Richard Artschwager and Wade Guyton at the Whitney Museum
Like Guyton, Artschwager subverts the utiliarian objects of capitalism
Wade Guyton is a young contemporary artist. He is most known for his works which use a large-format printer to create painting-like works on canvas. Guyton creates abstract designs on the computer and drags the canvas through the printer, which not only transmits the image onto the canvas, but also allows the jamming of the canvas in the machine to create aberrations and gestures in the canvas itself. These paintings, which are displayed magnificently at the Whitney, are compelling in their silent minimalist beauty. Their display side-by-side, which shows several nearly identical paintings with only minute differences, calls to mind the stark yet emotive grid-based painting of Agnes Martin. But Guyton’s irresistible formula of machine plus man doesn’t work as well in the sculptural work in the show. His series of U Sculptures—U-shaped floor pieces manufactured in stainless steel— simply has less at stake. Like his Untitled Action Sculpture (2005), a piece in which Guyton twisted a found chair by modernist designer Marcel Breuer, the U Sculptures only vaguely allude to the history of modernism, a history which the canvas works confront head-on.
Guyton’s relative youth—it is rare to have a retrospective at 40 years—begs the question of what he will do next. Perhaps a model of a sustained and energetic career can be found in Artschwager’s retrospective upstairs. Throughout this exhibition we see how Artschwager, over the course of his now almost 60-year-long career, explored a variety of material approaches and subject matter while consistently questioning a particular aspect of reality. Artschwager made a great deal of both sculpture and painting. Working most notably with wood and formica in his sculpture and grisaille on a patterned plastic support in his painting, Artschwager took banal, everyday subject matter and transformed it through representation. In his sculptures, utilitarian objects like pianos and tables lose their function. Their surfaces collapse in on themselves, the forms becoming cartoon-like and simplified. Similarly, Artschwager’s paintings are representations of everyday imagery, mostly of people, taken from photographs. Yet Artschwager’s signature technique of grisaille on Celotex (the patterned plastic support) renders this familiar subject matter uncanny. In the Destruction series (1972), perhaps one of the best works in this retrospective, Artschwager rendered newspaper photographs of the demolition of an Atlantic City hotel on Celotex. The resulting image is at once compelling and confusing—the clouds of smoke and debris coming from the hotel look strangely solid, like a natural force in their own right.
Guyton and Artschwager, in their very different approaches, are both dealing with representing a world in which the new natural is the technological. Obviously Guyton directly subverts the use of the ubiquitous modern office tool—the printer. But Artschwager, while working with a process more traditionally bound within the techniques of sculpture or painting, is also representing the products of modern society. In his work, the utilitarian piece of furniture becomes a profound abstraction. Like Guyton, Artschwager subverts the utilitarian objects of capitalism and turns them into aesthetic machines; the effect is jarring. While borrowing from the vocabulary of Pop, Artschwager’s work stands alone in its weirdness—a weirdness that reflects the conditions of modern life.
Despite the simultaneity of these two retrospectives at the Whitney, there is no certainty with which we can predict that Guyton’s career will ultimately have the same heft as Artschwager’s. Some may claim that his achievement with the printed canvases is enough to cement his place in art history, but I believe that Guyton must do more than this to make a real contribution. The printed canvases are a conceptually tight and visually beautiful move in an endgame, but Guyton would not suffer by bringing more individuality into his future work.