Monday, January 19, 2009
Lunar Refractions: Repetition and Remains [Part I]
This text, which will appear on 3QD as a four-part post, was begun as a musing on the theme of series and repetitions in modern and contemporary art inspired by a challenge issued by an art historian colleague of mine. This post includes the intro and a consideration of the first of three artists who dealt with this theme.
Repetition and Remains: Three Centuries of Art’s Multiform and Manifold re-
In dealing with serial work in the visual arts, it is nearly impossible to know where to start: while some series have a clear linear progression, be it narrative or strictly formal, others do not, and still others seem to vacillate depending upon how one chooses to delimit any given group of works. I would therefore like to take my cue from Ferdinand de Saussure’s arbitrarity principle and, shifting it from the linguistic realm to the visual realm, begin with three (ostensibly unrelated) works I’m particularly intrigued by. My interest in them stems from the questions each work raises—questions that deal with the very nature of seriality and repetition as it appeared and has proliferated in the visual arts from the late nineteenth century up to the present day.
Simply put, a series may be defined as an evolving sequence consisting of a number of parts. Such a structure invariably implies a progression, movement or narrative—although such ideas seem much stronger in representational work, and decline as one moves through the increasing abstraction of the twentieth century and beyond. Even this most simple definition introduces several problematics: first, quantity—are just two works enough to constitute a series? Or, instead of a pair, is a trio the minimum requirement? And just how does one define a single work? What about diptychs, triptychs, and poliptychs? What about modular works? And if, “synecdochally,” a part reflects the whole, just how is such a relationship best dissected for meaning as it applies to both formal and conceptual content (if the two can even be cleaved from one another)?
In dealing with any number of works, details of interval, spatial and temporal pacing, and succession become relevant. While the most art-historically acceptable perspective might be to view works in chronological order (especially when looking at a time span of over thirteen decades and a geographical span bridging two continents), such a rigid, one-way approach isn’t always the most apt. I’ve therefore chosen to switch the straightforward chronological approach on its head, tracing a line—at times solid, at times dotted or dashed—of visual and conceptual lineage from Wade Guyton (American, 1972–) back to Frank Stella (American, 1934–) and ultimately to Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891).
The principle subject matter is Black, be it as formal color or conceptual nuance and shade: Seurat’s nocturnal scenes and interior theatrical scenes were all done with a highly pared-down use of black Conté crayon on textured paper; Stella’s arrival at a blacked-out, linear composition—imposed atop a more colorful, landscape-inspired composition—was later distilled into the quintessential black (and white) stripes of his Black series; Guyton performs a similar act, adopting a black X with which he cancels out images from art history and then blots out his own “failed” compositions, including many of the X works examined herein, with solid and later striped swaths of black pigment issuing forth from his Epson printer.
The medium varies, but only to a certain extent: Stella paints (and prints on the side); Guyton prints things that in turn become paintings, whereas his printed drawings tie back into Seurat’s curiously linear, sometimes self-negating, nebulous drawings….
All three artists’ historical situations were vastly contrasting, but are united by the degree to which flourishing capitalism, an increased diffusion of images, and methods of mass reproduction affected them all. Despite his radical pointillist paintings and rather unconventional drawings, Seurat nevertheless operated within a fairly traditional studio structure that was starting to change by the time Stella began to work, yet remained intact; Guyton, on the other hand, is informed by his predecessors’ traditions, but is ultimately much freer to twist, destroy, negate, and re-work both primary and found/ready-made imagery. Seurat was surrounded by his colleagues’ work, but also by mass-produced, printed publicity imagery that undoubtedly affected his compositions. Stella was and is surrounded by mass-produced imagery and advertising—not only in print, but on television as well—yet in no way did postwar American culture visually filter into his early work. And Guyton has infinitely greater amounts of mass-produced, instantaneously diffused imagery inundating him each day, some of which literally underlies his printed drawings and paintings.
