Wade Guyton OS at the Whitney Museum

by Tom McGlynn, November 2012

Wade Guyton’s mid-career survey fits well within the precincts of the post-1945 American modernist art territory staked out by the Whitney. The work displayed on the museum’s third floor includes painting, sculpture and collage and if one ran through and peripherally scanned the ensemble it might well serve as a survey of “triumphant” American art ranging chronologically from abstract expressionism to post-painterly abstraction to minimalism. Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross cycle immediately comes to mind in one of Guyton’s large series of black, inkjet-printed, stretched-linen panels. The rhetoric of the screen grab, scanner and ink jet printer displaces the humane existential stance of Newman’s work. Rather than Newman’s incrementally painted swaths of stubborn sublimity, Guyton skims his surfaces with incidents of juddering printer glitches and unevenly dried-up ink matrices. This attention to machine-made accident is reminiscent of Warhol’s squeegee scrapes and his serial, visual stutter. When a repetitive trope jumps in fits and starts like this, it usually signifies a certain antipathy to a faithful reproduction of the original. In Warhol, it can also signify a brute disinterest in proprietary beauty. The different signification and purpose of mechanical chance in Guyton’s work is interesting when compared to his predecessors. His use of accident seems more restrained and tasteful. The few early works displayed here stress a materialist phenomenology and seem intended to serve as counterpoint to the literal and figurative fracture of mechanical reproduction dominating the show. A pile of found plywood, inverted by the artist, occupies a wall in a shallow planar display of “the real” recuperated within a formalist aesthetic. A similar later work has an inkjet printed two-by-four incidentally leaning in a corner. These disparate works offer a meager scrim through which to discern a development of the artist’s sensibilities. The inclusion of these primary forms invokes a premediated world from which the artist sprung, a rustic alchemist, ready to turn real plywood into virtual picture planes. Guyton’s advance press notices of traveling from the rural South to the big city to make his indelible mark may resonate with art historical genealogies in artists like Rauschenberg and Noland (both of whose work he liberally channels) but here that narrative seems much less cogent both historically and formally. A mid-career survey of an artist’s work, even more than a retrospective (which might be forgiven the sin of tendentious historicizing), shouldn’t be so transparent in attempting to delineate a historical provenance for a younger artist. Unfortunately this is a lurking problem in the rest of the show. Even more disappointing is the fact that the problem extends into the core of Guyton’s own aesthetic. He self-historicizes in a way that undercuts an innovative approach to process.

I was primed to like this show. Guyton’s work contains many of the formal elements that I enjoy in a peculiarly American visual rhetoric from Stuart Davis to Christopher Wool. These include slab-like lateral color, generic quotidian fragments, ridiculous scale, open-ended rhythmic composition, parallax optics, sloppy paint application, etc. The problem I had with achieving a fresh view of Guyton’s work was that the clear influences of Davis, Noland, Kelly, Martin, Stella, Warhol, were never fully synthesized into a newer aesthetic that might define the artist as a “strong poet” in the present. In the Anxiety of Influence Harold Bloom writes: “The later poet, in his own final phase, already burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism, holds his own poem so open to the precursor’s work that at first we might believe that the wheel has come full circle.” A strong reader of one’s artistic influences can summon the power to erase the traces of their own borrowing by making their lenders go begging for attention themselves. Schwitters may have influenced Rauschenberg but one doesn’t readily think of him when experiencing Factum 1 and 2. Kandinsky might have had some early influence on Noland but it doesn’t come immediately to mind when looking at one of Noland’s chevron paintings. A sense of inevitability in a contemporary work may be dependent upon its predecessors’ historical influence but this should not be foregrounded in such a way to eclipse the joy of rediscovery in the fresher view. There is something too seamless (ironically, given all the literal disjuncture) about Guyton’s aesthetic provenance, both tactically and aesthetically. One can’t help but make the references to Agnes Martin in one work or Ellsworth Kelly in another. The work never fully breaks free from a dogmatic adherence to a received American art history, one ostensibly processed by an individual, yet seemingly administered by a committee. Guyton himself seems to intuit a need for a different cultural perspective by the inclusion of Joseph Beuys and Martin Kippenberger into his mix of influences. Beuys seems to percolate in Guyton’s absurdly oversized vitrines with scattered, printed and manipulated reproductions and Kippenberger’s ghost arises in idiosyncratically manipulated modernist furniture sculptures and installations. Unfortunately these late interventions fail to counteract the dominance of influences in this show and rather than offering a foil, they act as a depressing reminder of the power of contemporary culture for superficial assimilation. If the meta-narrative of superficial assimilation was one that was embraced in Guyton’s work, this tactic might play out in an interesting critical way, but the sincerity with which the artist pays homage to his predecessors’ forms tends to deny this critical distance.

Printing a painting doesn’t take that work into the realm of the contemporary mythic by virtue of its technical innovation alone. This naïve supposition is reinforced in the wall labels for the show in statements like this fragment, referring to Guyton’s engineered printing glitches, “This failure lends the work its formal and rhetorical power, offering an abstract picture of how machines, humans and images interact today.” One of these printed paintings, which approached a critical complexity lacking in most of the rest of the show, Untitled 2012, consists of a large, green-striped reproduction based on an enlargement of a book’s endpapers. The decorative functionality of a book’s endpapers, to contain and protect the actual, deeper contents of the book, its original text, seems a more creatively apt analogue for Guyton’s overall approach to doing covers. Digital experimentation in art is certainly not uncommon but Guyton’s way of manipulating both the visual piece and the technology itself creates a unique kind of representation of modern art in the digital age.

Wade Guyton OS
4 October, 2012–13 January, 2013
Whitney Museum
New York