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Wade Guyton [see all titles]
Les presses du réel Contemporary art [see all titles]
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Vincent Pécoil - The American Action Printer (p. 79-82)

Wade Guyton’s art is an art of the double bind: whether he uses printed matter or three-dimensional material, the arrangements of forms and meanings he sets to work seem contradictory. His work unfolds along various antinomies, such as functionalism and decoration, art and industry, original and reproduction. What he calls his Untitled Action Sculptures , (1998 - present), for instance, are based on a series of contradictions between on the one hand, the handmade nature and formless aspect of the pieces, and on the other hand, the rationalist connotation and industrial quality of the original material (in this case, the steel tubular armature of Marcel Breuer chairs, an origin that seems entirely antithetical to the sculpture that results from it). Guyton’s objects have been described as “drawings in space,” and these Action Sculptures are indeed lines that have been transposed into three dimensions, into real space, canceling the drawing / volume dichotomy in the same way the drip in Pollock’s paintings brought together color and line, outline and colored plane. At La Salle de Bains, the black sculpture placed in the courtyard acted as a “drawing” of this kind. The piece was like the three-dimensional expression of one of the motifs Guyton has been re-using in various ways, the shape printed on the image of a sculpture that appears on one of the drawings of Untitled No.1. Guyton’s previous Action Sculptures not only relate to one of the most remarkable formal innovations of Action Painting, they also suspend another type of opposition previously considered irreconcilable: that between functional rationalism and expressivity. Guyton’s dismantling of the chair, because of its abrupt literalness, suggests that what is at stake is not an allegorical “deconstruction” of its meaning but rather, as in his other works, a kind of double bind, a suspension of its signification. Implicitly, the sculpture is based on an odd coupling: Pollock meets Breuer. Similarly, some images included in what he calls his “printer drawings” bring side by side all kinds of random objects: classic modernist sculptures, Constructivist-like drawings, images of dishware or of ornaments, art works inspired by Surrealism or biomorphic abstraction, as well as an installation view of the “Minimal Art” exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum (The Hague, 1968), over which quadrilateral shapes, bands or alternating stripes in black or red ink are printed.
These printer drawings are, in fact, pages from art books–exhibition catalogues, monographs, art fair catalogues...–or from architecture books. These publications go through the same treatment as old books with rare etchings in the hands of unscrupulous antique dealers: their illustrations are torn out. Then, with a standard inkjet printer, Guyton adds geometric shapes to the original plates. These printed overlays do not relate to the illustration in any ostensible way. One drawing, for instance, shows a Suprematist composition superimposed over an abstract biomorphic sculpture. Another shows a perforated rectangle over a Dada poster; in another case, flames crawl over reproductions of paintings, like a montage of Photoshop design elements. Selections of these drawings are then inserted in wood frames with double-sided Plexiglas. At La Salle de Bains, there were three sets of four frames. Thus displayed, the drawings seemed like precious documents that require preservation. At the same time, the way they were distributed in each frame seemed random or disordered, as though some of the drawings had slipped and fallen to the bottom of the frame. By showing the anticipated decay of images preserved like priceless relics, Guyton integrates in its very conception the obsolescence of the work to come.
