New York

David Reed, #90, 1975, oil on canvas, 76 × 56". © David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

David Reed, #90, 1975, oil on canvas, 76 × 56". © David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

David Reed

Gagosian | 821 Park Avenue

David Reed, #90, 1975, oil on canvas, 76 × 56". © David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition “Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975” was cocurated by Katy Siegel, an art historian drawn to renovating the reputations of American figures of the 1970s—see her 2006 show “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975”—and Christopher Wool, an old friend of David Reed’s and a painter of considerable note. This particular event reconstructed Reed’s first New York show, held in 1975. At the time of his Knickerbocker debut, the West Coast–born and –bred Reed was twenty-nine, hardly a kid, though there is something endearingly gullible in the painter’s adoption of the dogmas typical of the 1970s, not to speak of the dutiful scholasticism endemic to students at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture. The exhibition’s disarming catalogue—rife with interviews, journal notations, and period shots of paleo-SoHo—evokes many memories of the time. Stills from James Nares’s film Pendulum, 1976, featuring a swinging ball metronomically marking time within a bleak brick alleyway, say it all.

Reed—then a painter of landscapes—was blown away by the East Coast reductivism into which he transformatively stepped. Suddenly he foreswore representation in favor of wet-into-wet black brushstrokes meant to reveal no more than their own material quiddity, thus inclining the work toward the method of Robert Ryman—the artist who most effectively demonstrated that painting need be no more than brushstrokes emptying themselves of paint as they proceeded across a field.

To form the tall paintings on view here, Reed arranged primed supports of varying number—two, three, even four—each beside the next. The seams of the abutments formed ghost verticals, affording, at length, a certain disarming craquelure. Of these rationalist panels, a single narrow one, # 36, 1974, is the exception that proves the rule; it picts, as it were—not depicts—an exploded letter K, arms akimbo, thus ostentatiously differentiating itself from the larger group of paintings. Reed back then had also discovered that a sudden jolt to the canvas both crazed and froze the wet-into-wet gestures, producing an image akin to the icing atop a napoleon—another period trope for him, though one not on view in this show.

Today, I confess, the theoretical basis for all this work strikes me as a bit wearisome. Works that once seemed hermetic and dry now appear wet and emotionally needy, qualities that critics, at the art’s inception, meticulously ignored. Are these horizontal strokes “beautiful” because they answer the day’s theoretical imperatives? Or is it that as the brush deposited its allotment of color it also self-consciously recorded “beautiful” strokes? Dunno. Today, the paintings come across as revenant forms of a different order of meaning.

Siegel and Wool would have us see these paintings within a range of period artists, both notable and underknown. The names of forty-five appear on the accompanying catalogue’s back cover—artists as different from one another as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chris Burden, Lucio Fontana, Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol—with works by many of these additionally appearing within an attractive, inconclusive group addendum on the floor below. But the container has irrecoverably changed even as the contained has aged. Even exercises in conceptual desensitization become, eventually, appeals to our aesthetic sense. So all may be perceived differently, perhaps not so little as Siegel and Wool would have us think, or as much as I may pretend.

Robert Pincus-Witten