Generation X: On Wade Guyton and Gerhard Richter

Generation X: On Wade Guyton and Gerhard Richter

Generation X: On Wade Guyton and Gerhard Richter

Why two artists use a printer to make paintings without using paint.


Wade Guyton must like the idea that he’s become an artist in spite of himself. For an article previewing his current exhibition, “Wade Guyton: OS,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art (through January 13), he told Carol Vogel of The New York Times that, growing up in Tennessee, “I never really enjoyed drawing or art classes,” preferring instead to watch TV and play video games. When his homework required drawing, he let his stepdad do it for him. “I didn’t have the patience,” Guyton went on, “and he enjoyed it.”

To be sure, Guyton isn’t an “outsider artist,” even though when he finally found the patience to make art himself, in the early 1990s, some of his first works—mostly not included in the Whitney’s show—were sculptures made of materials that “were less likely to be found in an art supply store than a Home Depot,” as Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf writes in his catalog essay. While Guyton’s models came from the distinctly brainy tradition of Minimalism, he always gave them a “down-market, DIY twist.” “I come from a lowbrow culture,” he declares elsewhere in the catalog, in an interview with Donna De Salvo, also a Whitney curator, “so I have a skewed sense of what’s highbrow and lowbrow.”

But how many of us have really sprung fully formed from highbrow culture? Making that distinction—if it still matters, which isn’t entirely clear—is something you have to do for yourself. Today, highbrow culture is probably the ultimate lo-fi DIY setup. But I can with considerable confidence inform Guyton, if he’s still unsure about this, that he’s the proprietor of a nice little line in highbrow taste—a kind of cool, austere sensuality. His work is small-m minimal, geometric without being uptight about it, and emphasizes white, gray and black over color. Very Helmut Lang, very Jil Sander. Writing about Guyton in Parkett a few years ago, Daniel Birnbaum invoked Alexandre Kojève’s Hegelian vision of “post-historical creations or forms of life allowing for the most elaborate, formalistic and ritualized kinds of cultural activity, such as the fascinating ‘snobbery’ found in Japan: ‘the Noh theater, the ceremony of tea, and the art of bouquets of flowers.’” Why the Russian philosopher should have imagined Tokugawa Japan as a post-historical society is an open question, but the ethos being summoned is clear enough. Keeping her references closer to home, Johanna Burton in Artforum merely noted that, “hung sparingly on white walls, the paintings take on the stark elegance we attribute to a whole lineage of morphologically similar items” by the likes of Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt or Brice Marden.

Yet the first thing you’ll see when you step out of the elevator on the Whitney’s third floor is false advertising for the rest of Guyton’s show. It’s a group of large canvases (seven and a half feet tall or more) that are untitled, like most of Guyton’s works. In each, a photographic image of flames on a black ground is overlaid with one or more iterations of a sans serif letter U. To my eye, the letter’s form echoes that of the flames on the left side of the image, as if one was an abstraction of the other; this introduces a little puzzle into the viewer’s perception of the painting, a doubt about whether that U is a letter—and if so, what it’s meant to signify in the absence of any word of which it would be a part. Should it be read as “SMS-ese” for “you,” as if to say something like “You are really out of the frying pan and into the fire now”? Or is it simply a form that happens to resemble a letter? 

These works are redolent of Jack Goldstein’s 1980s paintings of dramatic atmospheric phenomena—lightning bolts, auroras or any other kind of fiery-looking thing—which also sometimes included overlaid abstract forms. Goldstein’s paintings had something to do with the idea of spectacle, and with how the image of a natural spectacle could be at once patently fake and genuinely awe-inspiring, although innately meaningless. Guyton’s, by contrast, are not about grand manifestations of nature’s power; they seem to depict a close-up of a small fire, like one on a gas range. It’s the flickering beauty of the flame that is evoked in Guyton’s pieces, although the sense of its closeness also stirs up associations with the pain it would cause if touched. Guyton calls the pieces “romantic, but camp.”

In general, Guyton’s work is far from fiery. It prizes an intellectualized relation to the world, one that is tentative and skeptical, and operates by way of a studied diffidence. His recollection to De Salvo that “in the beginning I don’t know how serious I was about making a painting,” and that even now “I’ve tried to present them as paintings but to undermine them at the same time,” conveys how carefully he’s cultivated his cool ambivalence. More broadly, he’s spoken of “the work satisfying certain demands and then also failing to satisfy those demands.” The doubts about whether what he exhibits as painting should be called such is not all to his disadvantage, however. He is one of those artists who makes paintings but never paints, and this eschewal of anything recognizable as a traditional act of painting is precisely what redeems him in the eyes of those who believe that painting is prima facie reactionary, and acceptable as contemporary art only when it somehow or other isn’t painting.

