PRINT Summer 2008


JUST WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS? Poised in front of Wade Guyton’s work, admirers and detractors alike often find themselves asking the same question. It’s not so much a query regarding the artist’s character—though of course it’s partially that, too—but rather the expression of a genuine quandary, one that can feel so basic that it’s hard to find the way to frame it. Where is he coming from? is another way to put it, and it may be a little closer to the mark. But the real question is rather, and perhaps simply: How are we to understand Guyton’s relationship to what he makes? And following from that: Why do the oblique contours of this relationship seem to announce themselves as the very content of the work?

Consider two of Guyton’s one-person shows mounted in the past six months, the first at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York, the second at Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris. While a group of unique works was produced for each, Guyton would seem at first glance to have presented nearly carbon-copy exhibitions. In both instances, the artist laid down a false floor made of plywood sheets painted a dense black, the kind of black that seems at once to reflect and suck up light. On the walls were hung large-scale paintings, described in the respective—also nearly identical—press releases as “ostensibly black monochromes.” Ostensible is a fantastic word, and it goes some way in addressing Guyton’s work. Etymologically, it derives from the Latin ostensus, “to show,” but this connotation of transparency is joined by one of skepticism. There’s something being shown, but there’s also something that is not being shown, that’s being blocked from view. Synonymous with allegedly, ostensibly also implies that a claim has been made, that a statement has been drafted, but that there is simply no verifiable proof to back it. That which is ostensible looks like, sounds like, even feels like what it purports to be, but it flashes doubt like a striptease, asking that we believe and interrogate simultaneously.

Such operations, though seemingly discovered afresh every decade, have long been the purview of certain practices of painting. Indeed, the past forty years of critical discourse have taken as foundational the idea that it is perhaps only its ostensible nature that keeps contemporary painting from relinquishing all relevance. This doesn’t mean that a deeply held, intuitively argued belief in painting qua painting is not still in effect. (These days, a phrase like “the function of painting” has a fifty-fifty chance of being met with an eye roll—one more eerie similarity between this era and the 1980s.) What it means, rather, is simply that those who can’t quite accept the notion of painting’s radical authenticity have long looked for its first principles outside the frame. Take, for instance, the following passage, which would seem to address Guyton’s ostensible monochromes astutely enough:

It is fundamental to X’s work that it function in complicity with those very institutions it seeks to make visible as the necessary condition of the artwork’s intelligibility. This is the reason that his work not only appears in museums and galleries but also poses as painting. It is only thereby possible for his work to ask, What makes it possible to see a painting? What makes it possible to see a painting as a painting? And, under such conditions of its presentation, to what end painting?

My tell-tale substitution of the generic placeholder “X” for a proper name is likely clue enough that this is borrowed text and that it doesn’t describe Guyton’s paintings at all. As it happens, these are Douglas Crimp’s words, from his 1981 essay “The End of Painting,” with the subject of his analysis being, perhaps unsurprisingly, one Daniel Buren.1 Who better to exemplify the contextual turn born of the 1960s and ’70s—a shift that allowed for the very conditions of artistic production and reception to become content? And how useful might it prove to think through the implications of one of the original purveyors of institutional critique for an artist, in this case Guyton, whose practice would seem, if not exactly aligned with, nonetheless clearly indebted to the older figure? Buren had his factory-produced textile stripes, Guyton has his equally terse black squares spit out of an ink-jet printer; surely this is a neat transposition of strategies from an industrial to a postindustrial context. In the end, though, while the comparison is indeed quite useful, what turns out to be most illuminating are the differences, not the correspondences, that it reveals.

