New York

View of “Wade Guyton OS,” 2012–13. From left: Untitled, 2006; Untitled, 2005; Untitled, 2010; Untitled, 2006; Untitled, 2006.

View of “Wade Guyton OS,” 2012–13. From left: Untitled, 2006; Untitled, 2005; Untitled, 2010; Untitled, 2006; Untitled, 2006.

Wade Guyton

View of “Wade Guyton OS,” 2012–13. From left: Untitled, 2006; Untitled, 2005; Untitled, 2010; Untitled, 2006; Untitled, 2006.

THE LOGIC OF THE MODERN ERA demands revolutions: decisive ruptures that enable sweeping paradigm shifts and the introduction of new ways of seeing. In hindsight, such ruptures can often be seen as the outcome of periods of transition, those interregnums that are not dominated by a prevailing narrative and thus allow for an atmosphere of indeterminacy and openness, in which antithetical motives and genealogies can suddenly and surprisingly be connected with one another. Jasper Johns, for example, was buoyed by such a historical constellation: The speed with which his institutional breakthrough occurred in 1958 is matched only by the difficulty of his historical categorization to this day. His work looks back to one period as it looks forward to another, and it is tied as much to European modernism as it is to Abstract Expressionism, neo-Dada, Minimalism, and Pop. This intermeshing of various sensibilities does not run aground in an eclectic “anything goes”: In fact, nearly the opposite is true. If a dominant paradigm forfeits its position, only then do the inner historical conflicts of a time become visible in their full complexity.

Wade Guyton seems to have caught one of these fortuitous moments. His rise at the turn of the millennium accompanied the first signs of the disintegration of the critical formation of the 1990s. Around that time, artists and critics affiliated with institutional critique suddenly began to reflect on previously taboo realms such as melancholy, formalism, and affect, and the lines of battle between so-called new media and the traditional genres of sculpture and painting came to seem less and less relevant. In Guyton’s work there is a collision of models from different eras: an easy congruence of aspects of Minimalism and Pop, high modernism and commercial design, appropriation art and strategies of institutional critique, preindustrial and postindustrial methods. Moreover, Guyton does not stage the far-reaching digitization of our world as a radical break, as do both technology’s progressive apologists and its conservative critics—a fact perfectly illustrated by the purposeful superimpositions of analog and digital techniques in his works on paper. And even the “paintings” that are fed through an ink-jet printer reject simplified polarizations between the analog as mimetic, embodied, and contemplative and the digital as immaterial, dispersed, and abstract.

Indeed, at least as seen from the outside, Guyton’s career has developed without a hiccup, reconciling diverse positions not only in his production but in his reception as well. He is embedded in a broad network of artist friends, critics, curators, gallerists, and collectors, and a market for his work emerged with impressive speed. He almost instantaneously attained canonical status in universities and art schools, where he is someone against whom students are already beginning to rebel. Accordingly, a considerable burden of expectation fell on his first midcareer survey, curated by Scott Rothkopf at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The occasion raised several questions: How would Guyton’s art-historical elevation affect the prevailing view of this relatively young artist? Would the show live up to such high expectations? Would his work be able to pull off the balancing act between its status as a product desired by collectors and its critical seriousness? An explosive mixture of enthusiasm, envy, skepticism, and sheer anticipation created a palpable tension before the opening. But Guyton and Rothkopf were not distracted by any of this and produced a consummately curated exhibition. There could hardly have been a greater contrast between the art-world buzz surrounding the occasion and the serenity and concentrated intensity of the show itself.

Upon entering, visitors were presented with a 2006 series of pictures featuring the letter U amid raging flames, as if the emptied linguistic vessels were literally being heated up. From the beginning, Guyton seemed to want to make clear that his work renounces the classical oppositions of Minimalist cool and expressionist heat, of Conceptual semiotics and modernist pictoriality. Behind these works lay a system of partitions, as simple as it was varied, which faced the viewer and created an open space that offered different sight lines and routes through the show. Parallel partitions of various sizes were layered behind one another and were reminiscent, as the press text suggests, of the pages of a book as well as of the stacked windows on a computer screen: The idea of interweaving the analog and the digital was thus also made into a leitmotif of the exhibition design.

