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David Reed: Painting Over Time

Published in David Reed: You look good in blue, exhibition catalog, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2001.

Katy Siegel

In the 1970s, David Reed began making paintings with strokes directly brushed wet–into–wet across door–size canvases, measuring about fifty–five inches wide and seventy–six inches high. Each stroke was the length of Reed’s reach from a single standing position. These paintings are quite literal, measuring the dimensions and capabilities of Reed’s body, tracing the touch of his brush and its passage across the canvas. Drips attest to gravity and the fluidity of the oil paint. Like many post–war art works, they appear to aim at an extreme of matter–of–factness.

The combination of paint and body determined the painting, makes the rules and prescribes its dimensions and its look. Frank Stella famously made his black paintings of the late 50s and early to mid–60s so that the interior of the painting sympathized with the exterior. Critic Michael Fried called this “deductive reasoning,” in that one could deduce what a painting would look like simply from the shape and dimensions of the canvas. The interior lines and shapes traced and echoed this larger form. Inverting Stella’s concept, Reed cut his canvas to fit the painting he knew he wanted to make, a painting that not incidentally was itself determined by his body’s physical facts, the length of his arm and brush, and its reach.

These paintings mark real time as much as real space: the brush moves, time passes. But even at this most basic level, something interrupts. Most obviously, these paintings are often put together of several vertical panels, each about eleven inches wide. The seams interrupt the works at about the position that Reed had noticed his earliest abstractions naturally breaking up, their all–over compositions falling apart. He took a gesture that began as an organic habit of his hand, analyzed it, and made it a condition of the painting — turning tendency into necessity. And, as Reed has himself noted, no matter how directly he worked, illusionism crept in: gravity made the wet paint drip, which inevitably created spatial depth.

When Reed saw he couldn’t strictly do what he wanted to do, what he thought he was doing, it liberated him from reality. The works that immediately followed he begins to play with the painting’s materiality, with the relation of the image to its literal conditions. In some works, the stroke begins on one side and ends on the other, making us imagine that the paintings are round somehow, a continuous circle rather than a straight line — an unusual type of three–dimensional illusionism. Then Reed began to play with the stroke itself, nailing brushes together in order to make huge brushstrokes in several paintings of 1980.

The mark is still ìreal,î almost transparent, but so huge that we are forced to look twice, doubting it the second time. In the early 1980s, Reed made a break with the look of the literal or factual in his early work. His new paintings featured brushstrokes not as demonstrations of Reed’s or paint’s physical properties, but as structural elements. These marks were made not with brushes, but palette knives. Experimenting with tools and materials — pigments, mediums — he has developed an extremely sophisticated technique over the past seventeen years or so. But Reed doesn’t really enjoy the experimental process; he cares for the liquidity, the transparency that alkyd and liquin lend the painting’s final look, but not the slipperiness of their feel, unlike de Kooning. Nor do the works themselves speak of process, of their making. Indeed, it can be difficult even for other artists to figure out exactly how he makes his paintings. As many have commented, these marks seem more like pictures of brushstrokes than straightforward brushstrokes themselves.

In works such as #310 and #328 (1992 and 1993), marks modeled with strong value contrast with monochrome marks that emphasize the texture of a brush. Because everything is relative, some of these marks seem to refer to touch and some to vision. Around 1990, Reed discovered that a certain kind of photographic effect had begun to figure much of his work (this was pointed out to him by critics and friends). This similarity to photography pushes his work still closer to vision, and away from touch, even though the resemblance is, in these works, an illusion, as all the marks are equally handmade, made with paint and not photography. Still, if we had no photography these would look much different — it is the implicit ghost haunting these paintings, rather than a real presence.

As with the eleven inch breaks in his early paintings, once Reed had an empirical revelation about his work, he incorporated this knowledge into his process. Reed first consciously, literally used photography in silk–screens he incorporated in two works of 1994–95, #343 and #339. After introducing photographic reproduction into his work, Reed began, in 1994, to introduce his work into film. Reed had previously stated his desire to be a bedroom painter, making paintings that people would want to live with, intimately in their homes, rather than seeing them for a few seconds in a museum. In “Two Bedrooms in San Francisco,” 1994 Reed combined two of his paintings from the early 1990s with Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo.” The same paintings hung above beds in two separate ensembles named for the main characters in the movie, “Judy’s Bedroom,” 1992 and “Scottie’s Bedroom,” 1994. In the corner of the ensembles, a video monitor played bedroom scenes from “Vertigo” into which Reed had digitally inserted the same paintings hanging above the real beds. These works, like the film that inspired them, raise feelings about the nature of representation, and the split between the original, expressive self, and that constructed from the outside, by imitation.

But the most significant filmic effect, the one most endemic and intrinsic to his work, is that of Reed’s very wide, horizontal paintings. His preferred format throughout the 90s, these paintings are too long for our eyes to hold their entire surfaces in simultaneous focus. Rather, we scan them from side to side, our eyes moving across the surface. But equally, the paintings themselves seem to move. Reed describes the effect of movement this way: “When you look at an isolated part of my long horizontal paintings, the other parts, which you see out of the corner of your eye, seem to move, because peripheral vision is especially sensitive to movement, I can reinforce this effect with paint — some areas are blurred like out–of–focus photographs, and others are rendered sharply.”1

The early paintings described the movement of the brush and the hand; in these later pictures, the marks and forms seem to be independent, moving not in smooth, continuous strokes, but in almost digital, disconnected leaps. Our eyes connect the disparate forms, animating them, as in a film.