For however uncannily germane to Guyton’s practice Crimp’s language might initially seem, the critic’s analysis ultimately proves wholly inapplicable to the younger artist’s work, and the very disjunction in fact sheds some light on greater shifts in the terms of artmaking during the past forty years. If in 1981, Buren continued to hold out promise for critical practice, it was precisely because his work did not read legibly within the language of painting it alluded to. As Crimp put it in his essay’s closing gambit, while Buren’s work was of course literally visible, it was at odds with any historicist account of painting and therefore did not register within painting’s terms. Crimp’s projection for the future was clear: “At the moment when Buren’s work becomes visible, the code of painting will have been abolished and Buren’s repetitions can stop: the end of painting will have been finally acknowledged.” Buren was just as confident about the deep ramifications of his own ideas. Quoted in Crimp’s essay is a passage from the artist’s 1977 volume Reboundings, wherein Buren claims the highest stakes for his work: “It is no longer a matter even of challenging the artistic system. Neither is it a matter of taking delight in one’s interminable analysis. The ambition of this work is quite different. It aims at nothing less than abolishing the code that has until now made art what it is, in its production and in its institutions.”2 Whether Buren succeeded or failed in these aspirations and whether his subsequent anointment by the very “art history” against which he chafed signals an abolishment or an expansion of said code are questions for another time (and I am certainly not the first to raise them). But the fact that Buren is today so much acknowledged by art-historical discourse—such that the tenets of institutional critique are now readily accepted by institutions themselves—presents a conundrum of sorts for any artist who would seek to make “critical” art. Pointing to the context for painting, or for artmaking more generally, as Guyton does, is inevitably attended by the peril of merely mimicking gestures of the past that, in this changed historical situation, are reduced to motif. We therefore need to ask how artists might best extrapolate from the discursive tussles of Buren’s time, pondering how and to what end an artist such as Guyton might be keeping the “end of painting” at bay or, perhaps more aptly, keeping the death of painting alive.

Looking closely at the works in question, one notes that if Guyton is himself working toward the dismantling of codes (or, perhaps more realistically, the rerouting of them), he is not founding his project on the nullification of painting or on its transformation into an illegible cipher: If his are “ostensibly” black monochromes, in other words, it’s not due to any confusion whatsoever about the status of these objects as paintings. That is to say that what is “ostensible” here really is the denomination “black monochrome” and not painting itself. Though obviously following a format, Guyton’s monochromes have none of the built-in regularity of, say, Buren’s stubborn 8.7-centimeter-wide alternating cloth stripes (which have in their way taken on uber-aesthetic status despite their original somewhat anti-aesthetic premise). In fact, the opposite is true. Despite being produced by way of a set of predetermined, extremely limited rules and without a drop of paint or a single brushstroke, they bear all the obvious residues of spontaneous (and therefore “immediate”) mark making. Having folded lengths of factory-primed linen so that each half equals the width of his Epson UltraChrome large-format printer (forty-four inches), Guyton runs them through the machine, which deploys hundreds of individual ink-jet heads. Together, these tiny, dumb mechanical soldiers labor at Guyton’s behest to produce just as dumb an “image”: A black rectangle, drawn and then “filled” by Guyton in Photoshop, is printed twice, once on each side of his folded linen, doubling, in essence, the image of the rectangle (at the same time as trying to unite its parts on one field). Depending on the effects of the initial printing process, Guyton opts to run one side or the other (or sometimes both) through the machine a second and sometimes third time (or more), smoothing and filling prior snags and drags on the one hand and on the other providing an even denser surface on which new anomalies can occur. To the extent that Guyton’s enterprise could be seen as one invested in the technics of image production, it figures technology’s tendency to complicate, rather than simplify—that is, to make its own kind of mess. And truth be told, Guyton aids and abets the glitches, gagging his printer with material not meant for it and asking it to lay uniform sheets of ink over an expanse twice its size—feats hardly enumerated in the user’s manual. In fact, if Guyton has a technical skill per se, it might be defined as encouraging malfunctions.

