Criticism
Monday, February 6th, 2017

Autonomous Brushwork: Warhol, Wool, Guyton at Nahmad Contemporary


Warhol Wool Guyton at Nahmad Contemporary

November 2, 2016 to January 14, 2017
980 Madison Avenue, between 76 and 77 streets
New York City, nahmadcontemporary.com

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, showing works by Warhol [left] and Wool, courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary. Photographs by Tom Powel Imaging. Andy Warhol Artworks © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © Christopher Wool; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, showing works by Warhol [left] and Wool, courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary. Photographs by Tom Powel Imaging. Andy Warhol Artworks © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © Christopher Wool; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

This small but striking exhibition greeted visitors with a room of large-scale canvases in black and white. Though made by three different artists, they all stretch to nearly the same prodigious dimensions. The overlapping blades of Andy Warhol’s silkscreened Knives find a formal echo in Wade Guyton’s nearby Untitled (2006), a work of inkjet on linen. The slight asymmetry of Guyton’s outsized letter – split down its middle and duplicated on its right upper diagonal – suggests the jerky glitch of a television or film screen. Its apparent subject thus redoubles the photographic means with which it has been printed, and suggests a sort of update of Warhol’s concerns with mass media.

Across the room, one of Warhol’s “Rorschach” paintings imitates the legendary “inkblot” test developed by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach –evidently some of the only imagery for which the artist developed his own painting, rather than repurposing photographs. Like Warhol’s Rorschach, the silkscreened ink splatter of Christopher Wool’s Minor Mishap (Black) (2001) conjures up the death – or perhaps the afterlife – of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, much of Wool’s mature work has gone on to address such questions. The silk-screened reproduction of painted, gestural brushstrokes raises questions about autonomy and authority in painting – questions which Warhol’s work unleashed with a vengeance. In its chromatic austerity, this room obliged viewers to concentrate on formal rhymes and contrasts, many of which reward patient looking.

Individual canvases could also bear their own mysteries. In Warhol’s series of silkscreened crosses, a few of the white forms bleed into each other – exceptions that instigate attention to the rule of their order. Near the middle of the canvas one finds the faintest line, traced in such a way – however unwittingly – to suggest a horizon, which contravenes the relentless flatness of the painting. The formal details of Wool’s paintings frequently come in the form of the pixels of which they are composed, again suggesting an update of Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots for the virtual age.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, showing works (left to right) by Wool, Guyton and Warhol,  courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary. Photographs by Tom Powel Imaging. Andy Warhol Artworks © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © Christopher Wool; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. © Wade Guyton; Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York.

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, showing works (left to right) by Wool, Guyton and Warhol, courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary. Photographs by Tom Powel Imaging. Andy Warhol Artworks © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © Christopher Wool; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. © Wade Guyton; Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York.

The exhibition’s second room bursts into color. From the slightly ribbed surface of Guyton’s untitled fireplace white dots seem almost to rise like ash or sparks from the proverbial fire, while red “paint” appears smeared upwards in one area. A more dramatic smearing appears in Wool’s Double Blue Nose (2003), which almost suggests an erased Brice Marden painting – evoking once again the fate of abstraction, this time by way of Rauschenberg’s erasure of De Kooning’s drawing. The slightly earlier Untitled (2001) appears looser in the skeins and loops of its red lines. Not all of the works here are painterly. The primary colors of Guyton’s wayward X’s (the red letter shadowed by a black counterpart) bring to mind Mondrian’s neoplasticism. Once again, the repetition of the two, seemingly identical blue X’s makes technological reproduction unavoidable as a point of reference. Based on a shadow photographed in his office, Warhol called his Shadow paintings silkscreens “that I mop over with paint.” A close view of the canvases reveals the almost impasto swirls of giant brushstrokes. Nearly all of the spontaneous, “autonomous” brushwork in this exhibition appears in reified form, in the abeyance of photographic or scanned reproduction. But the eddy of Warhol’s (or an assistant’s, however the case was) brush betrays – just on the eve of the 1980s – a renewed investment in the hand’s trace.


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  • Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

    Andy Warhol was an illustrator. Illustrators make work that is destined to be reproduced in print, on an uninflected ground, white paper. Painting in contrast can and traditionally always does involve a specific ground, inflected and defined in a certain way. Warhol’s first show (1956) may have been seen to be campy, in the terms defined by Susan Sontag, but was not as far as I know thought of as such because of its relationship to painting. This would happen once he made paintings that used the techniques he’d developed in his commercial work. For some, the three artists in this show among them, since and because of works like the Elvis silk-screen painting (1963,) together with the work of Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein, painting has aspired to the condition of the printed, and most particularly the photographic in a variety of manifestations. Clement Greenberg followed Hegel and Kant in seeking to think about painting through what it specifically was and could do, now it is pursued through what it specifically is not, and what that allows it to do. Mejian compares Wool’s use of the image of the pixel with Lichtenstein’s of the Ben-Day dot. Guyton seems to me to be slightly different from the other two in that his work feels born of the computer and the television screen rather than the older print technologies. I think this worth noting because one is always in danger of explaining away the most recent technological affect by way of its predecessors.
    Joe Masheck, in a corrective monograph about Adolf Loos that only he could write, quotes Don Judd lamenting the substitution of allusion for affect in postmodernism and saying, in 1984, that “Everything is to be read, nothing is to be appreciated.” That is a long time ago now, and 1963 is nineteen years earlier. That being so I am not sure what Ara H. Mejian means when he describes this show as “striking” in his first sentence. The black and white paintings faintly recall Franz Kline’s because of their size (in addition to being black and white,) and perhaps that is an allusion that was on Andy’s mind when, as the gallery notes tell us, he turned to abstract painting in his last few years. None of us will miss the reminder that Kline made those paintings with the help of an overhead projector. I’m not sure that rises to the level of ‘striking,’ though. The show makes use of the idea of an ‘autonomous’ brushstroke, but what is meant by that is one that’s made by a machine rather than by hand. There’s nothing less autonomous than a machine, human design being at its source and what defines it and its purpose. The word ‘autonomy’ is used to separate the impassivity of Andy’s and his descendants’ surfaces from the impassioned (as the myth has it) brushwork of (some of) the New York School painters, an allusion to the received and bowdlerized version of Greenberg’s use of the term to which we have become as habituated as we have to silk-screen and the photographic as constituents of paintings. Regarding the latter techniques and the approach to (and critique of) painting which they are said to embody, what was striking in 1963 can’t really be striking in the same way fifty or more years later, either as a thought (gesture) or a phenomenal event. This is why I wonder what it means here. What strikes me is that fifty years is a long time for an aspiration to remain fashionable. By all means the market has something to do with it, as does the sloth and vulgar ambition of intellectuals. ‘Stuck’ seems a more appropriate word than ‘struck’.

    1. See my “What Does Tom Mitchell Want?” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 2015), which is a review of W.J.T. Mitchell’s Image Science: Iconology, Visual Culture, and Media Aesthetics (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2015.)

    2. Joseph Masheck, Adolf Loos, The Art of Architecture (London and New York: Taurus, 2013) p.253.