David Reedby John Yau
November 8 – December 22, 2007
In a 1990 interview with Stephen Ellis, David Reed defined his position vis-a-vis the debate regarding the death of modernism and the ascendance of postmodernism: “I don’t want to be the last painter, and I don’t want to be the first. I want to be part of a continuum. The image I have in mind is of a conversation with artists of the past. We agree to disagree, but carry on a dialogue.” In proposing that he is part of a continuum, Reed rejects an art history predicated on the model of progress, with the belief that Jackson Pollock’s poured abstractions are the apotheosis of painting. The problem, of course, is that the art world hasn’t really agreed to disagree, because if that were so, then I would like to believe that Reed’s work would have achieved more institutional visibility than it has, particularly in New York. He had paintings in the 1989 Whitney Biennial, but that’s about it for a painter who has been showing in this city since 1973 (the list of painters in that position is long and to my mind rather damning).
The stumbling block for his detractors is reified by the way the critics label him. The tag team of Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz see Reed as a late Color Field artist, and thus the keeper of the flame for such out-of-fashion painters as Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Their mistake is the common one of false morphology, and the wrong conclusions that this kind of thinking leads to. Reed’s paintings do not give themselves away all at once, largely because he structures the plane far differently than Olitski and Noland did. For years, he has investigated the brushstroke as both a form and an image, which is something that would have made every card-carrying Color Field painter recoil in horror. The different densities, overpainting, and shifts from the transparent to the opaque endow his paintings with a continuous oscillation both in their layerings and across their surfaces. Color and form not only collide and interrupt each other, but they keep changing. At their strongest, the shifts are willful and logical, arbitrary and necessary. It is when the paintings seem finicky that the shifts feel like a pictorial conceit. In their hard-edged juxtapositions and smooth surfaces (though they aren’t quite as immaculate as they first appear and are in fact marked with countless grooves, as if small animals had ice-skated across them), they share something with the paintings of Al Held. But whether or not Reed got something from Held is hardly the point.
There are a number of reasons that I can think of as to why Smith, Saltz, and others have problems with Reed’s paintings. They don’t look like anyone else’s paintings; they aren’t surrogates, citations or parodies, which, at some basic level, suggest that they possess the quality of originality. And since originality is dead, this aspect cannot even be acknowledged, much less discussed. Serious painters who believe in painting, however problematic, have all the status of a leper in today’s art world, and those who believe that they are the “healthy” ones are often quite smug about their position.
In their panoramic and vertical formats, Reed’s paintings resist being seen all at once and require scrutiny from both far away and close-up. This kind of slow, experiential looking goes against the legacy of Frank Stella’s “what you see is what you see” pronouncement that can be applied with no difficulty to the work of artists such as Sarah Morris, Allan McCollum, and Christopher Wool. Reed flirts with the pictorial and the gestural without succumbing to either. He isn’t, however, being ironic or cynical. And, most importantly, to my mind, his paintings are made of distinct parts and layers that don’t fit smoothly together (isn’t this disorienting state quite contemporary?) and, if anything, embrace a certain awkwardness and discomfort. Insets in which an isolated, looping brushstroke on a monochromatic ground punch holes in the surface, like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.
In his most recent exhibition, Reed pushed his interest in the relationship between passage, which is evoked by his long, thin formats, and disparateness, indicated by the colliding, cacophonous parts, even further. In addition, he has gotten rid of his luminous, seductive colors, replacing them with piss yellows, shit browns, dark grays, and blacks. And while he isn’t likely to say that he is responding to the current state of affairs, it sure seems like our poisonous atmosphere has seeped into his paintings, just not in any obvious or literal way. The strongest paintings in this show are the most somber in their colors, the most layered in their forms, and the most frenetic in their undulations.
In shifting away from the hothouse palette of many of his previous paintings, Reed enables us to see another side of his undulating or folding passages. In contrast to the conventional interpretation of them as decorative embellishments, as portraits of brushstrokes, and as evocations of Baroque curtains, the new palette evokes bodily discharges, while the veering, overlapping forms conjure the image of someone frantically, yet methodically, spreading something repulsive on a wall. Anger, this combination suggests, is never far away. However, because the colors and forms don’t line up, so that the effect is often like looking at soft, heaving structures through a colored filter, we can’t read what Reed is doing literally. In addition, the artist offers no clues as how to read his paintings, which makes this understanding of them all the more disquieting.
The discrepancies between form and color, as well as the various ruptures and discontinuities that occur throughout these expansive paintings, suggest that the continuum in which we all exist is formed by the changing relationship between control and chaos. Reed’s paintings aren’t just portraits of brushstrokes, as has so often been cited, but also a mapping out of what we all endure, on both a microscopic and macroscopic level. Perhaps this is why it is hard to tell if the forms are close-up views or distant ones. And, when he seems to contradict this bodily reading by having a radiant light shine from within, I would argue that the ecstatic luminosity, and the feeling of floating that his forms often convey, serves to reminds us that exhilaration and shame are never as far apart as society, with all its repressive apparatus, would have us believe.
By making the bodily and the inchoate dance around each other in a rapturous light, often in ways that are more staccato than rhythmic, Reed achieves what he set out to do, to be part of a continuum. In this case, he returns the dumbfounded, unthinking body to the bodiless, smoldering glow achieved by Mark Rothko. And to this light, he has added transparent layers (or filter-like screens) of color that remind us that what is near is far away, and what is far away is near. Reed’s vision is of a world in which nothing is what it appears to be, and all ideas of stability are an illusion.