Once the canvas has been fed through the printer, it drops unceremoniously to the floor and accordingly picks up evidence of its time there in scratches, dings, and dust. The resulting two sides of the rectangle—given the imprecise procedure of simply folding the canvas in half and temporarily taping its edges together—are rarely if ever perfectly aligned; rather, one side typically is slightly higher or lower than the other. And one side, or both, may register the marks of having wandered diagonally off track during printing before being pulled back into alignment; this sometimes produces a kind of shuttered effect, almost photo- graphic in its unintended illusion of light (the primed canvas) peeking out from between regimented lines that no longer match up to form an uninterrupted solid. The ink, trying to fix itself to a ground that is designed to hold thicker pigment, also occasionally pools, smudges, and drips. And of course, every piece of linen, once unfolded, bears the mark of the central seam, not so much a “zip” as a kind of vertical navel.3 Each painting thus bears proof of its process—the one real constant in every iteration of the series. (Or at least, the only readily apparent one: There is also the single digital “source” that is the foundation of all the monochromes—an image file on Guyton’s computer with the hardcore-sounding name “big-black.tif,” which, when opened, reveals a comically unassuming little black rectangle.)

The urge to act the connoisseur and genealogize in the face of these works is palpable as, somewhat counterintuitively, all these procedures result in unadulterated visual pleasure of the kind often associated with abstraction in its more luscious manifestations. Hung sparingly on white walls, the paintings take on the stark elegance we attribute to a whole lineage of morphologically similar items. Names, from Rothko to Reinhardt and Stella to Marden, are apt to fly. But let’s not forget that these are ostensible monochromes only. They are, none of them, fully resolved, not really monochromes, because the measure of their success rests largely on their gesturing to monochromeness without ever really getting there. Indeed, a few of the most beautiful canvases—which register thread-thin lines spread nearly an inch apart from one another—are also the most minimal. They were not, however, produced because the cartridge was running dry, as one might think—the problem is not too little ink but, in a sense, too much, as the machine overloads itself in an attempt to carry out Guyton’s bidding over and over again. With nearly all its jet heads clogged by ink that has built up and coagulated, the printer barely sputters out a trace of the image it is asked to compulsively repeat. The delicate, visually complex composition that accrues is nothing more than evidence that the Epson “self-clean” function has not kicked in when it ought to.

So what are we to make of all this? Guyton’s process is steeped in embarrassingly elementary moves: Preselecting basic parameters such as whether to print “draft” or “economy,” at “speed” or “quality” rate, and according to “normal,” “fine,” or “photo” standards—and then simply pushing “print”—comprises most of the artist’s control over the work he produces. (The critic inevitably wonders whether it is, after all, worth spilling this much ink on, well, the vicissitudes of spilled ink.) And yet he pairs this embarrassment with another one: that of making undeniably aesthetic products. (Here Guyton’s works would seem to perform themselves as decoys inciting the urge for art-historical roll-calling—a kind of bald “ostensibility” that might appear all too well attuned to the current vogue for generic “appropriative” gestures.) Taken together, however, these qualities imply an awareness that a work of art’s motioning toward another that came before it does not necessarily bear out much meaning; and an assumption that the binary poles of pining homage and violent erasure are the only two ways to read such allusions is just another mode of marketing. Guyton’s recent series of black paintings nods, if mutely, toward this crossroads, in which engagements with discursive history and profiteering usurpations of it look more and more similar. For if today it is impossible not to recognize the lessons handed down by Buren and others, it is likewise impossible not to see how those lessons themselves have been incorporated as a kind of affirmative content. If the language of “abolishing the code” has itself become code, what can one say in retort or even in response?4

