On ViewGagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue
January 17 – February 25, 2017
This exhibition brings together fourteen oil paintings by David Reed first collectively shown in 1975 in a solo exhibition at Susan Caldwell Gallery. All of Reed’s paintings here—with the exception of #57 (1974)—are seventy-six inches in height, the height of his studio door, and constructed of ten- or eleven-inch-wide canvases bolted together to create varying widths. His brush strokes (their width roughly that of a hand) move repeatedly from left to right, stopping just short of the right vertical edge, and sequentially from top to bottom. The paint, black or red over neutral grounds, is applied wet onto wet, and runs until methodically positioned horizontally to dry. Among the works, #66 (1975) is most subject to the gravitationally induced material melt, creating a complex spatial illusion of ground and mark overlapping, merging and doubling—their roles no longer particularly distinct.
Co-curated by art historian Katy Siegel and artist Christopher Wool, the show is a second iteration of the exhibition which debuted at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University in late 2016. In moving through the gallery, I wondered, how must the artist feel to see these paintings brought together in New York for the first time since 1975? Or anyone who witnessed the original exhibition, such as Wool, and are now matching their memory from a much younger self? It’s such a rare occurrence; it illuminates the transient and brief nature of gallery exhibitions and the subsequent dispersal of works as products that are sold, collected, and traded. The art world’s narratives are at least as circular as they are linear, visible in this exhibition as a past moment is re-engaged in our present. The urge to continuously move on to something new leaves little room for alternative threads—interests and attitudes that prevail against current fashion tend to be dismissed as obsolete, or undervalued as just “precedents.” Yet here we have an example of just how diverse those connections can be, and how past discoveries can maintain their relevance. This point is made with an excellent accompanying exhibition on the fifth floor of other artists’ work from the 1970s onwards, including Barry La Va, Joyce Pensato, Cy Twombly, Sigmar Polke, Jack Whitten, and others. The most recent works are from Wool himself, Untitled (1995), and Josh Smith’s Untitled (2004) and Untitled (2006).
It is extraordinary to be given the opportunity to experience such a singular moment in an artist’s career, from a much changed New York art historical context now relatively distant by our fast-moving measure.
In the context of painting in the ’70s, which sought to proscribe illusionism and favor complete material literalism, the paintings are pictures, as well as process. Not only do they record—actively conveying different configurations, speeds, and spatial relationships—they are pictorial and not anti-illusion, a somewhat ambivalent and adventurous position for painting in New York at the time. In the accompanying catalogue—which contextually deepens the presentation of Reed’s works and the supporting exhibition on the floor below—a text by Paul Auster elucidates this: “The finished work is not a representation of this process…it is the process itself, and it asks to be read rather than simply observed.”
This is one reason the paintings are so compelling—while they have the same unpretentious, unfussy proclivities of experimental film (there is a great James Nares film projection in the contiguous exhibition) and sculpture of the time, the paintings retain a pictorial essence. They are doors to their physical selves, because of the unobscured directness of making, and doors to the natural fiction of vision itself. This is not like the Renaissance two-point perspective; it’s something that perception does uninstructed, that is also present in all painting. Reed’s paintings from the mid-’70s address the condition of painting as much as our sense of physical presence, perception, and memory, and they do so without pretense—as ambitious and challenging to engage with then as it is now.
David Rhodes is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK. He has published reviews in the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, and artcritical, among other publications.