One effect of these works is to reorient the viewer’s attention from the work itself to a new place, or site, which has long ago become the ultimate destination of art: the book (in a generic sense). Indeed, what unfolds in the exhibition space might be understood as something like a New Design for Showing Books or …Images. In 2003, Guyton created a piece called New Design. The sculpture was based on the armature of Dan Graham’s New Design for Showing Videos (1995). Yet what Guyton’s sculpture was really showing was just the armature, just a wooden structure without glass: something to look at instead of a tool for seeing. One of Minimal art’s ambitions was to reorient the viewer’s attention from the work itself to the physical environment of the gallery. Conceptual art extended this reorientation to the general context of the reception of the work, by attempting, as was the case with Graham’s piece, to raise the consciousness of viewers about their place and their role as spectators. At the same time as they were viewing art (videos) through the glass panels, the viewers inside Graham’s New Design for Showing Videos saw their own reflection, as well as the reflection of other potential viewers, blending in with the image on the monitor. Large enough to encompass the entire reflected silhouette of a viewer, the frames of Guyton’s Untitled No.1, No.2 and No.3 extend Graham’s dialectic a step further. Like formal reminiscences of New Design (2003), the sets of frames act like structures for the display of printed images, except they are placed against the wall rather than in space, as though Graham’s piece had been flattened. Beyond their immediate physical environment, they incorporate a larger cultural context: that other site of art that is the world of the reproduced image. Among the source images on which geometric shapes are printed are a number of images of abstract works: Op art, biomorphic abstraction, Action Painting, hard-edge abstraction, and more. Guyton doesn’t exploit these images in a cynical way, like a repertoire of equivalent signs. On the contrary, by bringing to the same level these various reproductions of abstract or quasi-abstract works, like Duchamp’s Passage from Virgin to Bride, he rather points towards the tendency of art history books to transform abstraction into imagery. Guyton is not exclusively interested in abstraction. The recurrent combination of images of sculptures, paintings and design furniture points to the forced integration of disparate art forms that occurs in the devices of art history, i.e., the book and the museum.
As in Duchamp’s Large Glass, the placement of drawings at different levels within a frame creates a distinction between several “dimensions.” In the same way that the black sculpture in the courtyard could be considered as the three-dimensional reality of the related drawing from Untitled No.1, the drawings placed closest to the top in all three sets of frames suggest an additional dimension of art, a separate realm like the Bride’s Domain in the Large Glass . That domain, like a hypothetical dimension–the 4th or the nth–might be the realm of history, the other space of art, its imaginary site. Untitled No.2 brought together a Stella painting covered with flames, a famous Liberman canvas shown in the “Responsive Eye” exhibition at MoMA and customized here with red and black stripes, some sort of biomorphic abstraction drawing with similar superimposed elements, and a painting by Duchamp. In another frame, one could glimpse Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs stuck between a few abstract modernist sculptures, some baroque-looking drinking glasses and a Constructivist drawing. In Untitled No.3, vintage modern art is juxtaposed with ancient ornamental objects; some pages come from art fair catalogues, underscoring the other final destination of these objects, their circulation as commodities for trade–a finality that was also suggested in the triangular Stella in Untitled No.1, titled Leo Castelli.
The grouping of frames from Untitled No.1 reinforce the analogy between art and design by presenting works of art, for example a painting by Albers covered with stripes, next to images from the decorative arts, like a printed fabric with abstract patterns. The recurring trope of alternate green and red stripes not only acquires in Guyton’s work the function of a “mark” or of a personal style, it also cannot help but recall other famous striped paintings, like Stella’s or Buren’s. Here, however, the trope returns to its printed origin: the striped printed endpaper. The stripes–in the same way as the grids–act as devices blocking out and obliterating the subject, and decorating it too. This juxtaposition of images and abstract patterns recalls the way abstraction, coordinated with other figures, has moved into the realm of graphic design, an evolution Guyton hinted at in the title of his show at the Kunstverein Hamburg and at Friedrich Petzel Gallery: “Color, Power & Style,” an allusion to the title of New Order’s album Power, Corruption & Lies, whose cover, designed by Peter Saville, consists of geometric shapes superimposed over a Fantin-Latour painting. This back and forth movement between figures, decorative abstract patterns and abstract painting is nothing new: the image reproduced on the announcement card of the Salle de Bains show is a detail view of one of the printer drawings featuring a painting by Frank Stella titled Sinjerli II (1967), from a series of works themselves inspired by ornamental patterns of a purely decorative nature, whose reproduction was excerpted from the monograph on Stella written by William Rubin and published by MoMA.
