The OS in the title of Wade Guyton’s first big solo museum show stands for operating system. The name seems apt, given that most of the works in this survey, spanning a decade of the artist’s career, were made using computers and printers, both consumer- and professional-grade. Yet it is Untitled Action Sculpture (Chair), a 2001 piece created by unbending and twisting the steel tubing from a Marcel Breuer chair, that provides a clue to Guyton’s modus operandi. Employing a bit of old-fashioned elbow grease, the artist created a wonky freestanding line that forlornly approximates the look of a modernist sculpture.
Guyton’s initial forays into the digital realm likewise took found items as their points of departure. Feeding magazines and art-book pages into a printer, Guyton made a series of often snappy “drawings”: a photo of a young Martin Kippenberger in a plaid shirt overprinted with a Mondrianesque grid of colored bands; repeating lines of a sans-serif letter X superimposed upon a vintage advertisement for a Joseph Beuys exhibition; two more overlapping Xs in yellow, layered atop a view of a modern kitchen, perhaps taken from a shelter mag. When Guyton began to run linen through an Epson printer, he came up with similar combinations of images and graphic overlays wedded by computer. In 2005’s terrific Untitled, he plopped a crisp white circle, reminiscent of John Baldessari, onto an image of tomato plants that appears to be melting, a phantasmagoric effect resulting from the fact that the printer was never designed to be used with fabric.
But the bulk of this show, hung on walls arrayed in parallel rows like storage racks (which the Whitney rather optimistically claims is meant to recall pages from a book or open windows on a computer monitor), consists of printed canvases that eschew representational imagery in favor of horizontal bars or stripes, monochromatic rectangles in black or gray and typographical marksÑmost often Xs again, set in stuttering rows or isolated against a background.
At times, Guyton’s devotion to his tools and to this abstract vocabulary leads to captivating results. The exhibition’s centerpiece, an untitled work from 2008, features stacks of black bars that never quite line up across its expanse of eight white panels, producing an optical buzz. It recalls certain Ellsworth Kelly paintings, such as the Whitney’s own La Combe I, from 1950, based on shadows cast on stairways. However, instead of Kelly’s indexical tracing of the observed world, Guyton’s work only indexes its own making, with imperfections of registration and tone recording the fast and loose overexertions of the printer.
According to a thesis put forth by curator Scott Rothkopf in the exhibition’s labels and catalog, it is this interest in the way contemporary printing technology works—or rather, doesn’t—that constitutes the primary focus of Guyton’s art. Yet this interpretation puts viewers in the curious position of having to regard random glitches in the way the printer lays down ink on linen (or multiple iterations of the same) as somehow important and interesting in and of themselves—compelling them to pretend that the uneven surface incident covering a series of dour ten-foot-tall gray monochromes should somehow equal the effect of the Abstract Expressionist’s brushstroke or the Color Field painter’s diaphanous veils of color. This suggests a fairly grim take on artistic possibility. Because no matter how inventively Guyton gets his machines to misprint simple forms, no matter how elegantly he arrays a group of overprinted book pages in a linoleum-lined vitrine, it’s asking a lot to think of his mechanical, nearly content-free abstractions as anything other than deeply impoverished notions of contemporary art’s potential.
There’s also the problem that many of Guyton’s compositional technical and conceptual strategies feel like slight digital updates on the work of other artists, from André Cadere and Sherrie Levine to Ann Craven and, especially, Christopher Wool. While some of his achievements with his Epson impress in a gee-whiz sort of way (how did he manage to print on a wooden two-by-four?), Guyton comes across less as a great technological innovator than as just another painter searching for something to say in a world of too many images, too much history. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, sometimes in printing a row of Xs, you don’t realize a trenchant critique; you simply get Xs.
—Joseph R. Wolin