PRINT November 1990


THE SMOOTH, IMPENETRABLE SURFACES of David Reed’s paintings, the precisely placed overlaid rectangles that articulate the play of composition within each piece, the carefully pitched color, all combine to give them an effect of monumentality—a quality of being both timeless inevitable. But their swirling forms, seemingly self-generating, repeated across the long expanses of Reed’s narrow canvases—occasionally vertical and pillarlike, more often the wide horizontal sweep of Cinemascope—suggest anonymous decor, with the rhythmic, reassuring sameness of pattern: craftlike, unpretentious, and enduring. Evoking both the elevated and the everyday, the work draws on the social utility, authorial anonymity, and seeming inevitability of public art.

At the same time, the splashy figures in Reed’s paintings—which he produces by moving large palette knives in broad gestural strokes through wet paint—evoke not only the notion signature gesture of the painter’s hand, but also the attempts made from Marcel Duchamp on to break through its originating authority. Both willed fetishized “brushstrokes” and ripples of the liquid paint and the movement Reed’s hand. Frozen in the smooth, sealed surfaces of the paintings, these gestures take on an iconic quality, are both immediate and permanent, potential and complete. Reed’s paintings have a sense of autonomy while at the same time they suggest prototypes for their own reproductions.

The featureless textures of the paintings align them with one side in the traditional debate over the appropriate degree of finish for a painting. A number of scholars, among them E.H. Gombrich and Svetlana Alpers, have discussed the distinction made by Vasari between “rough” and “smooth” painters of the Italian Renaissance: the former worked in a deliberately unfinished style, aiming for emotional immediacy, while the latter heightened the technical finish of a painting to give it a perfection that denied the material facts of its making. Reed maintains an amateur but devoted scholar’s interest in Italian art of the period, and is highly aware of this debate. But his allegiances in the matter are curiously mixed. His use of color and ornate, sweeping forms allies him with the Baroque, with its dynamic figures and rough finish, but at the same time his pristine surfaces are those of Vasari’s maniera—the polished painterly skins that the Carracci derided as leccata (licked clean). And Reed takes part in the debate not as an antiquarian but as a contemporary artist. In a more recent version of this split, between Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, he borrows from both sides—the acceptance of allover composition and the gestural mark from Abstract Expressionism, combined with the artificial color and self-denying surface of Minimalism.

In a critical age in which abstraction can no longer be equated with progress toward essential form or the liberation of primal psychological forces, Reed’s painting is appropriately footnoted. Self-conscious in his references to earlier art, ranging from the Baroque to Abstract Expressionism to process art to Technicolor wide-screen epics, his work reverberates with echoes from all of those sources. But at the same time Reed continues to experiment with the possibility of discovering—or at least rediscovering—new formal structures, particularly of color. Painters of the Italian Baroque, he has noted, often created startling chromatic juxtapositions; it is still possible, he believes, to articulate new color effects and thus articulate new emotional nuances through paint. To this end Reed plays constantly with color and transparency. In No. 273, 1988–89, for example, he places a red against a rose against a red orange, each only minutely different from the one before; in No. 269, 1988–89, he layers a thinned-out manganese blue over a yellow, in the bottom half of the painting, then in the top half echoes the green produced by this combination. Through color structures of this sort Reed raises metaphoric questions of identity and difference, replication and authenticity, giving these analyses emotional resonance through the often unexpected colors he chooses.

Reed’s sealed-off surfaces recall the high sheen of photographs; more generally, they reflect the impossible regularity that characterizes industrial, mass-produced objects, whether automobiles or toothbrushes. Mass-produced goods can be linked in this way to Platonic idealism, as if they replicated more or less exactly an original—which had itself been shaped according to an industrial esthetic favoring the forms that are simplest, and thus most economical to produce. In fact, industrialism has brought about a massive shift in the character of the objects we surround ourselves with, changing them from rough to smooth, individual to generic. In his discussion of the impact of mechanical reproduction on the implicit aura of hand-crafted artworks, Walter Benjamin examined the psychological effects of this revolution. But Benjamin’s analysis failed to consider the fact that mechanical reproduction itself imposes an aura—though of a different kind, a Modernist aura, all smooth surface and fine detail—onto a work of art, or indeed any other object. Reed’s paintings, with their Formica-like sheen and the directness of products, don this aura to replace the one stripped from them by mass reproduction.