Examples of Guyton’s early works were represented by pieces including installments from the series “Untitled Action Sculptures,” 2001–, and a particularly beautiful ripped canvas, Untitled, 2004, which hung loosely on one of the temporary walls. Elements within later works, such as the U-shapes, migrated from sculptures to canvases to works on paper, and various series of the already “classic” ink-jet-printed pictures were hung on the long partitions. Two monumental, horizontal-stripe paintings—both Untitled, 2012, and made for the occasion of the show—covered the back wall of the gallery and functioned as a framing device for the entire exhibition. Altogether, the installation established a rhythm of conceptual compression and contrapuntal subplots. Every detail of the show was carefully considered, and yet there was still room for surprising cadences and visual discoveries.

This alternation between series and isolated works circled around the antagonism (so central since early modernism) between the auratic charge generated by the singular presence of the image and its diminution or depletion. Take, for example, Untitled, 2008, a sequence of rectangular canvases that were hung so closely together that it was nearly impossible to differentiate between the external borders of the constituent panels and the broader connecting structure suggested by the horizontal, slightly off-register bars within the pictures. Indeed, closely related works appeared again and again in various settings throughout the space, as if proliferating, troubling the borders between individual pieces: Guyton’s works on paper were in one instance hung traditionally framed on the wall, then encountered as a group in a wooden frame on the ground (Untitled, 2005) or lying next to one another haphazardly in vitrines (Zeichnungen für ein grosses Bild, 2010). Such migrations and reverberations seemed to enact visually the way we encounter images today, with their endless transposition and mobility between different scales and contexts, between screen and world, zoom and thumbnail.

The Whitney’s elegant Brutalist architecture, with its repetitive open-grid concrete ceiling and patterned stone floor, was extremely accommodating to Guyton’s aesthetic and became another kind of frame or echo of the work. It seemed a happy coincidence that Guyton has several times included chairs designed by the museum’s architect, Marcel Breuer, in his exhibitions. Indeed, the snaking metal tubing from a deconstructed Breuer chair in Untitled Action Sculpture (Chair), 2001, was emblematic of the artist’s versatile reception of modernism, which overlays homage and estrangement, elegant functionality and eccentric (dis)placement.

Guyton’s works look as if they follow a simple set of rules. There is a “signature style,” based on a process that recalls, albeit in a different historical moment, Pollock’s drip technique and its dance between chance and control. Guyton enters a set of typographical elements and scanned or found images into a software program such as Photoshop or Word and then merely presses “print”—a winner every time. Yet his method cannot be understood as a gesture of genius akin to a master’s brushstroke, or even as its digital equivalent; its success depends far more on the artist’s conceptual framing. Guyton lays out the anchor points of the artist’s endeavor in such a way that the intentional decisions and accidental effects in each stage of his process become indistinguishable. Unplanned overlaps, machine errors, and physical limitations during the printing process are as important as everything else that gives meaning to the work. Yet this kind of interweaving is more than a nullification of the distinction between the intentional and the contingent. For example, when one sees a blank gap in certain works, it often corresponds to the canvas getting caught or stopped on its way through the printer; Guyton then has to pull at the canvas to keep it going, and that pull is registered as a white space. Guyton thus also “learns” how to adjust or fix certain problems that arise in his process, while remaining leery of allowing such solutions to themselves displace the refutation of authorial gestures in his work.

What sets Guyton’s work apart from the current fascination with the seductive surfaces that the digital realm makes possible is that here technological progress does not become an end in itself, nor does it masquerade as creative freedom. To the contrary, Guyton’s use of digital technology is based on his systematically demanding more from it than it is able to offer. He mistreats his printer, confronts it with commands that go far beyond the limits of its potential, and feeds it information or material that it is unable to process. In this sense, Guyton’s art is fundamentally physical, even expressive: Its inherent conflicts are forced to the outside. Digital code manifests in his canvases in an otherwise unknown form—as moody and unmanageable; as if something were seeping out from these seemingly anonymous signs that one would never have expected there: a subjectivity that has broken free of the subject, and yet is not given over to the machine.

Achim Hochdörfer is a curator at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.