FINALLY, A PERSONAL INCIDENT, which will nicely introduce the figures to come: Thursday, March 9, fine afternoon, I go out to buy some paints (Sennelier inks) → bottles of pigment: following my taste for the names (golden yellow, sky blue, brilliant green, purple, sun yellow, cartham pink—a rather intense pink), I buy sixteen bottles. In putting them away, I knock one over: in sponging up, I make a new mess: little domestic complications. . . . And now, I am going to give you the official name of the spilled color, a name printed on the small bottle (as on the others vermilion, turquoise, etc.): it was the color called Neutral (obviously I had opened this bottle first to see what kind of color was this Neutral about which I am going to be speaking for thirteen weeks). Well, I was both punished and disappointed: pun- ished because Neutral spatters and stains (it’s a type of dull gray-black); disappointed because Neutral is a color like the others, and for sale (therefore, Neutral is not unmarketable): the unclassifiable is classified → all the more reason for us to go back to discourse, which, at least, cannot say what the Neutral is.5

The spring of 1978 found Roland Barthes doing his own ruminating on the vicissitudes of spilled ink and giving his second lecture series at the Collège de France. Over several months, he introduced and expounded on a term that, nonetheless, he had no intention of ever fully pinning down: “the Neutral.”6 Summing the course up for the school’s compulsory annual report, Barthes wrote of his topic that “one studies what one desires or what one fears; within this perspective, the authentic title of the course could have been: The Desire for Neutral.” He continues, “The argument of the course has been the following: we have defined as pertaining to the Neutral every inflection that, dodging or baffling the paradigmatic, oppositional structure of meaning, aims at the suspension of the conflictual basis of discourse.” Presented not as a progressively building argument but instead as an offering of twenty-three figures or “twinklings,” Barthes’s exploration of the Neutral includes an argument for silence as one of the incarnations of his fugitive concept. The word—silence—should perhaps be treated with some circumspection here; as Barthes points out, he is himself speaking about it. Indeed, silence as defined by Barthes, like many of the figures he presents, does not conform to our likely expectations. Silence—like the Neutral itself—is not a passive condition but rather one voluptuously active, so active in fact that it refuses to settle into or onto a singularly readable position. If this sounds dangerously close to a kind of willy-nilly, fleeting lack of commitment, it of course risks being so (but only when it is not actually Neutral); for an active silence, as Barthes puts it, is what lies at the heart of all rigorous discourse. It opposes dogmatic speech and dogmatic silence alike.

As the foregoing may hint, an obvious tension regarding politics is characteristic of much of Barthes’s late work.7 His suggestion that endlessly articulated battles between opposing opinions might be less potentially subversive than what remains unstated (“the implicit is a crime, because the implicit is a thought that escapes power”) is understandably met with frustration by those in circumstances demanding nothing less than out-and-out activism. But Barthes’s was, again, not a dictum to be consumed and applied. It was a methodological manifestation of desire—full if unfulfilled, and quite analogous to his (disappointed) dream of a truly neutral ink, without color or body; a desire that had all manner of political implications, not the least being that, as one commentator put it, Barthes’s writing marked a lifelong project with “no motor other than desire.”8

Guyton, too, seems, if not programmatically, to put forward a kind of Neutral deportment, one that, per Barthes, “postulates a right to be silent.” That does not, of course, keep his commentators from ascribing, almost compulsively (and often aggressively), content and intent. (Indeed, Barthes’s worry about silence is that while it begins as a “weapon assumed to outplay the paradigms,” it too “congeals itself into a sign.”) It’s hard to imagine a more overdetermined space than the site of the monochrome—the black monochrome no less, that tried-and-true image that now virtually screams out its simultaneous status as tabula rasa and tabula finitum. But if it seems that Guyton, at thirty-six years old, has reached this point much too early—what avenues has he left open for himself, one wonders while looking at so many iterations of the high-culture sign for “That’s all, folks”—it is worth considering the ways in which his career has proceeded by way of such impasses, with such seeming foreclosures levied to hold open future possibilities.

