New York

Wade Guyton

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Smart and smart-looking, Wade Guyton’s new prints/paintings, all from 2007, evoke a lot of history while appearing bracingly current—in fact they could only have been made today, with today’s technology. A virtuoso of the ink-jet the way Pollock was a virtuoso of the pour, Guyton made these works on canvas with an Epson printer. A number of contemporary artists have experimented with using computers to make traditional-painting-like objects; essentially giving up the images and image traces that informed earlier work made by the same method, Guyton’s present solution is elementally simple and gives his works a brute power, even while the unraveling of their dark surfaces demands careful visual examination.

Most of these pictures comprise two solid, near-black slabs reaching from top to bottom of the canvas, which is divided vertically by a straight, precariously narrow white line. In modernist fashion so rigorous it could suggest a slavishly self-conscious devotion to Greenbergian rules or could be parody, this visual structure follows precisely from the way the works are made: Each canvas is twice the maximum width Guyton’s printer can handle, so he just folds them and prints each side separately. The white line down the center is the mark of the fold. Each canvas is seven feet high, a scale at which the inked surfaces to either side of the line become imposing architectural masses, like the great adjoining monoliths of Stonehenge. This is how the works come by their immediate visual muscle, which, in this show, Guyton reinforced by covering the gallery floor with black-painted plywood, turning the whole space into a stark black/white shadow play.

There is more illusion in these works, though, more depth in their flatness, than first appears. Trying to imagine how one might cover a seven-foot surface with an even coat of ink, one might think first of a roller, or of the flat bed of the printing press—but that’s not how an ink-jet printer works. A lone, largely white picture in this show was the clue: Being of the same dimensions as the other works, and showing the same central fold, it consisted not of paired black blocks but of narrow, parallel, horizontal black lines on a bare white ground. Besides nodding slyly to Agnes Martin, who made such images by hand—and Guyton’s computerized lines, through their thinness and the canvas’s weave, echo her delicate fusion of geometry and irregularity surprisingly well—this piece hinted that the other works were made the same way: that their dense surfaces are in fact made up of thin repeated lines printed so closely as to appear solid. And in fact even the most opaque of the dark works, looked at carefully, reveals something like a maze of interior line and shape. Nor are any of them identical, or even close to it—they give an initial impression of uniformity, which they rapidly explode.

I suspect that these works are a combination of accident and plan: that some of their variations emerge from the mechanical qualities of the printer—printing lighter as the ink gets low, for example, and then darker when a cartridge is replaced—and others are entirely deliberate. But we are talking about computers, after all, famous for being programmable to spit out the same result every time. One reference here, then, might be Factum I and Factum II of 1957, in which Robert Rauschenberg set out to make the same painting twice, but did not. Rauschenberg in general, in his ample thinking about painting and print, seems to lie in Guyton’s history, while a work in which black is broken up by lines of white may recall the Frank Stella of the late 1950s—but also the television raster and the computer monitor. Guyton is an artist thinking probingly about the history of painting and its place in the contemporary world, and producing deeply satisfying work at the same time.

David Frankel