What is specific to Guyton, however, is his situation as an artist in relationship to this issue. In his essay, Rubin noted, that “Stella is one of the first major painters in the modern tradition to have been formed virtually entirely through the practice of abstract art.” (1) A comparable statement could be made for Guyton in terms of Appropriation art: he is one of the first and most important artists of his generation to have been formed through the postmodern practice of appropriation and for whom abstraction has always existed, above all, as a reproduced image. Guyton’s decision to use printed images as his raw material is somewhat natural. But at the same time, this familiarity with the appropriation process is the source of a certain malaise and a kind of recoiling from the practice itself. Appropriation has become common practice. It has itself been appropriated, not only because so many artists continue to use it, but also because the process has been co-opted by other fields: it has become, for instance, an advertising gimmick. Instead of a complacent yielding to this widespread usage of recycling, Guyton’s leveling of images appears like a source of anxiety. (2)
By presenting this kind of flattening and standardization of art through its images, by these incongruous juxtapositions and superimposed layers, Guyton’s art functions like an anamnesis of the avant-garde’s wayward fate (now that it has become an instrument of the cultural industry) and the more general destiny of all works of the modern era: to end up as a photograph. This art can be understood as an apocryphal form of institutional critique whose target would be Malraux’s “imaginary museum.” As the latter once wrote: “For the last hundred years art history [...] has been the history of that which can be photographed.” (3) Guyton’s torn out art book pages, with their overlaid Photoshop-made patterns, are like a demonstration ad absurdum of this declaration. Malraux used to say of black-and-white photography that it brought the photographed objects closer together, draining them of their different colors, materials and dimensions in favor of a common style. Guyton stages the effects of this leveling, accentuating it further by his layering of patterns and images. The imaginary museum’s universal library is an unreal but coherent world, an extension of the world of real, tangible art. The “museum without walls” imposes order with schools, styles and periods. The disorder within Guyton’s frames evokes the frailty of that construction, the weakness of its coherence. Using the same method as in his printer drawings, Guyton also creates prints on canvas, which he calls paintings. Like the drawings, the canvases are filled with images and patterns utilizing an inkjet printer. Guyton provokes a number of “accidents” during printing, by yanking the fabric down or to the side, letting “events” disturb the tranquility of the photographic image. In so doing he inaugurates a new era, that of “action printing,” a two-dimensional correlate of his Action Sculptures . But the action printer’s “existential arena” is no longer the canvas, as Harold Rosenberg described it, (4) but rather the arena without walls of the imaginary museum, the sum of all reproducible images.
The deliberately homemade, imperfect, or even “failed” aspect of the printed drawings and paintings is a singular way of reacting, at an individual level, to a historical situation locked in a permanent one-upmanship of sophistication and an inflation of production; a time when important events (biennials, blockbuster exhibitions, etc.) drag art into a hopeless competition with the powers of entertainment. But the use of inkjet printers is also a symbol of the evolution of the modes of production and the collective organization of labor in contemporary societies. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian art historian and critic Nikolai Tarabukin imagined the move of art and image-making technology from the easel to the machine, from handmade confection to industrial production. In fact, the cultural industry fulfilled this program in the 20th century, a historical irony that resurfaced in Warhol’s Factory when he symbolically diverted the principles of the modern division of labor to his studio and appropriated its formats (film, television, mechanical production...). The evolution proposed by Guyton is no less significant. By using office technology, he integrates at a symbolic level in his work the passage of contemporary economies from industrial production to the service sector. Shifting from the factory to the office, the studio becomes the site where images are organized, digitized and circulated, rather than a site of production.
By reproducing digital images of the printer drawings at almost their original scale, by pretending to replace them in their original context, the present catalogue underscores, if perversely, the affirmation of the book as a space or site of art. The move of these fragments from the museum without walls into the office-studio is not without risk: like the flames threatening Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, the images are devoured by flames like another decorative element. Thus supplemented with hot-rod imagery the works by Stella and Ronald Davis are placed next to a press photograph showing a race riot, thus pointing towards multiple chains of references: to the event itself, to the press’s covering of it, to Warhol, and to Guyton’s artist peer and friend Kelley Walker. Guyton’s imaginary museum in flames is no serene oasis, and the images he exhibits are anxious images, whose status is uncertain, and whose form and placement are more accidental than essential.