It’s not unfair, I hope, to characterize Guyton’s oeuvre to date as evincing a certain productive panic when it comes to rendering transparent the reality of being an artist who is faced with the task of making things. He absorbed the lessons of modernism and then postmodernism as an undergraduate in Knoxville, Tennessee, only to arrive in New York in 1996 with a head full of images and ideas that, learned as they were at a slight delay, were no longer quite contemporary. With a certain wariness, Guyton—who for the record, no matter how much attention this essay pays to painting, is not strictly a painter— then set to work entering the dialogue he had previously engaged almost exclusively by way of mediation (art-history books, theoretical anthologies, this magazine). He made sculpture: quirky quasi-Minimalist forms in wood or cork that took up too much or too little space; barely held-together strips of mirrored Plexiglas whose accordion forms reflected viewers back in tall-skinny sections (a pathetically glittery effect at once carnivalesque and dance-clubby). By 2001, some of Guyton’s sculptural renderings had taken a turn toward the disembodied. He found or took photographs—mostly of architecture, mostly banal—and then altered them using a black Sharpie to blot out selected features of the images, producing studies for sculptures that could never be realized, except possibly through some science-fictional techniques, since the sculptures he envisioned were essentially holes in space. Voiding the image but leaving its method of excision visible, Guyton’s Drawing for Sculpture the Size of a House, 2001, made the contours of a low-slung American ranch house into a nameless one-dimensional shape, its jutting angles now mere geometry. (An unusually dramatic version of this kind of rendering was produced in Drawing for Perpetually Burning Object, 2002, in which an image of a blocky something, presumably a building, ravaged by angry flames becomes, with the architecture Sharpied out, a kind of Dantean nightmare.) For an “actual” sculpture, which he was asked to make for a public-art show in Brewster, New York, the artist, after scouring the area to no inspirational avail, landed on a heap of scrap wood in an alley, more or less neatly abandoned by its previous user when whatever task he or she was working on was finished. Guyton de- and then reassembled the pile, arranging it exactly as he had found it, except turned precisely on its head. (The resulting “sculpture” looked almost identical to the raw materials.) That Guyton wasn’t really making a particular kind of material “his own”—or better said, that his use of the ready-made or found object seemed to result mostly in disappearing objects rather than claiming or really “transforming” them—seems fundamental to his practice in retrospect.

But this reaching toward things only to partially and rather heavy-handedly efface them was after all a grasping, and it offered itself as an insight that could be deployed procedurally only after Guyton worked more circumspectly than usual, one day in 2002, to mark a large black X over a page he had ripped from a design magazine. He used a ruler, and the lines were more or less straight, but not really, and the unevenness of the ink made the X look more handmade, less dispassionate, than he’d wanted it to. It also took much too long to produce, considering how dumb a gesture it was meant to be. Ripping another page from his stack of magazines and books, he fed it through his home printer (this one little and cheap: an Epson, but no Ultra) after plugging in a ridiculously high point size and typing one giant letter into an otherwise blank Word document: X.

To say that suddenly Guyton’s hands were thus untied would make the change too profound and too definitively liberating. In fact, the rounds of “Printer Drawings” that ensued and that have continued apace, all of which use book or magazine pages as supports, may let Guyton off the hook for producing their “content”; but in so doing, they render more visible, and thus put more pressure on, this choice to let other images speak to some extent on his behalf. However much he laces his found pages with varia printed atop them, they remain partially their own, pulled rudely from their bindings and thus displaced into their new, not wholly transparent contexts. The imagery Guyton generated to superimpose on these backgrounds was limited at first to oversize X’s but was soon joined by U’s, colored dots and lines, squares, holes, grids, and other such not-designs constructed with letters or shapes made using Microsoft Word’s “drawing tool.” Also entering the mix in a few instances were three-dimensional objects, such as a wooden triangle, placed directly on the scanner, and, more often, a handful of “generic” images scanned from other sources and vetted through Photoshop (consistent favorites being “fire” and alternating green and red stripes, both swiped from book jackets). Take for example an untitled drawing from 2005, in which Guyton imposes his forcefully cheery green and red stripes over a page from an art book bearing a picture of a pastel Morris Louis painting from 1962. The placement of Guyton’s stamp (one that is of course borrowed, not quite his own) on that of Louis (for a Louis is always recognizable as such, and here doubly so, since its caption is visible) neither cancels out the “first” image nor fully articulates a relationship to it. Yet this doubling gesture is still seemingly “readable,” in much the same way that a series of “Action Sculptures” the artist has produced since 2002 is: High-design midcentury furniture is taken apart and manhandled into a lyric but ridiculous new form, but will always remain, and will always be recognizable as, Breuer chairs.