In their frozen iconicity, Reed’s paintings echo the no-time of photographs, in which the world is caught between life and death. The sense of time implied in photographs differs markedly from that in painting, which operates on at least two temporal levels—that of the painting’s making, which the viewer can reconstruct by examining the artist’s process of accumulating brushstrokes to create the work; and that of the painting’s image, which imposes a dramatic structure through the vocabulary of form. (If anything, this second sense takes on a hypertrophied prominence in photographs, while the first barely exists at all in this medium designed to be anonymous in its manufacture.) Reed’s enlarged brushstrokes seem magnified versions of ordinary brushstrokes, self-conscious, ironic, and impersonal. The plastic surfaces of the work likewise seem the product of a depersonalized process—not the handicraft of traditional art but the disjunctive process of mass production, which interposes the machine between the designer of an object and the finished product. This disruption of the usual sense of time in a painting is related as well to a shift in the work’s sense of space: “I want the viewer not to know where he is—to be in no-place,” Reed says of his paintings.

With their perfect finish, their controlled, intensely considered expression, Reed’s images recall logotypes; at the same time, the implacable aura of the manufactured industrial object is redeemed in them by the gestural quiddity of the mark-making process. Reed stands both inside his paintings and apart from them, both the storyteller and the stage manager who watches his creations from a distance, looking for the edge of surprise they will offer. Insisting on the painting’s status as an autonomous object while at the same time retaining his role as author, the prime mover in the careful orchestration of elements in each work, Reed restates a paradox of all artistic creation. But in borrowing the language of industrial production, he articulates with particular force the broader range of conundrums—the individual versus the social, the chosen versus the given, the created versus the culturally determined—that shape our lives today.

Like Philip Taaffe, Reed alludes to recent art and at the same time seeks echoes in other discourses, whether of mass culture or of earlier art, high, low, or decorative. This multiplicity of reference seems an attempt to find a way out of the ruins of a collapsed Modernism, to move away from the ideas of progress and material mastery that industrialism represents. The failure of Modernism does not mean the end of abstraction—just the end of its unquestioned claim to transcendence. Reed refocuses on painting as a tool of discovery, a way of articulating meanings through formal devices, while at the same time hedging his bets, admitting that the goal has been tarnished and in any case is probably unreachable. For though many artists and critics continue to yearn for the Modernist promise of an art that is both unmediated and transcendent, the possibility of innocent speech has long since been acknowledged to be impossible, even undesirable. Many recent attempts to reinvest art with political or worldly content—banished by late Modernism—have been strikingly successful, instilling a renewed sense of moral purpose into the esthetic debates of the art world, and linking art once again to the concerns of society. Too often, though, simplistic efforts in this direction have reduced content to one of only a few deadening forms: clichéd emotionalism, smug slogans, or cute demonstrations of the impossibility of meaningful expression. Reed, along with a number of artists today—among them Taaffe, Lydia Dona, Ross Bleckner, Will Mentor, and Gregory Botts—attempts to escape this trap by setting up complex patterns of echoing references, to the past or to the world beyond art. In doing so Reed seeks harmonic resonances, unsuspected, that may suggest a new balance of the known, the unknown, the forgotten, the discarded, pointing a way out of the dead end of art and culture that triumphant Modernism has left us in. At the same time he insists that these new directions will be found not through theory but through painting itself, in which eye and hand, conscious and unconscious, desire and necessity, all play a part.

Charles Hagen is a writer who lives in New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

This article is a version of an essay that will appear in David Reed, to be published by A.R.T. Press, Los Angeles.