* * *

In Guyton’s case, his painting isn’t painting because it’s printing. Every commentator on his paintings has explained the process by which they are made. The clearest account is by Burton, one of his earliest and best proponents, and explains how Guyton produced a painting from one of his favorite sources, a computer file consisting of an all-black rectangle.

Having folded lengths of factory-primed linen so that each half equals the width of his Epson UltraChrome large-format printer (forty-four inches), Guyton runs them through the machine, which deploys hundreds of individual ink-jet heads. Together, these tiny, dumb mechanical soldiers labor at Guyton’s behest to produce just as dumb an “image”: A black rectangle, drawn and then “filled” by Guyton in Photoshop, is printed twice, once on each side of his folded linen, doubling, in essence, the image of the rectangle (at the same time as trying to unite its parts on one field). Depending on the effects of the initial printing process, Guyton opts to run one side or the other (or sometimes both) through the machine a second and sometimes third time (or more), smoothing and filling prior snags and drags on the one hand and on the other providing an even denser surface on which new anomalies can occur…Guyton aids and abets the glitches, gagging his printer with material not meant for it and asking it to lay uniform sheets of ink over an expanse twice its size—feats hardly enumerated in the user’s manual.

What Burton’s description of the process inadvertently reveals is that Guyton is cultivating a sort of technological picturesque. In the aesthetic of the eighteenth century, the picturesque was a way of combining aspects of the beautiful and the sublime—incorporating the rough, rugged and irregular character of sublime scenes but omitting their threatening and inhuman aspect. This kind of vista came to be regarded as “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture,” because it was more interesting than an entirely groomed and gentle one. In today’s terminology, the picturesque is beauty with a little edge to it; it courts the slippages in the system but doesn’t break the machine. Guyton, by availing himself of computer technology but using it in such a way as to elicit its parapraxes, cultivating the irregularities and imperfections that expose its limitations, at once humanizes the machine and encourages us to view our own present—seemingly receding into history before our very eyes, given the unprecedented pace of technological change—with something of the elegiac distance that ancient ruins built for the purpose gave to eighteenth-century gentlemen contemplating the classical past.

By using the black rectangle as a repeatable but always different figure, Guyton transforms the ultimate nonimage into a kind of image, recalling the black squares of Malevich or Reinhardt. (A difference is that, when printed at vast scale on primed linen, Guyton’s black tends to look gray.) But only our awareness of the artist’s process enables us to consider the image as an image. Mostly we see it as tone, as texture, as atmosphere. Likewise, another of Guyton’s favorite images, the letter X, tends to catch us out by making it hard to know whether we should perceive it as image or text. As an image, in Guyton’s paintings, the X can be part of a sort of deconstructed pattern, skittering in serried ranks here and there, now fuzzy, now crisp—but always more or less in line—across the face of the canvas; or it can be a single splintered form nailing down the center of the painting and holding its four corners in tense relation, like a wounded soldier of formalism making one last stand. As a text, the single X, like any other letter, can be said to have no meaning at all—except that the X has more null meanings than any other letter, certainly more than U. It is also a number (the Roman numeral for ten); the sign for a mathematical operation as well as an independent variable; the mark that stands in for the signature of an illiterate, and for both negation (crossing out) and affirmation (check the box if you agree). And it identifies Guyton, who was born in 1972, as part of a generation. X is the signifier of signifiers, and seeing a multitude of them on a canvas, it is possible to think that one is encountering an illegible, abstract text, a poetry of spacing and dissemination, a temptation to meaning that will always be denied.

Guyton’s X is whatever you want it to mean and its opposite. It’s infinitely generative or wholly redundant—you decide. The same is true of his art as a whole: it responds to its context and defers to its viewer, but not necessarily in predictable ways. Rothkopf praises the way Guyton demonstrates “how images and signs circulate today, the malleability of what an artwork might be and accomplish,” and “how the activity of making things can point both to itself and to the world in which that activity occurs.” This is hard to dispute, and I sympathize with Rothkopf when he adds, “This is not a cynical position; it is honest and even optimistic.” But I can’t help wonder whether this stance of realism needs to be quite so blasé and tight-lipped, and whether some insolence and negativism couldn’t be mixed in with the optimism.