As in the drawings, the black and red areas shaped like dots, bands or quadrilaterals sometimes cover the entire image, forming several abstract layers. This affinity for the palimpsest might appear as a concession to the notion of a general equivalence of historical forms. But this is not the case: rather, it is Guyton’s personal way of confronting the specific cultural situation in which abstraction has turned into imagery – its transformation into printed matter. Today, abstract art is always already an image. Any line, dot, or shape is now susceptible to a recalling of a pre-existing abstract work. Guyton is simply using a shortcut: images of sculptures and paintings become the basis of the work. Yet he does not subscribe to the complacent hypothesis of a post-historical moment. His superimpositions are not a gratuitous form of mélange. He does not presuppose, like some of his contemporaries who seek to justify their own practice, that we have entered a post-historical era in which the modernist period has come to an end and artists are liberated from history, free to pick any styles in the historical trash heap and cobble them together... Guyton, who is familiar with the “strategic” approach developed by Yve-Alain Bois (and before him by Hubert Damisch), does not share this perspective of a generalized equivalence of historical forms. (5) In fact, his printer drawings and their placement suggest a significantly different model of the unfolding of history than that proposed by modernist historiography. Rather than the latest revolutionary development, his work can be considered within the framework of a cumulative historical process, an accretion of various movements instead of a succession of revolutions. One could describe it as a cumulative accretion of Pop (a form of realism whose subjects are the products of the cultural industry), Minimal art (with its own Pop borrowings), Conceptual art (a radical synthesis of the previous two) and 1980s Appropriation art, which was itself a convergence of these different practices.
The current economic and cultural environment reifies any intellectual innovation as a style or a brand. In this context of the generalized branding (6) of contemporary life, the appropriation of pre-existing forms has a newfound critical legitimacy. The process of appropriation is not used to force the historical status of a work through a self-justifying quotation (“See how educated I am and how seamlessly I inscribe myself in history and tradition”). Rather, it integrates within artistic practice the state of art in a world where the cultural industry has brought to completion (though in a distorted way) the old avant-garde project of dissolving art in the totalizing sphere of environment-as-art. The “strategy” (in Yve-Alain Bois’s sense) employed by Guyton consists in reaching a kind of stalemate in the sense that his work can no longer be formally co-opted. The game in question is played with several adversaries at once, including the cultural industry, art history and the artist’s own peers. Like many other artists today, Guyton practices a non-reversible form of appropriation, an appropriation that can no longer be appropriated by the realms of advertising, graphic design or interior architecture–until new applications come along.

1. William Rubin, Frank Stella, MoMA, 1970, p. 8.
2. See, in this regard, Johanna Burton’s very interesting statement in Texte zur Kunst (June 2006), p. 186: “…I feel he actually poses the question about this kind of comfort we have today with constantly circulating signs. Less than feeling comfortable, I feel like his work often professes a real anxiety, and doesn’t feel that it actually belongs in the history it invokes at all. There is a kind of disconnection that happens, actually. And in creating disconnections, he allows the particularity of certain kinds of appropriated signs to actually become general (…). You think you know what these signs are, but in fact they are often rendered very mute and very citational, as opposed to referential. They are very much less transparent than works by so many other artists who are just referring to things that seem very obvious and clearly legible. There is an illegibility to some of his work that I find very interesting. A kind of stubbornness that I don’t think has to do with his feeling comfortable, so much as with feeling unsure about his own procedures.”
3. Malraux, Le Musée imaginaire, ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1963, 1965, p 111.
4. Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New, New York, Horizon Press, 1960.
5. The text Guyton decided to reproduce in New York Twice, the catalogue of the exhibition curated by Fabrice Stroun in 2005 for Air de Paris, was “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” by Yve-Alain Bois; Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture; (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1986).
6. See, on this issue, the discussion between Guyton and Kelley Walker in Guyton/Walker, The Failever of Judgement, (Zürich, JRP|Ringier, 2005), p. 45, 47 and 53.