whitney retrospective, Jerry Saltz notes, “almost every young artist I know adores his work.” It is easy to see why. In the handmade renascence taking place among the members of the Bushwick community and other pools of emerging artists, the ability to move through various media without pretense or preconceptions, as Artschwager has done, is taken as an article of faith. To pick up a tube of paint as one option among many thereby takes the form of a philosophical choice.

It is little wonder, then, why there is so much materials-based and process-based painting going on. If you are electing to paint, you’re more likely to use paint as a particular kind of substance and not simply as an image-making tool in the uncritical mode of the Pop artists.

Installation view of Wade Guyton OS (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 4, 2012 – January 13, 2013). Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Wade Guyton has rethought the manner of making a painting by executing it on a computer and processing the image through an inkjet printer. While his work has been slated under the rubric of conceptual painting, on a visual level it reads as a wan reiteration of Pop Abstraction — the uneasy hybrid that was most credibly realized in the vibrantly colorful canvases of Nicholas Krushenick.

Despite his relocation of the creative process to the computer screen (which, it goes without saying, designers have been doing for decades), Guyton’s end results don’t move the conversation beyond standard notions of what a painting is — pigment on canvas or paper. (His photography-based works, also run through a printer, don’t bring much to the party, either.)

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy some of Guyton’s paintings; the best ones crackled with material crispness and graphic authority. But the show’s overall effect manages to feel both cluttered and empty.

I once met Artschwager at an opening and commented on how he persisted with new forms of representational painting well after it was pronounced dead. He grinned and replied, “I do everything wrong.”

Artschwager’s weirdly hermetic, smudgy and decorative Neo-Post-Impressionist images were an inexplicable departure from the prevailing Minimalist/Conceptual orthodoxy, just as the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Pop artists following their lead was a bewildering break with the epic themes associated at the time with high art.

In this regard, Guyton’s work comes across as too logical, too pedigreed, to make a lasting impression. Its boundaries fall safely within institutional parameters. He may succeed or he may fail, but he is never in danger of being expelled.

Sinister Pop continues at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 31, 2013. 
Wade Guyton OS continues through January 13, 2013.
Richard Artschwager! continues through February 3, 2013.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.