Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction

New York

Wade Guyton: Untitled, 2010, Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 84 by 69 inches.


HAVING PURCHASED MY first computer, in the early 1980s, I left it in its packaging for several months. Several more months passed before I found a teacher to instruct me in its use. Three or four computers later, I am still, at least partially, a technophobe. And so it was with a combination of trepidation and anticipation that I took my first journey to Wade Guyton’s survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum. When I agreed to write about the show, I was guided by a kind of didacticism that told me I could use a new experience and shouldn’t simply accept the opinions of a few negatively inclined friends. I had to resist donning the armor of painterliness, as had long been my wont. And to my surprise, Guyton’s exhibition, curated by the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf, by far outshines the monographic exhibitions I had seen in the previous months. Not organized chronologically, the installation incorporates freestanding walls throughout the gallery space that function like giant pages of an illustrated book.

It bends the museum’s third-floor space in a totally idiosyncratic way and feels personal and coldly calculated almost at the same time. The work energizes the galleries, encourages contemplation, and challenges conventional thinking about what constitutes drawing and what painting.

Guyton was born in 1972 in Hammond, Ind., and now lives and works in New York. While studying in the art department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and then in graduate school at New York’s Hunter College, he immersed himself in criticism about Minimalism, especially sculpture, and in writings by figures such as Roland Barthes more readily than he tested his ability to create actual artworks. Guyton openly acknowledges his lack of manual skills.

In the first years of his career, Guyton focused on making photographic and sculptural work. The earliest piece in the Whitney exhibition—The Devil’s Hole (left and right), 1999, made the year after he graduated from Hunter—consists of two wood-mounted photographs that resemble a surreal rendering of a small excavation and that are hung side by side. He followed this with works not included in the show—faceted congregations of Plexiglas fragments spread across the floor and several tall, angular works made up of alternating vertical strips of black Plexiglas and smoked, mirrored acrylic that refract whatever space the sculptures are placed in.

During this time, he also explored the relationships among photography, sculpture and drawing, as well as the photograph’s ability to flatten objects and condense physical space. In Drawing for Sculpture the Size of a House (2001), on view at the Whitney, he intensified this photographic compression by blacking out a house from a snapshot using felt-tip pen, radically collapsing the pictorial space and blocking most of the scene from view.

Guyton further pursues unconventional approaches to drawing in his ongoing series “Untitled Action Sculptures,” which he began in 2001. The earliest of these pieces came about by chance, after he had rescued a broken Marcel Breuer Cesca chair from an East Village curbside. He brought the chair back to his studio, removed the back, seat and armrests, and wrestled the frame into a new, dynamic linear form. The sculpture now angles up from the floor in the show, in proximity to five intact Cesca chairs that, together with the reconfigured street find, correspond to the Whitney’s building, which, like the chairs, was designed by Marcel Breuer.

IN 2002, SHIFTING HIS focus to the technologies so prevalent in contemporary culture, Guyton took up digital inkjet printing as his primary artistic medium, which provided countless new options for his image-making. A number of his pieces from this time use torn-out book pages—most of them featuring illustrations of architecture, domestic interiors or artworks—as supports. A small, untitled work from 2004, for instance, employs a page featuring an image of a Frank Stella painting from his “Protractor” series, which appears to interrupt and extend the vertical red and green stripes that Guyton has printed over it. Once Guyton adopted the printer as his main artistic tool, forms like the giant, hand-drawn black X that, in a 2002 drawing, crosses out a page showing a living-room space, could now be made almost instantly via computer. His radical move away from the manual and into the digital signaled the beginning of his mature work.

From the small-format works on book pages, Guyton moved to printing on large pieces of raw linen and then, around 2005, primed linen, developing a style that more strongly evokes conventional painting on canvas. One work from 2005 depicts a crumpled piece of printed-upon paper that Guyton placed directly on his flatbed scanner, scanned and printed out on a 51-by-36-inch piece of primed linen. Coincidentally, the scrunched-up form looks like one of John Chamberlain’s crushed-car-part sculptures. In another 2005 painting, roughly 63 by 35 inches, the bottom two thirds of the linen ground is filled with red vertical stripes overlapping green hori- zontal stripes. Two black circular shapes, one behind the other, are set against the pure white of the top third of the composition, above the striped field. This painting borrows from the Minimalist geometries of the 1960s and ’70s, but seems to temper their sternness with a lighter, more playful quality. The folds and slight irregularities of the linen ground remind us that this is not a painting on canvas, but rather material that has traversed a printer. One of the circles dribbles a stream of black ink into the striped zone below; the second circular shape is like a blurry shadow emerging from darkness. Around this time, process became more visible in Guyton’s work, with printing irregularities creating a subtle, disjunctive spatial play that endows many of his paintings with presence. This is particularly the case with paintings that use pieces of linen too large to go through his printer without manipulation. For such works, he folds the material in half, printing on one side and then the other; the material is then unfolded and mounted onto a stretcher.

