Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

At Work on the “New” Problem of Wade Guyton

Depending on what art world you inhabit and where you spend your time, reactions to Wade Guyton’s work run the gamut from young sensation to collector’s trophy to critical whipping boy to hollow symbol of political inequality. His work is polarizing in a way that recalls the bygone era of the shocking avante garde; it seems some view Guyton and his work with the same suspicion the British public did Carl Andre’s stack of bricks. And just as the cost of Andre’s manipulation of a pedestrian object became a focus of the outrage (and misunderstanding) surrounding his work, so too do critiques of Guyton simply devolve into economic complaint.[1] In a sense art only now has to deal with the implications of mechanization that other laborers dealt with a century ago. In an arena where individual vision sets every artist up as John Henry, Guyton has taken the side of the steam hammer.

I must admit that I missed Guyton’s first exhibitions and came to his work late.[2] I first noticed them only in tiny, glossy reproductions in art magazines[3]; not knowing how they were made, I assumed they were paintings and was struck by the combination of typography (either as a bold, central form or as a group used to articulate a field across the canvas) combined with a disjointed, abject surface. Despite the hard edges, they weren’t perfect geometric renderings; the entire surface was activated with skittering marks and impositions on the form. Of course it turned out that they weren’t paintings, except that of course they are. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Wool (among many others) had already dispensed with brushes for mechanical processes, and as those processes went digital it should not come as any surprise that artists followed suit. Shifting to making paintings with only an Epson printer should not be seen as a radical step; that it is so blindingly obvious in retrospect may account for some of the animosity directed his way.[4] So to must the apparent ease with which he can turn out a show, just as earlier layout designers recognized hours of work now accomplished with a few clicks, Guyton has turned mural-scale painting into an afternoon project. Back when young artists[5] talked matter of factly about process, the labor involved in moving and manipulating stuff was self-evident. Being an artist was work, and many espoused a political affinity with strains of Marxism, or at least a blue collar pragmatism that could be read as such. But to capitalism the point of digital technologies has been to reduce or remove the need for skilled labor wherever possible, and Guyton clearly buys into that when he talks about avoiding the need to work to make his paintings. This isn’t necessarily a problem[6], except that to then talk about the disregard with which he drags and kicks his canvases around the studio floor seems too ingratiating, too much an appeal to the labor of process that he ultimately undermines. Indecision breeds contempt just as easily as familiarity (and by now pretty much everyone is acquainted with Photoshop and Microsoft Word).

Coming out of his Whitney retrospective, the most interesting question was what would he do next? The works on paper were scattered across bright colored flooring in vitrines, as if the artist didn’t trust them to be out on their own. Likewise his sculpture seemed beside the point: a bent metal tube that was previously a chair by Marcel Breuer has a certain frission in the Whitney Museum, but otherwise relies on the name recognition of the artist for aesthetic important.[7] His fabricated “U” sculptures are shiny steel simulacra of the ideas referenced by his painting, available in an assortment of sizes, and are almost nakedly commercial for that variation. The exhibition showed the printed paintings as his one good idea[8]; he had established the utility of his approach, but seemed to be at the boundary of what he could make with his single tool without simply repeating himself and making new versions of the old work ad infinitum.[9] This is complicated by the sense that all of his paintings function as wry comments on their own making, existing both as paintings and “paintings”; the level of quotation and reserve would seem to preclude Guyton from risking failure on the messy and labor intensive investigation that might lead to a new body of work, a new approach, or a new idea.[10]

