David Reedby Michael Brennan
Max Protetch Gallery
David Reed is a grand master—no painter has contributed as much in terms of expanding the vocabulary of abstract painting and maintaining its relevance during this era of marginalization—although there are many in New York who currently enjoy greater status. With a rare combination of technical virtuosity, historical ambition, and genuine image innovation, Reed’s work is advancing in a world that’s dissolving into total digital delusion. No other postmodern painter has developed an oeuvre this rich in the past 30 years.
Reed’s current show at Protetch picks up where the last one left off, but surprisingly, there is a detectable fracture within his continuum that perhaps foreshadows some future break. This exhibition includes five large abstract paintings along with some corresponding works on paper that reveal the artist’s working process in great detail. All the qualities one associates with Reed’s paintings are still firmly in place—the scalloped rotary gestures with their shifting velocities, the implied cinematic scale, and his rhapsodic use of color at full bleed.
Unfortunately, the rapturous spell is broken at times by some of Reed’s more niggling tendencies—his endless retouching, the harsh recutting of contours, or the visual blight of wayward sandpaper grain. In some way these incidental glitches add to the paintings’ mystique of customized handicraft, but more often than not they just interrupt the surface polish and overall flow of the image.
There’s much to be said, however, for the stunning mechanics of these paintings. In Reed’s vertical “#516,” his deft polyphonic fusion of purples and pinks weaves, cleaves, and hovers over a reverberating chord of yellow and orange underpainting. His complex chromaticism becomes compounded as the banded colors drop in temperature from warm to cool; no achromatic blacks or grays were applied this time. Reed is essentially a color glazier who dramatically laminates the split spectrum to both harmonious and dissonant effect. His process results in paintings of unparalleled visual splendor that have often been labeled “decadent” because of their spectacular flourish. These paintings are undeniably, perhaps suspiciously, seductive, but in terms of today’s wider culture, Reed is competing for attention in a world that’s been blindsided with such wild technological opiates as The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX.
Frank Stella once famously railed against the anemia of modern painting in his Working Space lectures (1983–4), insisting on the necessity of reincorporating baroque-type complexities. At long last, hasn’t Reed responded in a manner that Stella’s own scrap-metal sculpture can never hope to fulfill? Only within the microcosm of abstract painting itself, where one pole is dominated by the extreme reductiveness of the so-called radical painters and the other is exhausted by the sheer scope of Gerhard Richter’s all encompassing photo-expressionism could Reed be seen as decadent.
Reed is really a special case. His work’s overt sensuality reaches toward the engagement of a broader audience. If David Reed hadn’t digitally inserted one of his paintings into Scottie’s (James Stewart) bedroom in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, if he hadn’t broached that virtual realm, would we then really have to take George Lucas’s claims to being a “true painter” seriously?
Critics, who earlier may have mistaken Reed’s project as some kind of reinvestment in Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-cartoon brushstrokes, or more bizarrely targeted him for his compulsive chronology, have been proven shortsighted. They failed to grasp the breadth and potential of Reed’s program. How many abstract painters have even tried to engage popular culture at any level? How many painters have successfully addressed the inescapable impact of film and the more recent domination of digital media? The necessity of Reed’s contribution should not be underestimated, nor should the excesses of his painterly effect be denigrated. In short, Reed defined and refined a whole new set of possibilities for abstract painting that extend well beyond an endgame strategy. The artist himself once stated, “I don’t want to be the first painter, and I don’t want to be the last.”
Reed’s “#517” is a large horizontal painting defined by three bubbles, or subsets, that each encapsulate a loose, lyrical green line that is at once both dislocated and locked in place. There is a tension here within the gesture that goes beyond the striking red/green color contrast and seems to embody the subversive desire to disrupt the careful synthesis that the artist has so carefully and painstakingly achieved. It’s almost as if that serpentine gesture, in its struggle to get loose, may be the herald of an emerging late style within Reed’s painting itself.
In his unpublished essay “Thoughts on Late Style,” Edward Said outlined several, mostly intransigent, qualities that often define an artist’s late work. Adorno defined a similarly difficult and contradictory event when analyzing Beethoven’s final string quartets:
The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art.
Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself.
“#517,” like some tropical storm upon landfall, is as much falling apart as it is gathering itself together.
Reed’s painting is beginning to become more interesting in its discord than it previously was in its harmony. This new dissolution is best witnessed in the polyphonic fusion of “#516” where the color is clearly acting out, becoming intransigent—behaving badly. An array of individual forces are separating from the overall image and fracturing the armature of an artificial synthesis. Within the core of “#516” dithyrambic disenchantment and pleasure freely collide. The painting is alarmingly unstable, like the radioactive isotope uranium-238. There is something new to admire in Reed’s work, and it manifests itself in the emergence of a late style. Or more succinctly, in the words of Josef Albers, “by giving up a preference for harmony, we accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance.”
With real maturity there often comes a stripping away. Maybe this is something that a discussion of style cannot even truly approach; however, we recognize this quality in the late works of all great artists. In terms of painting one thinks of Titian, Hals, Rembrandt, Cézanne, or de Kooning. The fissure is already there in Reed’s work; will style prevail, or the painter himself?