Finally, each artist’s persona—his neuroses, libido, and desires—is yet another factor to be considered when weighing why and how he creates his own take on any given series. Seurat looked to the world around him, the concert halls and streets he frequented each evening around dusk, with unwavering constancy throughout his brief life. Stella looked within and to the materials themselves as he worked—his brushes, stretchers, and taught canvas surfaces—and then looked outward to both contemporary calamity and ancient influences when titling his work. Guyton is clearly absorbing countless images and ciphers from the world around him, but bucks committal titles for works that could (in some respects) be considered mass-produced yet remain the product of a highly individual vision.
So where does the work of these artists fall in regard to the viewpoints expressed by Calas and Jakobson? The works of all three seem to issue a visual rebuttal to Calas’s idea that “Oneness is killed either by repetition or by fragmentation,” not least because such a claim leads us directly into the classic either/or fallacy: there are more ways to “kill oneness” than through either repetition or fragmentation, if oneness can be “killed” at all. Guyton’s entire X series could be described as the fragmentation of a matrix that is then repeated ad infinitum, with Xs and ×s fragmented into Vs and <s and >s that are then repeated, drawn, printed, over-printed, and printed over and over and over… all of which makes for a highly coherent, unified oeuvre of black-and-white oneness.
And what of Stella’s Black series canvases, with each composition made up of one type of line that fragments the surface, but does so with such regularity (the regularity of the brush’s breadth) as to create a rigorous, incontrovertible whole? If the Black series canvases are in fact fragmented, their divisions are created not by the black and white lines that build them, but rather by our optical connecting of these lines’ unconnected corners. If we follow what Calas says, Stella hasn’t only killed oneness, he’s killed it twice over, by both fragmenting and repeating, all within one individual work and in its constituent series. If you fragment and repeat in a single work, does it then acquire twice the oneness it might otherwise have had?
And Seurat provides us the best refutation of all of Calas’s superficial either/or choice: claiming that “Oneness is killed either by repetition or by fragmentation” is akin to claiming that “Crepuscular light is killed either by nightfall or by daybreak.” Sure, technically speaking, he may have a point (although, if forced to speak in his terms, I’d argue that it’s killed by both). But as we see in Seurat’s unconventional chiaroscuro, sfumato-rich compositions, crepuscular light is indeed defined by the degrees of light and dark—the degrees by which it can be distinguished from the black of night and the white of dawn. Under no circumstances should contradictory alternatives (as suggested by his either/or phrasing) be conflated with contrary alternatives, as the latter still leave vast room for other possibilities: light and dark, black and white, day and night are indeed self-defining contraries, but they invariably lead us to consider the many tints and shades of twilight, dusk, even eclipse-like light—the many nuances of light we see in Seurat’s highly unified series of street drawings.
Appropriately contradicting Calas’s all-negating quote, Roman Jakobson’s assertion that “At all levels of language, the essence of poetic artifice consists in recurrent returns” can be applied to many different aspects of these three artists’ serial practices, and opens several rich lines of investigation. And, unlike the previous quote, it is also virtually impossible to deny, as we will see in more detail looking at an individual work from one of each artists’ series.
In each of these works we will catch a glimpse of art’s multiform, manifold re-. Going beyond mere repetition, this habit that one might term “the re- reflex”—the syndrome that drives artists to redo, revise, recombine, reuse and refuse both their own images and images from countless other sources—has come to permeate artistic practice, and visually reverberates through the fine arts from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century.
Wade Guyton (1972–)
Guyton has completed (and continues to work on) a number of series, involving several modus operandi, including: printing over book pages that already feature an image—often from art history—with other, repeated images (flames, dots) or letter-like forms such as X and U; printing what have been termed “ostensibly monochrome” canvases with a black ink that, as the printer runs out of ink, become interspersed with horizontal white lines; and the untitled series of works I will term his X paintings and sculptures. Whereas the sculptures were crafted one by one and set in a specific place , usually recorded in a photograph , the paintings are actually printed on canvas, with the mishaps that occur each time a canvas is run through the printer creating de facto monotypes of sorts—prints, here called paintings, that are related yet invariably distinct from one another.