The story of Reed’s painting career is a process of the artist coming to self–consciousness again and again, becoming aware of what is already present, that which is “natural” or organic, rather than deliberately creating artifice. Expression becomes effect. Looking at a brushstroke painting from the 70s and a painting from the 90s, they are not so different. The earlier work realizes the conditions of body and paint, the physical facts of painting; the later work realizes the visual effect or condition of the first, the effects of the eye moving along a surface, although here, filmically, the painting itself seems to move. Many critics have focused, both positively and negatively, on the sexy, smooth nature of Reed’s work, on semiotic issues concerning the current impossibility of expressive gesture, as well as Reed’s connection to Baroque painting traditions. But the painting’s material, experiential nature — for both painter and viewer — remain their most significant aspect.

In this thumbnail sketch of David Reed’s painting history, you can see certain themes emerge: real and the unreal, self–consciousness, sensuality, distance, the materiality of the body and paint. While his work is unique, he is not the first painter to whom this description could be or has been applied. The most influential American critic of the 20th century, Clement Greenberg, understood the implications of painted materiality in a similar way. Greenberg saw that an art with no concern for “human interest,” one that referred to nothing beyond itself, had the advantage of making every sensation “equally important.”2 Like Cézanne, who (according to critic Maurice Denis) didn’t privilege the human face over an apple, Greenberg saw post–war abstraction as refusing to privilege any one particular area of the canvas.3 Greenberg was describing a kind of abstraction, like that of Pollock, that he associated with the most typical of modern desires — not a mystifying spiritual yearning, but a concrete, materialist passion. He embraced artists like Jackson Pollock who celebrated and engaged the “stuff” of painting itself.

In 1960, historian Leo Steinberg took the subject of Jasper Johns’ Target with Faces as a puzzle.4 Left cold by the painting, but unable to dismiss the importance or hold of the work, Steinberg set out to discover and name the mysterious quality that produced this effect. He decided that it was the displacement of the human face from the main field of the painting, replaced by the abstracted symbol of the target, which, in his words, “implied a totally nonhuman point of view.” He relates this to the “ignoring of the human subject in much abstract art,” stipulating that Johns’ paintings go further, pressing “an implication of absence from a man-made environment.” Steinberg finds the work’s outstanding quality to be “nonhuman,” one of “absence” in both its abstraction and its lack of a coherent viewpoint. Yet Johns is one of his favorite painters, a master he ranks with the great humanist painters of the Renaissance. Johns, like Pollock, and like Cézanne, reflects and resists the conditions of his time, the conditions as Steinberg put it, of a world in which objects — the material world — take precedence.

Thirty years later, are we still living in a culture defined by fact, by materiality, by stuff? Most people would say emphatically “yes.” Is it precisely the same kind of materiality that faced Greenberg and Pollock or Steinberg and Johns? No. Our technology is not only that of the typewriter, the photograph, and mass production, but film and television and the computer screen — one of virtuality as much as physicality. We are surrounded by images of objects as much as objects themselves. Still, now as then, there are several ways for an artist to respond to his or her world.

There are at least three possible reactions to the surfeit of stuff around us, to our industrial lives. Artists can make art that uses those technological means, installation and assemblage art that uses mechanical reproduction and computer art that relies on electronic media. Artists can retreat into themselves, trying to make something more beautiful than what they see around them — an art of escapism. Or artists can make traditional art that in some way takes into account the habits of vision and touch with which industrial culture has imbued our lives. Chuck Close relies on the digital look of mechanical reproduction, a technique which had already been incorporated by Seurat and Lichtenstein. Brice Marden invokes the screen in the seeming virtuality of his images, the not–quite–thereness of his paintings. And while David Reed’s early work refers to the painter’s physicality, and the technology of painting, his later work partakes of the viewer’s physicality, and the technology and experience of film.

All of these artists — Close, Marden, Reed — like Cézanne, Pollock, and Johns, have been both praised and criticized for making art about art rather than life, for making their own worlds which failed to reflect the outside world, for making art that was too coldly factual, and yet somehow also too esoteric. Despite the seemingly avant–garde, experimental nature of their art, all of these artists were and are also throwbacks, proving every day that painting is not dead, that it is possible to paint and live in this world, to paint and go to the movies.


1. David Reed, “Talking Pictures,” in William S. Bartman (ed.), David Reed (Los Angeles: A.R.T. Press, 1990), p 15.

2. Clement Greenberg, “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” [1948], in John O’Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p 224.

3. For a discussion of materiality in relation to Cézanne and Johns cf. Richard Shiff, “Mark, Motif, Materiality: The Cézanne Effect in the Twentieth Century,” in: Felix Baumann, Evelyn Benesch, Walter Feilchenfeldt, and Klaus Schröder (eds.), Cézanne: Finished — Unfinished (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2000) pp 99–123.

4. Steinberg discusses his reaction to Johns in two essays. Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art” [1963]; “Contemporary Art and the Plight of the Public,” in Idem, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1972) pp 17–54, 2–16.