Clarity of Facture: David Reed, 1975 at Gagosian
Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975 at Gagosian
January 17 to February 25, 2017
980 Madison Avenue, between 77th and 78th streets
New York City, gagosian.com
The exhibition Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975 at Gagosian uptown is remarkable both for the quality of the paintings and for the way they embody the transformational moment in which they were made. The 17 paintings filling a single large room are all from 1974-75 and if they are metronomic in their structure and in their presentation, their urgency and excitement are as palpable as when they were first presented. Together with a catalogue by the show’s curators, Katy Siegel and Christopher Wool, that delves into the mid-70s context of Reed’s paintings, this show creates a vivid historical context for the works that commence Reed’s distinguished career.
Painting Paintings reunites many paintings that were shown in Reed’s heady debut at Susan Caldwell gallery in 1975. Reviewing it that year for Art in America, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Reed’s paintings have “the strength of modesty, of ambition reduced to a level not further reducible. There is no ‘getting around’ these paintings”.
Part of the interest of the work, then and now, is how it distills painterliness. The schema is simple—each painting contains roughly a dozen horizontal bands of red or black alternating with white or off-white. The canvas panels are less than a foot wide and about six feet vertically—wider paintings consist of these regular units bolted together. But it is the process that makes these paintings standout. The paintings are the result of Reed pulling a large loaded brush of red or black paint through a thick wet ground of whitish oil paint. What follows from this premise are viscerally compelling incidents where the brushstrokes have dissolved into viscous skeins of paint. Although the gesture of Reed’s brushstroke is simple and repetitive, pigment and gravity collaborate to form detailed arrays of micro-cosmic composition—each is a unique painterly moment, off hand and delectable at the same time.
There is a specific bodily relation to Reed’s paintings that is crucial and cannot be reproduced. The bands of brushstrokes can be apprehended through photography but in terms of the physical experience of looking at these paintings, the stripes do only perfunctory duty. Rather than function as the paintings’ compositional goal the alternating bands are the structure that allows paint to hang in an intimate choreography of splashes and blendings. In the catalogue Siegel and Wool note that the linear compositions are like writing with their left to right pulls of pigment. They also bear a resemblence to a musical score. Additionally, the quality of Reed’s paintings relate to the sumptuous and insistently rhythmic compositions that Philip Glass and Steve Reich were performing in lower Manhattan in the mid-seventies. The vertical panel has an ergonomic architecture tuned for a human body to paint its surface. The clarity of each painting’s facture reminds us that as viewers we take up the same location in front of the canvas as the artist did while painting it. The paintings invite us to step in close to see and soak up lush surface specifics. It is this pull to intimacy that gives Reed’s paintings their humanity and warmth. And that seems to be where the picture is in these works— not in their imagistic configuration but within the physical process of close looking.
Through contemporaneous documents—magazine and catalogue pages, installation and personal photographs, as well as reproductions of works by other artists—the catalogue presents the personal as well as cultural context for Reed’s emergence as a painter. There is an evocative photograph from 1968, for instance, of Reed in attendance at the New York Studio School with the painters Philip Guston and Leland Bell surrounded by students. Although Reed moved on from the conservative spatialist conventions of that institution, the catalogue presents his development less as a rejection as the taking up of a radical rethinking of art underway at that time in New York. The catalogue includes a chapter based on the exhibition, Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, curated by James Monte and Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1969 that manifested the concerns of process-oriented artists of the late 1960s. The show included only one painter, Robert Ryman, and as such might have been called “Anti-Painting”. Most of the artists selected were less interested in the history of painting and sculpture than in science, technology, and sociology. Even so, these “Anti-Illusion” artists employ a number of shared pictorial conventions. Foremost is the use of repetition. Partly this is an affection for rhythm, but it is also a control to discover how different effects come from the same action. Additionally repetition is used to present narrative in a manner like film through a sequence of frames. Finally, there is a taste for documentation as representation—either through the technical means of photography, film or video, or through the presentation of material residue as evidence of the action that produced it. As indicated by the use of the word in the 1969 show title, Material, material, raw and unadorned, is savored in the work of artists such as Lynda Benglis and Carl Andre. It was an insightful choice by Siegel and Wool to include these contemporary works in Reed’s catalogue because it demonstrates how he embraced pictorial values of the zeitgeist. It is an achievement, and an unlikely one, that Reed brought what were often thought to be anti-painting values to his painting so naturally.
One flight down at Gagosian, the curators installed a group of works tangentially related to Reed’s paintings, including examples of Joel Shapiro, Wool himself, Joyce Pensato (a classmate at the Studio School) and Andy Warhol. While such efforts at building context work well in the catalogue, in the gallery the group show seemed more convenient than urgent. In comparison to the focus embodied in Reed’s paintings the group show was at best a pleasant distraction to Reed’s prodigious accomplishment.
As the catalogue emphasizes, Reed spent years painting from life, practicing drawing, and listening to accomplished artists speak about painting. Writings by Reed reveal his love for historical painting; his notes about color and the location of shapes within his compositions show a lineage of academic discipline. Cearly, Reed’s education in traditional painting and drawing have been a resource over the years. Although the works in the “Anti-Illusion” catalogue have a great absurdist exhuberence I couldn’t help but think how evanescent are those works that rely on document and trace rather than engaging the more traditional forms of painting and sculpture. The Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock in the midst of painting is iconic but it’s the painting that remains to give the photograph its consequence. Inversely, with Richard Serra casting lead against the corner of a wall and floor (also reproduced in the catalogue) it is the photographs that remain to signify the artist and his gesture. In this case it is Serra’s persona, or you could say stunt, that is the primary artwork. For Reed, the painting itself is the primary document. As the title suggests, Reed’s subject is Painting, not his body’s gestures. It was ambitious for Reed to take on the then contemporary pictorial conventions of repetition, documentation as representation, and material immance. As for the accomplishment of these paintings—there is still no ‘getting around’ that.