New York

David Reed

The Clocktower

Art now is problematic—silence is not a response. More and more it exists as its own question; it points to itself and asks what, how, and why—but mutely. I thought that questions of good and bad were often beside the point, that even a bad work could be a good specimen (if not good art). Such sociological criticism, if done first, now seems an evasion. A critic is first a critic of an art object and only then a pathologist of culture. He must look, then pick, then argue. So to dismiss making judgments is not radical: nothing is transvalued; one is only deceived. I prefer, of course, to speak of the successful, but often one must proceed negatively. Excuse me these pedestrian thoughts but the following reviews ask for such an explanation.

A reproduction of a single DAVID REED work is sufficient representation of most. The paintings, in one to five panels, are divided into at least two parts: one, a color field; the other, a brushwork ground. The color field is hard and cold: a technical code for the intellect. The gesture ground is the opposite: we think metonymically of the hand and metaphorically of human feeling. I will return to this opposition later; first let me consider the brushwork. If this approach seems catechismal, it is Reed’s catechism, not mine.

Each period teaches its own history. Our literalism has made us all too conscious of brushwork: how the Renaissance suppressed it; how it became autonomous, first as a sign of “feeling” and then of its literal self. (The classic debate is of course Ingres contra Delacroix.) No one need be told how brushwork was “freed.” Once, its liberation seemed painting’s release from representation. But the figure remained residually—in the brush tied to the hand tied to the figure. Though “true” abstraction (say, that of Mondrian) could not exist without the figure’s eradication. Like the individual, one could say, the brush was liberated, only to be liquidated. Abstract Expressionism revived brushwork, so that the “feeling” it emitted was anguish: the brush was the signature of the existential hero. Soon, this too seemed bourgeois. The one way out was to be rid of all anthropomorphic signs—so gesture was the first to go. Johns could still use it for literalism’s sake, but by Stella it had to be purged. It took Pop (specifically Lichtenstein) to stress the obvious: brushwork was a dead letter. Once the sign of the free individual, it was now the sign of the reified individual. Henceforth, it was the mark of humanist nostalgia, fit only for irony, willful banality. Reed paints as if none of this happened. As if brushwork were free, pure. As if it (and we) were innocent. Such forced naïveté is a peril.

Each painting is split: one half is Abstract Expressionist gesture, the other is hard-edge. And all the old “splits” fall out like statues out of storage: Emotion/Intellect . . . Body/Mind . . . all the rigid dualisms of our worn Cartesian tradition.

This only reifies what is already dead. And worse: it debases representation, reduces the complexity of its mediations to a diagram. This is not a “physiology” of painting (it does not make us aware of how we think painting, as Marden does). It is as vacuous as a color-blind test.

Now it may be that the conflict, gesture versus hard-edge or painterly versus linear, is crucial to painting. An essence even. But essences change; the conflict is now not the crux. Perhaps it was 150 years ago; perhaps it was again 30 years ago. Now it is not even academic. Such work only trivializes the achievements of serious precursors and peers.

Hal Foster