New York

David Reed

Max Protetch

No one will be shocked to hear that David Reed is not a minimal painter these days, but he began as one. In the ’70s, he reduced painting to its basic elements: a canvas, a brush, black and white paint, the reach of his arm. The literalism of the late ’60s and ’70s produced some great art, but the blunt assertion of material as material turned out to be not only limited as an aspiration, but impossible.

And complexity is simply more interesting, as Reed has been proving since the early ’80s; his most recent paintings are intricate without being overwrought. One of the finest, #448, 1995–99, is filled by a gorgeous, intensely orange-and-blue mass of forms; in the lower left, a direct, brushy white stroke drifts across a black inset. Often the ground shifts, while the over-painted “figure” remains constant. In #320, 1993–99, the ground deepens from yellow to intense orange in four steps, but the transparent yet deep blue brushstrokes on top remain objectively uniform, changing perceptually in response to the underlying color (qualified still further by an orchid passage on the left).

Things are never quite what they seem. Slickness is the complaint most often registered against Reed; this is in part simply our suspicion of craft, of facility—it’s hard for even those wise to modernist “myths” to divorce awkwardness from authen-ticity. Process seems to be the subject of his paintings, but they are opaque in this sense; I have looked at them more than once with other painters who couldn’t decipher them immediately. Reed experiments with techniques, with cutting and sanding and spraying, but he is interested in the end, not the act—there is no bread-crumb trail to follow here.

The perception of smoothness comes from another source as well: Reed’s canvases reference two-dimensional representations, including painting itself (of course), but also photography and film. They do so not iconically, with images of the screen, but with the look of transparency, Technicolor, or extreme value contrast. There are frequently also long horizontal passages that appear to move from left to right, like a filmstrip held to the light, as in #449, 1998–99. Often people suspect that the paintings are rendered photomechanically, which is only rarely the case.

Reed doesn’t live in the cul-de-sac of postmodernism, despite the fact that some critics have read his work as Pop parody, or neo-Baroque revivalism. What he has in common with painters past (and present) is an interest in the vocabulary of painting: value, hue, flatness, depth, line, and form. What is new about his work is the fact that he addresses these issues at a time when people go to the movies and take photographs, and the habits of perception engendered by these media enter the paintings in a sophisticated way.

David Reed makes that rare thing, adult art—and “adult” not only in its sensual appeal. His career is one of sustained atten-tion, practice, and thought, as well as beauty. As with de Kooning, there is a gen-erosity here, a fullness that younger artists sense and draw on—Fabian Marcaccio, Monique Prieto, Lydia Dona, Ingrid Calame, etc. If you need proof that painting is still worth doing, here it is.

Katy Siegel