The artist's voice is not a feature of the typical monograph or catalogue raisonné. Proxies are enlisted to elucidate intentions, to describe sources and processes, to contextualize, to assess—naturally, in laudatory terms. In the interview section, the artist's voice is directed, constrained by queries. While the monograph as a form is indispensable, its format is a routine and R. H. Quaytman's Spine (Sternberg Press/Sequence Press) is a welcome break.
Featured prominently in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Quaytman was director of Orchard, an artist-run gallery on the Lower East Side that presented, during its three-year lifespan ending in 2008, some of the most cerebral art then seen in New York. Quaytman's paintings, which involve silkscreen on plywood panels, feature snappy optical patterns and indistinct photographic halftones, alone or in combination, sometimes punctuated by life-size renderings of those panels' beveled plywood edges. For the last decade, the artist has executed her paintings in autonomous "chapters," in which each work is contingent upon the others for meaning. Spine gathers excellent reproductions of every work in every chapter, in chronological order, accompanied by brief but illuminating texts.
Whether commenting on her general approach or on a particular chapter (rarely on specific works), Quaytman's writerly voice is cool but not remote; informative, not definitive; and, like her work, exquisitely self-conscious. The artist writes, "I want an image to first reflect and then refract. It should reflect something about the situation/history/context of the exhibition and refract or counter that first referent through the fact of the painting's materiality—its flatness as a painting." Fabricating objects that "negotiate this shift from reflection to refraction," Quaytman finds a middle ground where knowledge of her iconography's backstory is intriguing but not essential.
Site-specificity is unusual in painting, but Quaytman's work typically alludes to the circumstances of its exhibition. Rental, Chapter 9 (2007), the only chapter consisting of just one painting, derives from a photograph of the wall on which it would eventually hang, then under renovation in Rental Gallery's New York incarnation. The painting was shown in both the inaugural and final exhibitions at Rental, accruing meaning with the passage of time.
At the Whitney, Quaytman showed nine of the 29 paintings in Distracting Distance, Chapter 16, which, by way of quoting an iconic canvas by that museum's bedrock artist, Edward Hopper, confronts the difficulty of competing for viewers' attention with the distinctive shapes of Marcel Breuer's windows. "I assume the distraction of my audience, and thus paint toward the movement away from the painting's face to its profile." (p. 279) Among the paintings in this chapter are several depicting a figure (the artist K8 Hardy) standing near the very window of the gallery where the painting would hang; in one, she breaks her pose and peers outside, a surrogate for the distracted viewer.
Gathering these chapters in book form, Quaytman identifies the 415-page Spine as the "primary site reference" of Spine, Chapter 20, the 37-panel chapter that concludes the book. Chapter 20 features new work—variations on images used in previous chapters, produced for an exhibition last spring that was divided between the Neuberger Museum of Art, in Purchase, NY, and Kunsthalle Basel.
Implicit in Quaytman's work is a critique of the art world as a system, a network of interrelated influences. She scrutinizes every aspect of that system, and of her place in it. A skeptic, she advocates for herself, inserting into this system a first-person account of those intentions, sources, processes, contextualizations, and assessments that are ordinarily outsourced. As an artist who writes, Quaytman is uncommonly capable: Spin represents an excitingly different paradigm for the monograph, and for the place of "artists' writings" in our literature.