Guyton’s decision in 2003 to also begin producing what would eventually become “paintings,” first on raw, unstretched linen and soon thereafter on primed and stretched canvas, would seem to be distinctly different from the kind of tête-à-tête pairings of background source image and added superimposition created by the drawings, with their strangely tender yet proprietary urge. But Guyton’s stretched paintings of the past few years, no less than the pages torn directly from books, acknowledge what writer Bettina Funcke has called the “risk of images,” which she describes as the ethical and conceptual precipice arrived at by artists who participate in image recycling.9 Some of these paintings appear stridently minimal, X’s alone or multiplied and advancing in uneven rows, their typeface bodies subtly shifting under the eye (since some were printed directly from digital files and so are crisp and clear, while others are scans of previous works Guyton has produced and have thus experienced “loss”). Others are nearly baroque: Multiple, nauseously Pop-colored U’s are consumed by Guyton’s flame; a black square and four random white circles overtly court anthropomorphism, the seemingly gaping holes approximating open-eyed vacuity even while insisting that this is just abstraction after all. What is imported from the world of preexisting imagery becomes confused with what is mapped out within the purview of Photoshop and Word. The printer drawings’ back- and foregrounds are more clearly distinguished by such overdetermined content as pages occupied first by Broodthaers, Farnsworth, Caro, and Stella and subsequently by Guyton; the paintings appear to have flattened such distinctions. Yet in producing through their more general nature—their ability to conjure a Rodchenko or a Black Flag logo or anything in between—even more references, they seem ever more tethered to citation, if less stably so. A “Printer Painting” in which the ink-jets have almost sputtered out, leaving us with an ostensible black monochrome that has nearly become an ostensible white monochrome, discloses nothing, and so discloses everything.

“If I were to describe it in a word I should say that I have been like a cartridge that’s jammed.” So says Henry Miller, in “The Angel Is My Watermark!,” a semiparodic, nearly twenty-page episode in Black Spring in which the author relates “the genesis of a masterpiece.”10 Living before the Staples epoch, Miller was presumably referring to a firearm, not a balky LaserJet. Yet his mention of a jammed cartridge is serendipitous on several levels. In their too-muchness and not-enoughness, Guyton’s works are almost uncannily illuminated via a reading of Miller’s characteristically manic reflections on the necessary interplay of erasure and inscription in the (supposedly purely additive) “act of creation.” Poking fun at—yet clearly enamored of- myths of genius, Miller enumerates a process of conceiving, in his artist’s notepad, a complex layering of drawn and painted images, all of them symbolically ripe but none of them working. Having decided after two excruciating days that the endeavor has failed, he finally scrubs the wretched thing in the sink and, of course, what does not wash away is the unexpected magnum opus—“It’s like a splinter under the nail,” he says. Despite the tongue in cheek, Miller—that self-professed jammed cartridge—concedes that there is truth to his parable: “I have never been able to draw a balance. I am always minus something. I have a reason therefore to go on.”

