Terpentin

Worried Neo-Formalism? Wade Guyton at the Kunsthalle Zürich

Stefan Neuner
Kunsthalle Zurich, 28.10.2013

Six monumental canvases form the core of the show. On walking into the rooms on the third floor of the Kunsthalle Zürich, you are face-to-face with a painting that fills the entire twelve-metre width of the wall opposite the entrance.

Stefan Neuner Wade Guyton Kunsthalle Zürich    Fig. 1

Approximately a third of the surface to the left is painted a more or less homogeneous black; the remainder consists of a slightly dirty white primer. In the next room, there is a similar painting. Once again it spans an entire wall and once again it is divided into a smaller black and larger white surface.

Stefan Neuner Wade Guyton Kunsthalle Zürich    Fig. 2

 The latter is a bit dirtier while the former shows a conspicuously irregular outline. In the upper half of the canvas the black surface moves a little further into the white field. While the initial impression of the first painting is a simple division into a smaller black and a larger white plane, we now notice a twofold subdivision, which also applies to the work in the entrance though not quite as explicitly articulated: not only are surfaces of colour placed side by side; there are also two bands, one on top of the other, along an axis that traverses the picture at exactly half the height, seen as a thin white strip in the black field and as a kind of fold in the white field. A similar composition follows in the next room except that, in this case, it is the lower of the two rectangles of the black field that moves farther to the right and not the upper, like the painting in the second room.

Stefan Neuner Wade Guyton Kunsthalle Zürich    Fig. 3

We begin to perceive the pictures as a series of permutations, with juxtaposed black and white fields as a constant. The relative size of the two fields that form the black surface is systematically varied. In the first room, the lower one is just slightly wider than the upper one; in the second room the upper one is clearly wider than a lower one; in the third room, it is the lower one that is wider. In consequence, we anticipate a picture in the next room that will correspond to the variation in the second room. And we are not disappointed.

Stefan Neuner Wade Guyton Kunsthalle Zürich    Fig. 4

However, in the fourth room we come across two paintings of this type that once again fill the entire width of two walls so that the edges of the paintings meet at the corner, clearly foregrounding the reference to architecture in Guyton’s cycle. The structural support of the paintings serves as a kind of procrustean bed: they all show a black field of colour (varying as described above, but always similar in size), adjoining a stretch of white primed canvas the length of which is determined by the dimensions of the respective walls. On completing our tour and returning to the first room, we realize that the artist’s appropriation of the architecture to define the format of the works establishes another level of paired paintings. In addition to canvases that are similar in composition (like the two paintings in room 4 where the black rectangle is larger on top than on the bottom), there are also pairs defined by their dimensions: the canvases on both sides of the walls (strictly speaking, room dividers) between rooms 3 and 4 and between rooms 4 and 1 are identical in format, but not in composition. The result is a chiastic pattern for the cycle as a whole: the paintings form pairs either in terms of format or of composition, but never in terms of both. Thus constants and variations interact in a site-specific cycle of paintings, which attains its coherence and interest through the intelligent use of exceptionally sparse means. The serial logic is revealed on strolling through the rooms and becomes comprehensible only by observing what we actually see.
  But the exhibition does not end there. It starts in fact with the presentation of graphic works on the ground floor. In 15 vitrines, the artist has displayed a large number of works labelled Drawings for Long Images / Zeichnungen für lange Bilder (2013) not only as a body of work but also as preliminary studies for the paintings. However, the relationship between these “sketches” and the “paintings” on the floor above is far from clear. We discover nothing at all that might be considered a conventional, formal study for the composition of the oblong paintings. In addition, the conspicuous design of the table vitrines must carry some kind of conceptual weight since every single one is covered with tiles of bright yellow linoleum. When I concentrate on what I actually see and look at the works displayed on this extravagant ground, things clearly fall into place: Guyton is emphasising the genuine horizontality of his works. The paper is laid out flat. The display cases can be viewed from two sides. And numerous sheets are two-sided. They show a palimpsest of motifs whose orientation takes both vantage points “into account”.

