New York

David Reed

Max Protetch

No beds, no videos. Here we got David Reed without any of his recent quasi installations. Instead, the six big new abstract paintings served up basics—Reed's slithering painterly gesturalism, complemented by deft variations of format and palette, and the occasional comic grace note. Appearing in the lower right-hand corner of #483, 2001-2002, for instance, is a luscious vermilion brushstroke that bears a distinct resemblance to the old tongue-lapping Rolling Stones logo. The effect: a teasing, impudent sign-off.

Moments like these felt ingratiating, but the show as a whole highlighted what I take to be Reed's default mode, a kind of nervous, compositional trickiness. The paintings were full of coy croppings and erasures, areas where spontaneously painted contours were repeated with mechanical precision (the “live” brushstroke and its zombie doppelgänger). Of course, Reed never lets the labor show—the surfaces are uniformly sleek. Nevertheless, you sense the enormous concealed effort, the sanding and manicuring that leaves these paintings looking so determinedly quirky.

It probably didn't help that Reed's show coincided with solos by Brice Marden and Sue Williams at Matthew Marks Gallery and 303 Gallery, respectively. The result was a triple bill of “squeegee” painters: three eminent artists working in a mode that descends from the sinuous, air hockeyish gestures of late de Kooning. Comparisons were inevitable, and after Marden's spartan assurance and Williams's libidinous brashness, Reed came across looking a little bit like an overtalker.

What is there to be nervous about? The obvious answer, which cleaves Reed fans from skeptics, is that he's a one-trick pony. If you don't like Reed, it's because his paintings seem to deploy a fundamentally generic kind of imagery. Nobody could deny that those paint loops are sexy or that he is spectacularly resourceful at varying them. But the way Reed corrals his gesturalism is seldom as interesting as the whorls themselves, and the very energy of his efforts hints at desperation.

In Reed's favor, all painters should be so lucky to have such problems. The achievement of his gesturalism is no small feat—because it's loaded with affect, with an exhilarating euphoria that is unmistakably its own brand of thrill. Reed's may be the most basic painterliness ever. As much kinetic and tactile as visual, it summons memories of sponging, sudsing, and finger painting, of the primal side-to-side, forward-and-back motions that our hands make moving across a surface.

When Reed individuates this urpainterliness, not just embellishes it with clever formal riffs, the difference is obvious. That happened only once in this show, in the painting #482, 2001–2002, in which Reed's subsidiary motif, parallel color bands, finally wrestled its way toward a kind of parity. The result was a welcome hit of simplicity and freshness, and a painting that reads as a formalist slapfight: Two kinds of motif (geometric and painterly) overlap then reoverlap. It was as if Reed were thematizing his own desire to have it both ways, to be both unruly and calculating, action painter and Minimalist. Was it an accident that #482 also carried a weird echo of Reed's recent extracurricular diversions? The parallel bands suggest video-screen color bars but also, and more improbably, a striped blanket and matching pillowcase. In this painting, Reed really seems to be having it all—humor and gravitas, improvisation and cunning, even the beds and videos.

Alexi Worth