* * *

On the other hand, when I found negativism and intransigence in another recent exhibition of technologically produced painting, I wasn’t any more satisfied than I was with Guyton’s show at the Whitney. This was “Gerhard Richter: Strip Paintings,” seen earlier this fall at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. But take a second look at the show’s title and note the missing “e.” Lovers of modern painting are familiar with various genera of stripe paintings, each species with its own special characteristics but basically divisible into two broad groups, the verticals and the horizontals. (Verticals: Gene Davis, Bridget Riley, Daniel Buren, among others. Horizontals: Patrick Heron, Kenneth Noland, Mary Heilmann, to name a few.) What Richter was showing is painting, though something less than stripes. But he’s thrown in his lot with the horizontals. Or so, at least, it seems at first.

As with Guyton’s canvases, Richter’s “Strip Paintings” have been printed rather than painted, and the elder artist has taken a step even farther away from the traditions of painting by eschewing canvas; each of these works is identified in the gallery’s checklist as a “unique digital print mounted between Aludibond and Perspex (Diasec).” Guyton likes to describe his process as “mid-tech”; this is clearly high-tech, or at least relatively higher-tech. There are no imperfections here, nothing that goes against the letter or spirit of the user’s manual. The innumerable strips of color—I’d just as soon call them horizontal lines—that traverse these sometimes massive works are sealed off like lab specimens beneath a microscope slide. And if it seems strange to think of the microscopic in the presence of such grandiose works (the largest is nearly twenty feet long), well, there’s something about the dizzying effect of these eye-dazzling pieces that can make you lose your sense of perspective and scale.

As in Guyton’s case, it’s important to understand how Richter made his new works. They are all variants, in a certain sense, on just one of Richter’s previous pieces: an oil painting on canvas, Abstract Painting 724-4, 1990. As the gallery press release explains, “Using his painting as template Richter achieves, with the help of digital software, a complex system of rules for a new game of chance which imposes on the painting an extreme vertical fracturing of the space.” We are able to follow this process in detail thanks to a book published earlier this year, Gerhard Richter: Patterns (D.A.P.; $45). The book shows that, contrary to what one might think, Richter has digitally divided his painting not horizontally, but vertically, into 8,190 strips of 0.08 mm. The horizontals we see arise when “each strip is then mirrored and repeated which results in patterns,” as is illustrated in the book. “The number of repetitions increases with each stage of division in order to make patterns of consistent size.” The patterns mirror each other until the mirrorings become so minute that they are lost to the eye, and the colors appear as horizontal lines across a plane. That these lines are not horizontal but microscopically repeated units of color aligned along a vertical strip must be what accounts for the fact that, as thin as they are, the lines somehow give the impression of being blurred. They are impossible for the eye to grasp, and I can tell you that trying to look at them for any length of time is a great way to get a headache.

Contemplating Richter’s Strip Paintings amounts to what Immanuel Kant called a negative pleasure. In place of Guyton’s technological picturesque, what Richter is aiming at here is a technological sublime. In the ungraspable blur of these seemingly crisp streaks of color, the line—the very vehicle of demarcation and delimitation—is transformed instead into a vehicle of the boundlessness or formlessness characteristic of everything sublime. This blurring testifies to the incapacity of the sense of sight. And yet, in themselves, the Strip Paintings fail to convey the experience of the sublime. Perhaps this is because they do not engage the senses sufficiently to expose to the imagination the senses’ inadequacy. The paintings—if they are paintings—are missing something. A clue came in Goodman’s south gallery, where three large Strip Paintings as well as a number of smaller framed works were hung in a space dominated by a large sculpture, 6 Panes of Glass in a Rack. This construction is just what the title says: six massive and very shiny panes of glass supported, parallel to one another, by a steel framework. The panes function both as windows and as mirrors, depending on the viewer’s position. Although the sculpture is an entirely separate work from the paintings shown with it, in this room it seemed to function as a sort of machine for viewing (and interrupting the view of) the paintings. 

As it turns out, I’m no longer so diffident about referring to these works as paintings. The reason is that it was only through the movement imposed on the paintings through the perception-altering action of the sculpture that they came to life. If you look at Gerhard Richter: Patterns, you’ll see just how fascinating and intricate the process of making the Strip Paintings must have been. Yet all evidence of this process has been effaced from the paintings themselves, leaving only slick and dead glassy surfaces that recall nothing more than the “licked finish” of the academic painting of the nineteenth century. The addition of the sculpture’s glassy surfaces, however, broke up those hard, cold images and put the viewer back into the process again. And one began to think that these paintings, or ones like them, really could have been made to embody a technological sublime.n

In November 5’s “What Goes With What,” Barry Schwabsky examined the sculpture of Richard Tuttle.

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