Wade Guyton, The Devil’s Hole, 1999, two C-prints mounted on wood, each 29 5⁄8 × 19 1⁄2 × 11 1⁄4".

Wade Guyton, The Devil’s Hole, 1999, two C-prints mounted on wood, each 29 5⁄8 × 19 1⁄2 × 11 1⁄4".

Wade Guyton

Museum Ludwig

Wade Guyton, The Devil’s Hole, 1999, two C-prints mounted on wood, each 29 5⁄8 × 19 1⁄2 × 11 1⁄4".

Curated by Yilmaz Dziewior with Leonie Radine

THE DEVIL’S HOLE is a view into the abyss. The diptych’s two panels depict reddish light transforming layers of rock into the twists and folds of a bodily orifice, before vanishing in the dark of fathomless depths. It is an empty center, a mysterious receptacle for our projections. The hole, a water-filled cave in Tennessee, is not just an attraction for tourists and scientists. It evokes images of a mythical underworld and triggers thoughts of psychoanalysis and Plato. It conjures the expansionist bravado of Land art and suggests an anal variation of the origin fantasies of aesthetic modernism found in the work of Gustave Courbet, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marcel Duchamp. Taken from different angles, the photographs, which date from 1999, hung on the wall side by side and stared at us like two empty eyes. It is a bifurcated point of origin, one that programmatically marks the beginning of Guyton’s artistic practice. From their position at the end of the long central axis of the exhibition space, the two images cast the sequence of rooms as a bottomless maw, as if all the works to follow sprang from this black source.

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2015, ink-jet print on linen, 10' 8“ × 9' 1⁄4”.

Appropriately, visitors to Guyton’s survey at Museum Ludwig, Cologne, curated by Yilmaz Dziewior with Leonie Radine, entered by descending a staircase. From a ledge at the top, they gazed down on a nearly forty-foot-wide sculptural configuration of worktables, dollies, primed canvases, and ink-jet printers, all covered by two long strips of blue carpet and a sequence of shiny metal U’s. The ensemble, created in 2017, at once brings to mind Guyton’s earliest works—the installations recalling the art of Michael Asher, Dan Graham, and Robert Morris, among others—and displays the equipment and materials that constitute his signature approach: digitally printed canvases, which dominated the show. First there were the stripe, hole, and flame paintings; then the X’s and monochrome paintings; and later canvases that extended thirty or fifty feet along the exhibition walls and brought to a head Guyton’s staging of the late-modernist play of painting and object, material support and institutional context. Created around the time of his first midcareer survey, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012, these large-scale works mark a conceptual tightening-up, a kind of idling of meaning production, which Guyton surely could have pursued further over the following years and decades. Instead, he let it push him into an artistic crisis, which spurred him, starting in 2015, to present to the public a wealth of new series in which he enormously expanded the scope of his approach, from the chair-sculpture paintings to the floor paintings all the way to the New York Times screenshots and iPhone paintings of the past few years. No fewer than ninety-four of these new pictures were distributed across the Cologne exhibition, displayed in a way that ensured they were understood not as a break or a new beginning but as an unfolding and multiplication of questions and concerns that informed his early work. Meanwhile, the various side cabinets, corridors, and staircases of the museum cleverly showcased individual series as well as books and posters as independent facets of his artistic practice. The installation was effortlessly integrated with the museum’s architecture so that the conceptual throughlines of Guyton’s work remained apparent. A focused, strictly chronological exhibition within the exhibition of his drawings was especially beautiful.

Guyton devoted himself to painting in the early 2000s, at exactly the moment when Western art history lost those parameters that had hitherto enabled it to maintain a compelling narrative.