Wade Guyton: Zeichnungen für lange Bilder (2013), Kunsthalle Zürich    Fig. 5

Given this horizontality, the body of drawings inevitably looks like the contents of an office wastebasket spread out on the floor. The material suggests wastepaper, reused for test printouts: pictures and texts (and their combinations) intersect and are piled up in layers. We now come to the crux of the matter. Regardless of whether he’s using paper or canvas, Guyton works with inkjet printers. His reputation as a painter is based on using this piece of office equipment as a paintbrush. Depending on the format, the canvas has to be folded and printed in two stages. This explains the horizontal fold that divides the paintings in the exhibition. And since inkjet printers cannot evenly colour the canvas, it also explains the irregularities, splotches and other stains and distortions that optically invigorate the artist’s “colour field painting”. The “drawings” can be considered “test prints”, in the broadest sense of the term. Even if we look in vain for “band motifs” in the paintings, they do provide an insight into the evolution of form that we would ordinarily expect to find in “sketches”. The works cast light on the artistic procedure that has led to the underlying formal features of the paintings: their unusually wide format as well as the subdivision into horizontal bands. In contrast to conventional print techniques (woodcut, engraving, etching, lithograph), where the maximum dimensions of the print are defined by the platen, with office machines only the width of the print is predetermined while length or height are theoretically unlimited. In fact, it is not all that long ago that printers were still using continuous paper. So while the vertical dimensions of Guyton’s canvases are defined by the multiplication of a given printing width, there is no intrinsic motivation for their horizontal extension. It is, as we have seen, determined by the architecture of the museum. Two parameters thus determine the dimensions of the “long pictures”: production method and exhibition venue. Moreover, the “motif” of black “bands” in different lengths clearly demonstrates the entirely “unpainterly” mode of production. Canvas is traditionally a picture support seen and treated by the painter as a whole, while working on an easel or on the wall of a studio. In contrast, the inkjet printer works the canvas successively, line by line, from left to right and top to bottom.
  Does that say everything? I think so, if I start my study of the exhibition with the cycle of paintings and the criterion of visual comprehendibility established there. The “print overture” then provides essential “information” that deepens my understanding of the canvases. But I also ignore numerous aspects of the “drawings” and their presentation for, under these auspices, they seem to me like “white noise”, which I can effortlessly filter out of the “communication” in the course of my interpretation. For instance, in addition to the fact that the sheets illustrate a certain procedure, I do not think that the materials of both picture and text, upon which Guyton draws, are particularly relevant. Neither do I know what to make of the fact that Guyton has explicitly chosen to present his “drawings” on a background of yellow linoleum. But if we reverse the process and do the obvious, by beginning on the ground floor, these aspects will probably be more significant. At the beginning of our tour we discover two vitrines containing nothing but the yellow linoleum tiles. The point of this building material remains a mystery (apart from the fact that it emphasises the horizontal display of the works) until we consult the press release, where we learn that the floor of the artist’s studio is covered with the same material. That draws attention not only to a procedure but also to a concrete (biographical?) context, additionally confirmed by discovering among the “motifs” of the “graphic works” a printout of the Internet page where Guyton booked his flight to Zürich. In the course of such a tour it is impossible not to be interested in the “iconography” of the graphic works. Superimposed on most of them, which can, as mentioned, be interpreted as test prints, there are monochrome planes of colour (reminiscent of the paintings), as well as images and text from two sources: on one hand, from the World Wide Web (providing a kind of record of Guyton’s Internet navigations), and on the other, from art books and catalogues. Guyton often prints on pages cut out of exhibition catalogues, most of them about modern art history between Manet, Pollock, Lichtenstein and post-painterly abstraction. So this is obviously not simply about the contents of a wastepaper basket. The nonchalant gesture of presenting “remnants of production” is a pose. The artist is not just demonstrating a procedure; he is referencing two factors: one contingent, subjective, biographical, and the other art historical. If I now move on to the galleries upstairs, I have every reason to wonder how the canvases relate to this twofold reference. But the canvases remain opaque, and I remain freighted with a hermeneutic enigma, one that draws attention away from what we can “get out of them” if we concentrate on surface (as described at the outset). To put it differently: the programmatic overture downstairs – because that is undoubtedly what it is about – leads me to anticipate something upstairs that can be ascribed to the genre of a “critical revision of modern art” (the very context in which Guyton’s painting is currently on view at the Biennale in Venice). But what I find there looks to me more like a return to the project of abstraction itself, more like a performance of a specific poetics of “non-figurative” art than a “critical investigation” or “recontextualization” of that poetics.
  As a proponent of that poetics once put it: “Quick, available comprehension is intended for participants in my installations. One should not have to pause over art any longer.” Speaking elsewhere about his installations, Dan Flavin wrote: “The lamp lighting should be recognized and used simply, straightforwardly, speedily or, not. … No time for contemplation, psychology, symbolism, or mystery.” As we all know, Flavin and other artists of his generation transformed the great modernist project of abstraction into a dramatically understated artistic agenda: everything that artworks have say was to be exhausted in what lies on the surface and can be directly experienced or understood. With the advent of the 1970s, this meant, for artists like Flavin, being unsentimentally reconciled to the fact that average viewers hurrying through ever larger exhibition venues will spend at most five to ten minutes looking at a work. There’s always so much more to be seen... Abstraction, liberated from all the (metaphysical, idealistic, expressive, aesthetic, political…) demands of modernism, becomes a kind of decoration that lays no claim to any particular relevance above and beyond a few moments’ entertainment. Guyton’s paintings do so very intelligently. Like Flavin’s best installations, they appear to embrace the hectic conditions of exhibiting, while simultaneously insisting on a compelling density of aesthetic articulation. Without resorting to spectacular imagery, the works successfully capture and arrest straying attention in a viewing process focused exclusively on purely formal relations. I see no reason for not returning to formalism today – should it take place within the framework of a disenchanted approach to artistic practice. However, the exhibition apparatus, as constructed in the Kunsthalle Zürich, makes me wonder whether I can impute such modesty or sobriety to Guyton. Does the referential system associated with the canvases mean that the artist is fully aware of all the objections that could be raised against abstraction and his paintings if one were to take them literally? Does this system imply certain scruples regarding an artistic practice that can be taken literally? Should one call out to Guyton: “No need to fear superficiality”?

