A monument to the intersection of image-making and chance, Wade Guyton’s paradigmatic Untitled testifies to the most fundamental development in the artist’s career. Starting in 2006, using no more than linen canvas, an inkjet printer, and the letter 'X', Guyton began crafting compositions at war with both themselves and the inherited tenets of the history of painting. The present work unfolds in planes of ink, bifurcated in halves and printed in sequence, enduring as a record of the struggle between the artist’s linen support and his creative apparatus. Mimicking the expressionistic smears and measured mark-making of Guyton’s forebears in abstraction, Untitled takes random, and often destructive deviations from a mechanical process and recontextualizes them as a generative force, reveling at the border between chaotic disruption and formal triumph.
Both fundamental to the artist’s process and widely misunderstood, the now iconic 'X' motif from this significant period in Guyton’s career was not “really about a cancellation… It was about trying to figure out how to make a mark or how to make a drawing or how to do anything when you were overwhelmed by the history of art” (The artist quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Wade Guyton OS, 2012, p. 19). First exposed to this art historical lineage through “reproductions in books and magazines like Artforum, along with a steady diet of critical literature” (ibid., p. 11), Guyton’s creative exploration has always been a negotiation with a legacy of received tradition, mediated through photographic reproduction. After studying in the Hunter College MFA program under the tutelage of Robert Morris, the artist began his still active exploration of the most base and essential notions of artistic production and originality. Combining the laissez-faire attitude toward authorship pioneered by the artists of the Pictures Generation and an ascetic formal simplicity driven by a disdain for painterly virtuosity, Guyton’s earliest body of work to feature the motif consisted of found imagery from books and advertisements over which the artist carefully drew repeating X’s by hand. Still dissatisfied with his process, Guyton’s conceptual breakthrough occurred when he began to feed these found images into his printer, allowing the artist to overlay the found imagery with predetermined forms, delineated in Blair ITC Medium and executed by his Epson.
Guyton’s process progressed iteratively, growing in both size and ambition in tandem with the width of his printer, culminating in larger, and more conceptually sophisticated, canvases. First printing multiple X’s onto the picture plane, and then large U’s over facsimiles of a burning book cover, Guyton came to what would become his most recognizable imagery, a large X cut down the middle, after extensive experimentation. The artist, feeling stymied by the width of his printer, realized he could print his text file in two parts, folding the canvas to execute the left side and then the right. This act had a twofold effect, increasing the stutters and spurts that animate the artist’s quotidian subject matter, and creating a Barnett Newman-like zip or seam of negative space running vertically down the center of each composition. Taken together, Guyton and the machine itself render works which, in the words of the artist, “are a record of their own making which at times can include accidents in the printing or in the physical act of making them, like when I drag a canvas across a studio floor” (Wade Guyton quoted in Carol Vogel, "Painting, Rebooted," The New York Times, September 27, 2012).
In this sense, Guyton’s paintings are a ledger, written in drips, smears and scattered visual artifacts; each of Guyton’s canvases is a visual manifesto in conflict with itself, raging for and against standardized fonts and seamless printing processes. In the present work, visual information is at once highly legible and completely alien—austere in its economy of form, yet multifarious and rich with visual associations. A familiar symbol, in the vein of Warhol’s silkscreens, Guyton’s 'X' is incomplete, not only cut in half but prematurely halted, an onomatopoetic visual stammer that testifies to the artist’s battle with technology and the foundations of reproduction and visual communication. As the ink travels across the surface of the support, long horizontal lines—where the printer catches the texture of the canvas—coalesce into more painterly drips, echoing the power struggle between technical precision and gesture so essential to the work’s production. If the extended rays of Guyton’s X are thought of as limbs, this anthropomorphic association also reflects the violence endemic to Untitled’s production; language is dismembered and eulogized, both recognizable and robbed of semiotic significance. Describing these works, Scott Rothkopf explains, “their haphazard grandeur owes both to this motif and to Guyton’s constant negotiation between technical failure and mastery, physical accident and control. Without ever touching their printed surfaces, he improbably endows these mechanical pictures with a lived sense of struggle to bring an image from the screen onto the canvas or simply bring an image into being at all…the interaction between the digital and the manual, the pictorial and the literal, have always been at the heart of Guyton’s practice and its deeply rooted connection to the ways in which we haltingly navigate the visual and technological barrage of our time” (Scott Rothkopf in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Wade Guyton OS, 2012, p. 25).
Emblematic of the artist’s key contributions to art history, Untitled is both axiomatic in its interrogation of process, and highly aloof, culminating in a punkish defacement of the institution of abstraction built up over a century of painting. Exhibiting a visual simplicity that belies a conceptual rigor and formal tension borne of Guyton’s struggle with reproductive technology, Untitled touches on and breaks through the boundaries of the standard definition of painting.
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