That there is a certain romanticism to quoting Miller on painting (writing in 1936 as he was, an expat in France, surrounded on all sides by the good and the bad of avant-garde heroics) is unavoidable, but in the end this is perhaps a fair—if also perhaps an unexpected—treatment of Guyton’s work. Emphatic discussions of his art have focused on his clear attendance to “modernism,” by way of his recycling some of its images (or what we think are its images), and on his interest in up-to-date technologies and modes of mediation (given his obvious debts to the machines on which he relies and to whose vocabularies he cannot help but subscribe). Yet there is nonetheless a minus that is glossed over in this reading. That minus is why Guyton’s recent monochromes are not send-ups of—or even ironic commentaries on—finitude, despite their seeming courtship of degree zero. (Like the Neutral, Miller’s minus takes its pleasure from being generatively deficient: Barthes calls pluses and minuses “intensive degrees.”) They are, akin to Miller’s dingy “masterpiece,” scrubbed back down to basics while still having clearly been put through the ringer. Not pristine or even simply ostensible, they take their place within the narrative of “painting,” understanding that to deny doing so would be bad faith. Scratched, scumbled, in some instances stepped on, they are at once vaguely expressionistic in tone, elegiac in their relation to their (presumed) lineage, and, frankly, also a little the worse for wear.

But there is another way to think about this lenticular affect, this display of wear and tear that looks melancholic from one angle and parodic from another. One thing that is displaced (one might even say denied) in interpretations of Guyton’s work that focus on the precedents, or on the technology and the process, is desire. To really look squarely at this artist’s work is to find desire staring you in the face—“outplaying itself,” Barthes might say, which means desire is not locatable in the image, exactly, but is still felt within its nimbus. Desire largely proceeds, as Lacan and Louis Vuitton know equally well, according to what one does not have, by making objects and ideas (and even oneself) into what they are not.11

Guyton’s usurpations and representations of images—actual and “types”—proceed quite blatantly in this vein, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t admission that he’s only partially delivering the goods. The negotiation gives rise to funny, queer, unexpectedly campy side effects, which are present in all the work but more evident in some. Take the posters Guyton creates to announce his exhibitions. The one for his 2006 show at West London Projects—an elegantly composed installation of X paintings—uses an image likely pulled from some cheesy soft-core site, a beefy, hairy guy cropped at the neck and thighs, his thick torso giving what is precisely the “wrong impression” of what was to be shown at the gallery. Similarly, Guyton’s poster for a solo show in 2007 at Galerie Francesca Pia, in Zurich, handed over its entire surface to the pampered visage of an anonymous ’70s fitness hunk, his face coated in a thick—vaguely scatological—mud mask, his eyes soft with performed relaxation. If this content seems utterly incompatible with the rest, which seems so general—or so specific—as to resist the kind of reading suggested, it’s important to remember just how many of Guyton’s drawings and paintings are given over to literally “flaming” effects and, less literally, how his entire practice is predicated on questions about “passing.”

Susan Sontag, of course, had the last word on camp even when she first articulated it, in 1964. As she explained and as we all know well by now, camp traffics in exaggeration, in the “off,” in “things-being-what-they-are-not.” Less rehearsed, but even more pointedly relevant here, is another of Sontag’s arguments: Camp is the purview of “style,” of, therefore, the “ostensible”: “To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.”12 But this attitude which is neutral with respect to content is, she goes on to say at the essay’s very end, “a tender feeling.” Perhaps the question of where to place Guyton’s practice in the field of contemporary art is only answered, then, by taking seriously the kind of neutrality that Barthes—and I think Sontag, too—marks as “active.” So to begin again, just who does Guyton think he is? A better question might be, How does he go on, when every image looks like it will be the last? Driven by no motor other than desire.

Johanna Burton is an art historian and critic based in New York, and associate director and senior faculty member at the Whitney Independent Study Program.


1. Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981). Reprinted in Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 84–105. Crimp’s essay specifically addresses Barbara Rose’s review of the show “Eight Contemporary Artists,” held at MoMA in 1974, which included Buren. For Rose, Buren stood as emblematic of a group whose overly political aspirations bred “disenchanted, demoralized artists” producing mediocre work. In 1979, Rose curated an exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in New York, titled “American Painting: The Eighties.” Crimp argues that the show was meant as retaliation against Conceptual practices such as Buren’s and aimed to reinscribe traditional ideas about the legacies of painting.