Wade Guyton
August 31st – November 10th 2013 at Kunsthalle Zurich,
Catalog: Wade Guyton. Zeichnungen für lange Bilder, Zurich: Kunsthalle, 31.8.–10.2013, Cologne: Walther König, 2013.

Abb. 1
Wade Guyton
Untitled, 2013 (Epson UltraChrome K3 inkjet on linen, 275 x 1220 cm)
Courtesy the artist & Galerie Francesco Pia, Zurich
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Abb. 2
Wade Guyton
Untitled, 2013 (Epson UltraChrome K3 inkjet on linen, 275 x 1220 cm)
Courtesy the artist & Galerie Francesco Pia, Zurich
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Abb. 3
Wade Guyton
Untitled, 2013 (Epson UltraChrome K3 inkjet on linen, 275 x 1485 cm)
Courtesy the artist & Galerie Francesco Pia, Zurich
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Abb. 4
Wade Guyton
Untitled, 2013 (Epson UltraChrome K3 inkjet on linen, 275 x 1485 cm and 275 x 1084 cm)
Courtesy the artist & Galerie Francesco Pia, Zurich
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Abb. 5
Wade Guyton
Drawings for Long Images / Zeichnungen für lange Bilder, 2013 (Epson DURABrite inkjet on paper in 15  display cases on linoleum, each 88 x 341,4 x 82,4 cm), detail
Courtesy the artist & Galerie Francesco Pia, Zurich
Photo: Stefan Neuner

Stefan Neuner is an art historian at NCCR Iconic Criticism, University of Basel/ETH Zurich