The Devil’s Hole and the sculptural installation at the beginning of the exhibition served, however, as reminders that Guyton’s “origins” are not in painting but in conceptual photography and sculpture, traditions that emerged in, and in opposition to, that medium. So how can it be explained that Guyton was so soon afterward able to occupy such a central position in the discourse of painting? Where did this explosion of image production come from? It seems, at any rate, not a coincidence that Guyton devoted himself to painting in the early 2000s, at exactly the moment when Western art history lost those parameters that had hitherto enabled it to maintain a compelling narrative. A historiographic crisis—one that shook to the core the structural premises of advanced art as they had existed since the 1960s—became manifest. Talk of the death of painting played a central role in this drama. For the neo-avant-garde, a rhetoric of “overcoming painting” could not disguise the fact that these practitioners remained reliant on painting as an underground reservoir of power. Indeed, painting came to represent an entire aesthetic and institutional framework—yet this mythologization lost more and more of its credibility in the early 2000s. Digitization served to accelerate this process. The digital’s anachronistic leveling released painting from its historical and philosophical ballast, and the death of painting shrunk into a discrete, art-historical episode, one localizable narrative among many. It is painting’s loss of power that made it possible for Guyton to turn to the format of the picture on canvas. Appropriated emblems of the death of painting—stripes, X’s, the monochrome—are the starting point in his work for an operative system of image production that is designed to be situationally contingent and active across media. Crucially, Guyton does not think in painting but defines painting as a site where various discourses can converge: Painting becomes a “devil’s hole,” a vacuum, a phantasmagoric space that can be strategically filled. Along such lines, Guyton has over the past twenty years established a methodical system, one that in Cologne became for the first time recognizable in its full complexity, where the reciprocal saturation of its constitutive elements is revealed.

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2002, ink-jet print on book page, 11 × 8 1⁄2".

FIRST, GUYTON SYSTEMATICALLY PLUMBS the visual and discursive codes of art history. Countless artists and entire genealogies come into play and are overwritten, critically parsed, and confronted. At first glance, the Cologne exhibition evoked a kind of three-dimensional Google search. We could click on each and every picture and link to deeper levels of meaning: Constructivism, Minimalism, Pop art; the history of artistic media and genres; art’s relationship with architecture, design, and advertising. Guyton’s reengagement with earlier subjects is, however, by no means about postmodern pluralism or ironic distance. On the contrary, each individual motif of a painting is in dialogue with its models and illuminates their discursive framing. Guyton’s works enter into an open exchange of blows, put ideas to the test, and emphatically take sides. (This is why I have never understood why so many people find his art cold.) He achieves this antagonism primarily by limiting his repertoire of forms, which can be interpreted in various ways: An X can, depending on what imagery it stands in relation to, be seen as a source of resonant tension or ceaseless variation, as interference or cancellation, as an anthropomorphic sign or a signature. Guyton’s images also comment on one another and summon new perspectives, depending on how they are hung. Alone, a black painting might call up the legacy of modernist abstraction and ’80s appropriation, but combined with one of the New York Times paintings, it mobilizes an entirely new set of meanings. The horizontal traces of the printhead’s movement suddenly appear endlessly agitated, as if they are failing to keep up with a flood of digital information.

Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2016, ink-jet print on linen, 84 × 69".

Beyond that, Guyton works through various technical possibilities of digital image production. His motifs are based on text and image files, scans, cell-phone snapshots, screenshots, and zoomed-in bitmap files that are mostly reworked in Photoshop. The starting point of his imagery is always what’s closest at hand, the infrastructure of the studio and the artist’s surroundings. The iPhone paintings, for instance, feature a photo of an Apple advertisement, reminding the viewer of the devices on which important steps of image production are carried out. The floor paintings, meanwhile, are made from a snapshot of a canvas emerging from Guyton’s printer—one can make out the artist’s right foot at the bottom edge. The artist is photographed the scene from above, from a standing position, just as he did The Devil’s Hole almost twenty years previously: It is a moment of waiting, staring, judging, surprise.

View of “Wade Guyton: Zwei Dekaden MCMXCIX–MMXIX,” 2019–20. Photo: Simon Vogel.

A further level of Guyton’s system is the organizational structure of his artistic practice. Over time—especially after he moved his studio to its current location on New York’s Bowery in 2009—the logistics of his process have grown increasingly complex, entailing a range of activities including the preparation and stretching of canvases; the production of photographic documentation; the storage, transport, and installation of finished works; library management; and the publication of catalogues and the writing of correspondence. It is not just these individual activities that thus emerge as the subject of pictures, but also the social dynamics associated with them. We see studio assistants gathering in meetings, carrying the pictures, and standing in the kitchen having an after-work tequila. Untitled, 2016, which was prominently placed at the top of the main axis in the Cologne exhibition, is among these images. It is a classic interior scene: In the background, Zach Steinman is preparing a tequila drink; on the left, James Campbell, with his arms folded, is staring at a spot high on the wall, lost in thought; and Jeanette Mundt is caught mid-conversation, her index finger and thumb searching for just the right turn of phrase. Each of the three figures is in his or her own space, and yet they come together as a unit. One might imagine that art exists only for such moments, for a person to encounter themself in others.