2. From Daniel Buren, Reboundings: An Essay, trans. Philippe Hunt (Brussels: Daled & Gevaert, 1977). Cited in Crimp, 103.

3. This folding of the canvas—with the result that paintings can double in size—began well before Guyton’s monochromes, manifesting in paintings that include X’s, flames, etc., so the “navel” is itself not unique to this most recent series. However, while the X’s and flames resulted from one large file being split in half (and thus printed in two sections, one on each side of the canvas), the monochromes are in fact the result of two iterations of the same bigblack.tif file printed one after the other.

4. See on this topic, for instance, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who has long written on Buren and Buren’s reception, “The Group That Was (Not) One: Daniel Buren and BMPT,” in Artforum (May 2008), 310–313. He writes succinctly there: “It will be one of the questions for our decade to ponder why the spaces and practices of contestation and critique that Buren (and Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, et al.) opened at the end of the ’60s were—or so it seems now, at least—irredeemably hijacked. . . .”

5. From Roland Barthes, The Neutral, trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 48–49.

6. The seminar, Le Neutre, was not compiled and published in France until 2002; it was subsequently translated into English in 2005.

7. Questions regarding the relationship between one’s politics and one’s practice have long been asked. An interesting article appeared in Artforum (November 1977: 46–53) by Moira Roth, whose “The Aesthetic of Indifference” looked closely at “cool” practices by Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and Johns. Roth argues that though their practices do not comment directly on the cold war during which they thrived, they, like “others of a more liberal and self-critical persuasion, found themselves paralyzed when called upon to act on their convictions, and this paralysis frequently appeared as indifference.” I am arguing not for a paralyzing indifference but instead for a kind of personal, even amorous politics, but it is interesting that there is similarity when it comes to how and even whether signs of the political are perceived.

8. This is Thomas Clerc’s phrase, in his preface to The Neutral, xxiii. Clerc is referring explicitly to the way in which Barthes uses such a wide array of sources from all areas of culture. He similarly discusses the wide net of Barthes’s inquires and citations as proceeding by way of a kind of “secondhand erudition” and a “joyous dilettantism,” neither of which undermines Barthes’s rigor as a thinker but both of which do highlight the unconventional nature of his method.

9. See Bettina Funcke’s 2006 essay “The Risk of Images,” which focuses on Guyton’s work and is included in the catalogue Guyton, Price, Smith, Walker (Kunsthalle Zurich: JRP/Ringier, forthcoming, 2008). There she writes provocatively, “It remains to be seen what the appropriate response of artists will be to a new and particular risk of images. The zero dimension of the digital gives the power to manipulate to both the politician and the artist, to the terrorist and the activist, to popular culture and its critique, alike.”

10. Henry Miller, Black Spring (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 57–76.

11. Guyton takes up the question of desire as it pertains to commercial goods and advertising somewhat differently in his work for Guyton\Walker, his collaboration with artist Kelley Walker. Utilizing materials including the logo and marketing slogans for Ketel One vodka, Guyton\Walker takes up more overtly the address of cultural signs. Walker, in his solo work, can also, as Scott Rothkopf argues, be read through the logic of desire, though this is a desire thoroughly vetted—even produced—by the machinations of popular culture. See Rothkopf’s essay in exh. cat. Kelley Walker (Le Magasin—Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Grenoble: JRP/Ringier, 2007), 105–125. In addition, for a valuable discussion of Guyton’s work—and, more specifically, working procedures— see Rothkopf’s “Modern Pictures,” in exh. cat. Wade Guyton: Color, Power & Style (Kunstverein in Hamburg: Walther König, 2006), 64–83. Also, see my “Such Uneventful Events: The Work of Wade Guyton,” in exh. cat. Formalism: Modern Art, Today (Kunstverein in Hamburg: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 54–61.

12. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), in Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), 275–292.