Instead, Guyton has chosen to focus on the quotation marks, using the paintings as a lens to focus in on the environment and act of looking at the paintings. His new paintings at Petzel further leverage Post-minimalist compositional strategies. Cinemascope swaths of white linen hold striated rectangles[11] that trail off into the remnant tracks and traces of being pulled through the printer’s mechanisms, almost like waste paper run through to clean it out. The stretchers measure the full span of the gallery wall, or separate paintings meet in the corner. These compositional strategies draw parallels to Richard Serra’s use of steel plates as a way to measure and change the gallery space via mass. The surface similarities of steel and printed linen are superficially similar, and while Guyton’s use of black and white achieves a level of austerity that Serra might envy[12], he doesn’t affect the space in the same way. The inherent presence of a Serra makes one consider one’s path around the room and approaching the plate something to be cautiously planned. On the other hand Guyton’s paintings are thin and without any sensation of mass, and the viewer is pulled right up to them to examine the staccato tracks of the printer. Guyton’s paintings lack Serra’s attention to inherent tension, the black rectangles’ measures are arbitrary and don’t push back against the viewer or the space. Just as the final two paintings at the Whitney measured the walls between Breuer’s iconic window without doing much else, these chart a space that is primarily notable for its blankness. These are a sort of reversal from the paintings he installed at the Carnegie International. There he stripped the coat room as far down as it could go, exposing old paint and layers of carpet adhesive hidden by the removed racks. His paintings were handsome example of minimal intervention, mostly white with a few smudged forms to articulate the space. Installed in a space not typically devoted to art he created a lounge more akin to unfinished basement; the same materials that an earlier generation of artists[13] mined and hefted into the gallery shows up here as history left on the floor and wall, left to reflect back at the paintings. But at the end of the day the paintings will still go home to presumably stately environments, devoid of any extra window dressing; these plays on installation are a veneer layered on top of the situation the work inhabits, rather than something that is ingrained in the paintings. With Guyton all we get is the surface.

For all his Warholian slipperiness about content and belief, Guyton’s achievement of his printed paintings is to totally remove the artist’s hand, to make the aura of the artwork indistinguishable from the glow of a screen, and still wind up making paintings that are utterly individual, as unique as a fingerprint. But he’s wound up at the point where the novelty has worn off and the audience doesn’t just want to see pictures of where we’ve been. It’s come time for Guyton to get rid of the quotation marks, to roll up his sleeves, and get to work.


Wade Guyton continues at Petzel Gallery in New York City through February 22nd.



[1] Which are an issue affecting all artists, but become a lens that distorts via magnification as the artist in question becomes more successful; the gravity of money around an artist winds up shaping the discourse like light bending around a dense star.

[2] Or as late as one can come to an artist who’s retrospective spans little more than a decade.

[3] I’ve written elsewhere about my penchant for absorbing art through pictures, and the misunderstanding almost seems part of Guyton’s aesthetic point.

[4] This is not necessarily to say that Guyton got there first either, but he is certainly the standard bearer of “printed paintings” and if we were to rediscover a different pioneer she or he would need to answer the same aesthetic questions as Guyton. The only difference would be that this hypothetical artist would not be held accountable for the sins of the market associated with Guyton.

[5] Starting with the abstract expressionists use of paint as an index of decisions of process and continuing to the post-minimalist extension of that action out into space.

[6] Depending on your feelings about Warhol anyway.

[7] Although, to be fair, this criticism applies to huge swaths of the art made today.

[8] And if it is not clear, I think it is a damn good idea.

[9] And it is safe to say that given his means of production he could easily print on demand enough to more than satisfy (overwhelm) the market.

[10] Of course it’s possible that Guyton really doesn’t care about doing anything new, but since he has not just flooded the market with reprints of his greatest hits and has continued to push at the context his paintings are seen in, I think it is safe to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[11] Which are simply a rescaled and reprinted version of the digital file he used to create his black monochromes that were shown at Petzel in 2007.

[12] All reproductions of Serra’s work are in black and white, no matter the handsome patina of rust or the oily sheen the marred surface the plate holds. I assume this is to emphasize mass and volume, but it nonetheless stage handles the work in an odd fashion.

[13] See Jerry Saltz’s exposition of  Guyton’s connection to Post-minimalism. The connection feels both appropriate and finished to me, perhaps an illustration of why artists shouldn’t get too close to history.


Written by Brian Dupont

February 19, 2014 at 6:55 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. My take is that he reduces are to the level of exchange.Pure commodification:

    Martin Mugar (@mugar49)

    February 21, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    • I disagree; I think it’s too easy to dismiss painting that one doesn’t like by attacking the success of the artist or labeling the work as only made for the commercial market. Guyton’s chosen tool would easily allow him to co-opt the secondary market for his work (as described in the Schachter link) by printing slight variations on his most popular works as new works (basically following the production example of Hirst). That he hasn’t done this, and has instead developed an approach based on monumental installation should at least earn him the benefit of the doubt about not being in it just to take advantage of the market. The paintings in the Petzel show would be very difficult for most collectors to display; I think it’s worth pointing out that most of his works from the WMAA retrospective were of a more modest size, and that all of the monumental works in that show are owned by institutions.

      Brian Dupont

      February 22, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: