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?