Alongside his works on paper and linen, Guyton continued to produce sculptural objects, if less often. In 2004, for instance, he began a series of U-shaped sculptures, each one larger and thicker than its predecessor. Fabricated from mirrored stainless steel, the pieces are placed in rows at the Whitney and have a presence somewhere between industrial and ritualistic. They appear insistent—on just what, I am not sure, but they hold their own within the exhibition.

They also echo U’s that one encounters in other works on view. There are, for instance, the vertical linen paintings from 2006 that feature one or more versions of the letter in outsize form, often amid flames licking up from the works’ bottom edges. Different compositional sections and misaligned U’s that seem to have slid from one section to another converge. These works, at once playful and visually commanding, push into a more assertive painterliness, celebrating painting more than unsettling its customary techniques and processes. A precursor to these works is found in a 2003 book-page piece that also features multiple U’s. The letter is printed twice, in black, on a page showing a photograph of a nearly empty salon space, the smaller U seeming to hang on the back wall, the larger U floating at the entrance to the depicted room.

In 2002, Guyton created a book-page work in which a simple X was multiplied, layered and spread across the page via inkjet printer. This was a precursor to larger works, begun in 2006, that incorporated the X image in numerous variations—overlapping, interlocking, in uneven rows, and in varying dimensions and conditions. The X, often a mark of cancellation, here serves as a nimble protagonist, now single, now multiplied and arranged in rows, sometimes missing a limb or two or being all but hidden in a dark monochromatic field. In two works on view, from 2008 and 2010, the X appears in red, yellow, blue and black, in different degrees of overlapping and completion. With the X’s, the artist repurposed a sign with multiple meanings, including negation, into a completely neutral if not positive mark, just as he repurposed the inkjet printer into a tool for drawing and painting.

While Guyton’s works often employ the same graphic elements, such as U’s and X’s, they are never identical. Two paintings created in 2005 have the same composition featuring a diamond shape with a triangle projecting inward from each of the four sides and a smattering of black circular shapes, one painting presenting the composition in meticulous finish, the other dissolving it in dripping painterliness. The pieces appear related at first, then totally different. Then they seem related once again.

FOR ONE BODY OF work on view, Guyton mounted groups of his manipulated book pages between sheets of clear acrylic in oak frames and arranged the framed compositions so that they abut each other against a wall. The earliest such work at the Whitney dates to 2003 and consists of two frames, while the later ones, made in 2005, bring together four frames in grid formation. Guyton again plays with format in a 2010 group titled Zeichnungen für ein grosses Bild (Drawings for a Big Picture), in which book pages are arranged in long vitrines lined with blue linoleum tiling. Given the context, these vitrines suggest large picture frames removed from the wall and oriented horizontally. The following year, in works titled Zeichnungen für ein kleines Zimmer (Drawings for a Small Room) Guyton made similar arrangements in vitrines backed in red linoleum tiling. So here we have the artist challenging the conventions of not only how drawings and paintings are created but also how they are to be framed and exhibited.

Around 2007, Guyton began printing monochrome works on 84-by-69-inch pieces of linen. One of these untitled works is in grayish black and features a partial, bisected X and variously angled sections in which the linen is exposed in parallel lines. Another 2007 monochrome is covered in distinct, slate-colored horizontal bands, occasionally interrupted by more insistently black lines, and features several white spaces at the bottom. A 2009 monochrome is a softer gray-black than the previously mentioned ones, though a dark column runs down the center, alongside the vertical fold. Guyton has looked back to the 1960s monochrome paintings by artists such as Brice Marden and Robert Mangold, while also imbuing his canvases with more unexpected internal marks, such as fugitive lines or unintentional ink drips from his machine. The possibilities of his inkjet medium add to the tension in the paintings and keep the viewer engaged in exploring their varied surfaces.

Guyton is capable of grand gestures as well as more subtle ones. In 2008, he created eight large vertical panels—84 by 69 inches, like the monochromes—that are hung in a row, each with black rectangular bands irregularly placed on a white ground so that they create an almost melodic progression across the wall.

In the camp of intimate gestures are two posters (reproduced in the Whitney catalogue) that he made to announce a 2006 gallery show in London. Both posters feature a photograph of the hirsute, muscular torso of a male nude, as if to emphasize the strength necessary to make this work, and also to indicate the humor in it.
Three paintings from 2011 are almost completely white, except for a narrow band of ink marking the top of each one and some delicate marks underneath each of these bands, black in two cases and red in the third. The paintings, with their feathery details at the top and cool expanse of white below, have a lyric outreach not elsewhere so readily found in Guyton’s work. Another 2011 painting features alternating red and ocher stripes across two horizontal stretches of linen measuring, in total, about 9 by 50 feet. Created specifically for this installation, it is the culminating work in the show.

Guyton has devised one of the most varied and ambitious monographic exhibitions I have seen in a while. His exploration of what constitutes a painting, a sculpture and a drawing offers enough information and leaves enough room for rumination to reward multiple visits.