PRINT January 1980

David Reed’s Paintings

DAVID REED’S RECENT WORK separates and juxtaposes selected elements of painting on two paneled works. One panel flourishes one or more brush strokes, black into wet white or white into black; the other panel supports a single intense color laid on by knife. Brushstroke as drawing is segregated from color as field, and each element blossoms into a parameter of specific uses.

The drawn, linear stroke describes motion and, freed from the determinants of color, continues beyond the confines of the canvas. The stroke gestures to the viewer for response, while the colored panel hits us all at once. The gestural aspect implies an action of the stroke, while the observer scans that stroke in much the same way that he reads this sentence. Reed, aware of this, alternately allows the eye to wander habitually from left to right or impels it contrarily.

The colors, freed from the prescription of drawing and the boundaries of drawn line, defend their own properties. Certain hues, for example, operate in certain ways. Yellow and light-valued hues comfort the eye when displayed as horizontal panels, as do blue and darker valued hues as vertical panels. The size of the colored area must be in an exactly right relation lo the drawing panel. When a 6-foot long horizontal red panel seems cramped, a 7-foot long red might do; but since the two panels connect vertically, the vertical dimension holds as constant, a kind of experimental control.

By separating the parts of the painting and then juxtaposing them, their functions are compounded and reversed paradoxically. Observing the colored panel, one’s peripheral vision cannot place where the strokes float, and when one views the stroke panel the color panel is displaced. Subject is not present in the usual way, as a clear and distinct, mutually contextual relation of the elements in the paintings; subject (aboutness)1 becomes referentiality itself. In addition, the elements of the painting interlock in the way a thought pattern interlocks, not like objects in a representational composition. In this sense the works materialize painting language, translating from the language of nature into the language of graphemes—coloration, juxtaposition, idea, metaphysics. Reed materializes, objectifies elements that are instrumental in other kinds of paintings.

Thus Reed’s paintings break down the habits of seeing, not personally and intensely, but structurally: they reveal how meaning is revealed. This revelation is indirect. A disorientation occurs Reed defines group emotions and the generic aspects that determine the way painting expresses meaning. It is as if he does not believe that he can make marks which will convey meaning directly. In his works meaning occurs primarily in the confrontation and interchange between the self and the world, and only secondarily on the canvas. The crux of meaning lies where the two panels meet; but we are led away again by the strokes, instead of staying in contemplation in the way attention fixes on the cross (+) in a painting of the Crucifixion. Furthermore, the horizontal stroke, which may either enter the canvas from the edge or extend out from the interior abutment, underscores the plane of the wall, while the color panel indicates the perpendicular space, setting up diagonal tensions.

As Reed approaches seeing as a kind of analytical reading, the parts of the paintings diagram ideas about painting that must be elucidated by the viewer. The abutment of the two panels is at least as significant in the mind of the viewer after he looks at the painting as it is while he looks at it. Painters usually put emotion and labor into a painting and then the viewer gets it out by looking, but Reed makes maps of the ways in which this procedure takes place. His paintings present this problem graphically, demonstrating how the elements work—how they should read and how they mean. Why he takes certain painterly attitudes in, for example, the texture of the paint, which is creamy and tactile. where one would expect a more flat, neutral surface, becomes problematic, requiring critical response.

In his most recent work Reed also subjects the drawing panel and the color panel to a necessary comparison. Such comparison becomes especially complex in a work such as Untitled No. 150, 1979, a large pair of square panels with four strokes on the drawing panel and a dark blue on the “colored ” panel. The strokes in this painting start to merge, and on the color panel the knifework, more visible than usual and somewhat transparent, aims the two panels similarly, reinforcing the stroke element and, consequently, the rhetoric of stroke.

The scale of the strokes in this painting and others—even in the long, skinny horizontal works (the brushstrokes almost fill their panel)—is monumental, making the color panel and the strokes themselves into heroes of pure perception, in line with their hyperbolic nature. The confrontation of the panels ceases to be the central issue, and the fact that they are similarly scaled turns the works from myth, where a dialectical confrontation takes place, into fable or legend, where assumptions are taken for granted and the viewer’s emotions are manipulated in a particular direction—in the case of Untitled No. 150 toward the stroke panel point of view. Reed’s paintings critique their own culture as much as they state their own existence and show how the issues which generated them have become ciphers. The work is a critique of painting as much as it is painting.

Making the elements heroic in stature politicizes the content of the works: their very place wholly within the vocabulary of painting is polemical. At the same time that Reed warps the nature of fine art into graphic art, he reinforces the vocabulary of the fine-art tradition, verging on a propaganda that does not question its assumptions. So too does such complex work, in questioning its own assumptions, take its place in the political climate of our own culture. Reed uses the old materials and techniques of painting tradition, as full of contradictions as they are, to criticize tradition (we have already noted how Reed questions the connection of drawing and color). In this way the range of painting—the further possibility of its tradition—is extended. Yet Reed freezes the vocabulary as much as he redefines it, and, as much as he questions the nature of painting, he accepts it. The result is that the paintings themselves can be easily captured and recalled, but to understand them one has to elucidate them in the mind. This takes time, but the painting need not be in front of one: it can be held in the mind, like an idea that is thought out, and considered, just as group emotions and assumptions are considered, as experiences reinforcing them arise to inform us of their presence embedded in the work.

The choices that Reed makes in his presentation suggest a sensibility that also affects the work of Elizabeth Murray, whose paintings are on the edge of realization, but in a different way. Her daring comes from the question the viewer has as to whether by their very complex disjointedness her paintings can support themselves. Seemingly scattered in their intentions, Murray’s paintings teeter on the verge of falling apart. This is not a technical limitation, but rather a function of sensibility, and, perhaps, a critique, especially of painting as machine, calling the machine into question as the painting hangs tenuously by its wire. This sensibility is part of the punk ethos as well, but the works do not fall apart. David Reed’s works have a tentativeness in the way he offers an emotional and intellectual sweep that is called into question at its root—the abutment of the two panels.

Yet his works go beyond sensibility. Because they are composed of strokes that present the idea of stroke and colors that present the idea of color, the paintings themselves become emblematic. The elements of the paintings—stroke, color, canvas—are not used instrumentally. They are presented as materials that elucidate each other in the way that a painting’s elements elucidate each other. The stroke is emblematic of stroke in painting as much as it is a particular stroke, but by putting it in the work as itself, and not instrumentally, it also takes on aspects of color. So also the color is emblematic of color as well as a carefully chosen specific color in a specific work. The division between the panels is emblematic of the role of the painting in the place it hangs, which includes a real and active viewer (one is reminded here of Roland Barthes’ remarks on writing). The interface of panels remains unresolved, a way of questioning assumptions. We discover meaning where the two panels touch, not by separating them, but by questioning their connection. This renewed activity replaces the mere efficiency of having the artist do all the work himself, compelling our participation rather than the passive acceptance of a hypnotic simulacrum, and this without the commoditized illustration of realism. Reed thus problematicizes the abstract painting.

James Sherry is a poet and editor of Roof magazine.



1. I have written about “About” in The Poet’s Encyclopedia, ed. Michael Andre, New York, 1979 (published by The Unmuzzled Ox).