Tellingly, a parallel practice to all this is Guyton’s Continuous Project, an endeavor that includes performances, publications, readings and collaborative projects, and whose name references the title of Robert Morris’s published texts. 
Fig. 1. Wade Guyton, Untitled, Epson Ultrachrome inkjet on linen Fig. 2. Wade Guyton, Untitled, Epson Ultrachrome inkjet on linen
84 x 69 in. / 213.4 x 175.3 cm 84 x 69 in / 213.4 x 175.3 cm
Signed and dated “Wade Guyton 2007” on the overlap Signed and dated “Wade Guyton 2007” on the overlap
Image courtesy of Phillips, de Pury & Company New York Image courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
The series of X paintings (fig. 1 and 2) is a rich source of visual fodder for analysis when considering repetition and series in contemporary art, not only for its inherent variability and multifaceted nuance, but also for its ties to art-historical precedents. One piece representative of his broader body of work (fig. 1, Untitled, above left) appeared in the Contemporary Art Evening Sale auction at Philips, de Pury & Company this past November 13. The medium of this X painting is described as “Epson ultrachrome inkjet on linen.”  It is curious also to note that various collections classify these works in different ways: at times they appear in the “painting” category, and at others they fall into the “print” category—the latter running quite contrary to the artist’s conception of the work, based on the straightforward, traditional art-historical and curatorial distinctions founded solely upon the work’s support.  They stem from another series often referred to as “Printer Drawings.” 
Guyton’s work can be viewed as a relative of Frank Stella, Franz Kline, and Ad Reinhardt’s. Indeed, there are two very similar works of Reinhardt’s in MoMA’s permanent collection: both are titled Abstract Painting—the 1957 work is oil on canvas, whereas the 1966 work is gouache on photographic paper—leading the viewer to question what image might have lay below, much like in Guyton’s more explicit, earlier “printer drawings.”
All the X paintings are fractured vertically, as the printer can only accommodate half of Guyton’s chosen canvas width. This results in a diptych-like division of the unity of the pictorial plane. In some compositions we see one sole X, while in others the X is repeated upward of forty or eighty times, often with “echoes” of an X just behind the one in the foreground (if one can speak in such spatial terms with regard to such abstract work—in any case, Guyton’s work does have an element of apparent visual/spatial depth lacking in Stella’s rigorously planar paintings). Furthermore, the fold often appears as a thin line of rupture, a border at which two sides, more or less registered to one another, meet; these vertical, visual slices could also be viewed as descendants of Barnett Newman’s “zips,” which reached their apotheosis in his Oneness series of 1948 , but Guyton seems to be looking elsewhere, and has yet to do a piece using solely the sliver of folded canvas edge.
Beyond the initial vertical fragmentation of the picture plane, there is an additional split in the canvases with one sole X, a division that doesn’t appear in the images with repeated, multiple Xs. In the so-called single-X paintings, given the primary tenet that the canvas must be run through the printer at least twice—one pass for each half, to cover the entire width—it follows that, in order to create a centered (or at least roughly centered) X, Guyton must split the X in two, creating one file for each side, corresponding to each pass through the printer. Thus the X is essentially cleaved into two half-Xs, which can also be read as two horizontally shifted Vs: in short, × becomes > and <. This brings forth another interesting aspect of Guyton’s work, wherein, instead of the letterforms X or U and so forth, we begin to see mathematical signs. These multiplication, greater-than, and less-than signs are repeated and reconfigured, deprived of the traditional mathematical context in which they would be acting upon numbers: here, virtually everything varies—and often does so in a random, chance fashion—but there are no (mathematical) variables.
In reading this work, one invariably looks to the role of X as an illiterate person’s signature, as a stand-in for “anonymous” (i.e. John Singer Sargent’s Madame X), as a cancellation symbol, a negation. And then there’s the commonplace phrase “X marks the spot”—to which one might logically reply, “What spot?” or “The spot of exactly what?”