Two posters for Wade Guyton’s exhibition “Paintings” at westlondonprojects, London, 2006.

Finally, Guyton self-consciously lets calculated strategies of value production suffuse all aspects of his art and its experience. The standard format of his pictures is roughly equivalent to the proportions of printed currency. At Art Basel in 2014, Guyton consigned to each of the five galleries representing him a monochrome painting based on the same digital file of solid black. What at first glance might have seemed a friendly gesture, a generous effort to give equal treatment to his many dealers and collectors, also raised key questions of value: Which gallery would sell it fastest and to whom? Which of the pictures—which differ courtesy of subtle formal nuances—would prove the most desirable? How would the black canvases be contextualized by the various gallerists? And what were the discursive preconditions for the recalcitrant negativity of the black picture becoming the emblem of a financial transaction? Guyton’s approach in Basel made clear that economic concerns permeate every level of his system. But Guyton’s project is emphatically not about playing aesthetic procedures and their commercialization against each other and tendentiously passing judgment on either as corrupt or idealized. Rather, it makes clear that his system situates the creative act in all possible locations, and that each of those sites comes to bear on the processes of value creation.

View of “Wade Guyton: Zwei Dekaden MCMXCIX–MMXIX,” 2019–20. Walls, from left: Untitled (detail), 2010; Untitled, 2017. Floor: Zeichnungen für ein grosses Bild, 2010. Photo: Simon Vogel.

One crucial point about Guyton’s art is that the individual levels cannot be considered in isolation from one another but are interlinked. The system is nonlinear and performative, with entrances and exits at the ready at every point. The combination in each case determines an individual piece’s aesthetic, institutional, technological, social, and economic effects. When, for instance, a black picture was placed next to one of the floor paintings at the beginning of the Cologne exhibition, completely different conceptions of the image, as well as art-historical lineages, competed against one another: The floor turned perpendicular on the wall effected a phenomenological physicality that vied with the monochrome picture’s aesthetics of presence. But the two exhibition posters in the same room shifted values and meanings. Created to advertise the 2006 show at westlondonprojects where Guyton first presented his X paintings—and presented in Cologne as if they, too, were artworks—these broadsides portray a muscular, hairy male torso; the black pictures, accordingly, came to evince a powerful, posing masculinity, as if they were simulating the booming bass of a gay club. Meanwhile, the X paintings hanging around the corner, with their rhythmically offset arms and legs, were dancing to the beat. At the end of the exhibition, four stacks of finished canvases leaned against the wall. They appeared as they might in the studio, withdrawn and part of an anonymous mode of production: a provisional arrangement in which only the edges of the image remained visible, like the stripes of a bar code.

I began this review at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak in Germany, and my writing was periodically interrupted by emergency plans, reports of catastrophe, and a flood of video conferences. Seeing the world from my home office made me more conscious than ever of the chasm between what is close and what is far away. And in the middle of it all, Guyton sent me, without comment, a snapshot of the view from his studio window, the sky heavy with clouds. He has deployed this motif in many pictures over the past few years; at Museum Ludwig, it appeared, among other places, in a five-panel work commissioned for the museum’s stairwell in 2017 that had been reinstalled for the retrospective: Across the forty-five-foot-long piece, we find multiple images of the skyline, including shots featuring One World Trade Center and Herzog & de Meuron’s apartment building on Leonard Street. In the foreground, a building with dark windows rises up in the images’ lower third, resembling a monumental Guyton installation. The longer I look at that image, the more my eye is drawn to the dark building at its center. It is the windowless, Brutalist Long Lines Building, opened in 1974 for a subsidiary of AT&T, a building that returned to the news in 2016 when it emerged that the structure—first called Project X—was likely being used by the NSA as a covert surveillance hub. The split screen in Guyton’s work divides and doubles the dark edifice: a faceless devil’s hole in which the pictures and data from Guyton’s studio are recorded and surveilled. 

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.

Achim Hochdörfer is director of Museum Brandhorst in Munich.