In the early sixties, Andy Warhol invented a new paintbrush. It was Gerard Malanga, the assistant who applied and pulled pigments over Warhol’s early silk-screens. Andy, who would mutter things like “Oh, gee, that’s nice, Gerard” as he watched the young dreamboat work, was willing to be played for the fool, to be called “swish” and “faggot” by outsiders and forgo the accumulated masculine-historical authority of oil paint on canvas applied by hand, giving up all conventional ideas about touch in order to find another touch. The rest is art history.
In 2002, Wade Guyton invented a new paintbrush. Its name was the Epson printer. The rest isn’t art history, but—as seen in the Whitney’s stylish, stately survey of Guyton’s work—his invention marks a step in painting’s evolution and flexibility. Employing Microsoft Word, desktop computers, Adobe Photoshop, bitmapped files, UltraChrome and DuraBrite inkjet on linen, book pages, exhibition invitations, and plywood, Guyton has arrived at something as powerful, albeit more subtle, yet as enticing as Dan Flavin’s fluorescent lights. It’s a technique that implies the operation of almost unknowable forces. Instead of harnessing the pulsing color currents of Flavin’s electricity, Guyton’s flawed beauty and philosophical insight let us glimpse the ghost in the machine.
Decades after Flavin, and in the wake of recent artists who’ve experimented with mechanical-reproduction techniques—like Richard Prince, Rudolf Stingel, and Rosemarie Trockel, among many others—making formalist post-minimalistic paintings via machine is still a big bugaboo in some sectors. In a revealing video review of the show, the painter Loren Munk (under the pseudonym James Kalm) says many people are “fatootsed” because Guyton creates with a printer; painters are “annoyed” that Guyton is “trying to eliminate the hand.” These folks let ideology get in the way of the retinal payoff of this work, and it’s too bad. Guyton’s printer is adept at creating kinesthetic thickenings and intermingling overlaps, oscillations of pigment, gluts of color. He pushes the technology beyond its means, overloading it until the optic field fluctuates, and afterimages appear that reverberate with tensions that belie the apparent casualness of the process. It’s like seeing a mechanical aurora borealis. Guyton’s is a sort of quantum touch: There and not there at the same time. It exists between the artist’s computer screen and the way his printer handles its invisible transmission of pure information. I have no idea where the painting goes between his hitting SEND and its coming out of the printer. But the way the finished work looks is a record of what happened to this digital information as it passed through this cyber no-place. Which may be why Munk went from derisively cracking “I guess they’re calling them paintings” to, he says, “digging” the work.
You may too. It’s wonderful to see a youngish artist curated by a younger curator (Scott Rothkopf) and sense a new generation taking the museum stage. Good for the Whitney. The show is installed so that this complex esoteric subject can be grasped by the general public, and a zone of curiosity expands. (That’s a feat in itself.) Space is open, and numerous works are visible at once, yet each maintains its seriousness. That’s remarkable, considering how banal Guyton’s sources are. We see flames taken from an old book cover; what look like faded Xerox copies; x’s and u’s, typed in a font called Blair ITC and fed to his printer; and stripe paintings (one of them blown up to 50 feet long) that derive, he says, from “an Italian design catalogue or something.”
Guyton has said he wanted to find “a space where objects could be speculative.” When I enter the exhibition, I feel the wonderful otherness of it. (I found myself coveting swaths of this show.) Yet as underdetermined, open, and speculative as Guyton’s processes are, the ways he deploys them are fairly overdetermined. He’s talked about the difficulty of trying to make a mark “when you were overwhelmed by the history of art.” That disquiet shows, and is a weakness of his. Even though the work is made in unfamiliar ways, the final look of it is familiar, composed of elements from art history and modernist abstraction: motifs like stripes, dots, geometric abstraction, text, the monochrome, and standard collage. Guyton’s references, mostly orthodox ones, parade before us like models on a runway: Duchamp, Judd, Kelly, Stella, Kippenberger, Levine, Prince. In evidence is a hypersensitivity to the critical theories of the seventies and eighties. It’s as if he’s covering the classic rock of Modernism, Minimalism, and Post-Minimalism, reenacting the tried and true. It feels more imposed than discovered, less intellectually acrobatic than his processes.
This quasi-nostalgia gives Guyton’s work a troubling, lurking aura, implying a double-edged Romantic wish that art can again be what it once was. Rothkopf, in the catalogue, rightly talks about Guyton’s “deep skepticism toward … suspect notions of expression.” Except in the more chaotic team efforts he’s explored with Kelley Walker, he doesn’t get beyond that skepticism to embrace a big vision of what art can look like.
Still, Guyton has mastered a massive part of his art. He’s a natural at a Jasper Johns–ian hermeticism, physical sensuality, with a keen sense of bilateral symmetry, process, scale, and systematic art-making. Huge props. I love Guyton’s brave new paintbrush, and his way of making paintings that reveal digital mysteries without being about “the digital.” I look forward to seeing him use his amazing bravery with less good art-historical taste.
Wade Guyton OS. Whitney Museum of American Art. Through January 13.
*This article originally appeared in the October 29, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.