The role of chance and accident are also key, for they determine the visual outcome of his works much as Sol LeWitt’s parameters determined his process, such that, despite his role as creator, he was virtually freed of having to make any decisions. Furthermore, the act of blocking out others’ work, and then blacking out even his own compositions, is an interesting act of negation. Guyton is, in the end, a self-proclaimed conceptualist, most intrigued by structures that “contain their own internal logic” —thought I might debate such a label in light of the sheer mechanical if not visual chaos that surfaces in many of his compositions, undermining the rigidity of the conceptualists’ beloved systems and structures. And then there’s the issue of citation versus appropriation , whereby the difficulty lies not so much in “saying there’s no such thing as an original image, but knowing full well that it’s not a very original thing to say.”  The differences in resolution between the Xs coming directly from the type in his Microsoft Word program and those that are scans of his own previous printouts (hence a generation or more removed from the crisp digital source—visible in the upper left corner of fig. 3, above) also speak to these shades of meaning, and his exploration of supposed originals, copies, prints, drawings, paintings, scans, and reproductions of all sorts. Finally, the two, mirrored sides of each of his images are again mirrored (albeit as if through a funhouse mirror that mixes everything round), vaguely, by the black-painted plywood floor covering the Petzel gallery’s regular floor. 
In Guyton’s work, his apparent X- and U-forms’ connection to language is broken as well, for he never uses actual, full words, but rather repeats the same letters (or are they now just letter-like forms, devoid of any linguistic significance?)—the only way they might be taken for a language of sorts would be to interpret them as heirs or parallels to the Dadaist sound-poems of Kurt Schwitters.
Reviewing Guyton’s show at Petzel last year in remarkably praiseworthy terms, Holland Cotter nevertheless had the audacity to say that the works “suggest early Frank Stella pinstripes in progress,”  outlining the obvious connection between the two artists while using the very word—pinstripes, so figurative, and so off-the-mark in terms of positive and negative—Stella found so troublesome when people began to whisper it upon first seeing his Black series in the late fifties.
As Johanna Burton seems to imply , the artist’s sheer obsession will be the only thing that can keep this work going: “How does he go on, when every image looks like it will be the last? Driven by no motor other than desire.” But before we become mired in a Freudian discussion of desire, neurosis, and compulsion, let’s have a closer look at his ties to the serial work of Frank Stella.
1. Commenting on Jasper Johns’s Targets in Art News, February 1959, p. 39; cited in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972) p. 35.
2. This is a 1920s quote cited in Tzvetan Todorov, trans. Catherine Porter, Theories of the Symbol, 1977 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 279.
3. Interestingly, they were not cast as multiples.
4. See Rothkopf, Scott, “The New Black,” in Parkett no. 83, 2008, reproductions on pp. 79–80.
5. See Cotter, Suzanne, “Double Negative,” ibid, pp. 92, 94.
6. Phillips, de Pury & Company, New York: catalogue of the Contemporary Art (Part I) sale, Thursday, November 13, 2008, lot 3.
7. See Rothkopf, Scott, “The New Black,” in Parkett no. 83, 2008, p. 75.
8. Burton, Johanna, “Rites of Silence,” in Artforum, Summer 2008, p. 369.
9. See Oneness I, at the Museum of Modern Art.
10. See Cotter, Suzanne, “Double Negative,” in Parkett no. 83, 2008, p. 92 and note 1.
11. See Birnbaum, Daniel, “Pictures Eating Pictures: Notes for Wade Guyton,” in Parkett no. 83, 2008, p. 106.
12. Rothkopf, Scott, “Modern Pictures,” in Wade Guyton, Color, Power & Style (Cologne: Walter König, 2007), p. 74.
13. See exhibition brochure produced for Guyton’s recent show (November 13–December 15, 2007) at Friedrich Petzel Gallery (also visible here).
14. Cotter, Holland, “Wade Guyton,” in The New York Times, December 14, 2007, p. E38.
15. “Rites of Silence,” in Artforum, Summer 2008, p. 373.
Thanks for reading; previous Lunar Refractions can be found here, and you'll find for Part II on the main site on February 16....
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