MSB brainstorming

04 January 2014

Is David Reed our Caravaggio, or at least Annibale Carracci?

First published February 6, 2007



Yes, we at Sharkforum do lots of artworld politicizing, but have other irons in the fire as well: introduction and discussion of new or underexposed artists, especially painters; discussions of culture in a broader sense; — and much more. In particular, I would like to introduce a series by several of us which is intended to discuss various problems of the post-postmodern painter. I have already begun this with my blog a while back on iconosequentiality, a compositional form. Now I would like to discuss the stroke, painting and "media" awareness. I will do this indirectly by discussing a midcareer retrospective of New York painter David Reed and the catalogue which accompanied it.

David Reed is one of the most significant painters, artists in general, currently working. His position as such is brought to a head in a catalogue on the occasion of a quasi-retrospective exhibition of his works in the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen and the Kunstverein Hannover. His work sums up the moment, yet supplies lively counsel for the future of visual art. The question both the exhibition and the book highlight can be simply framed: “Is David Reed our Caravaggio?”

The title of the catalogue is David Reed: You Look Good in Blue. The subtitle is an allusion to a pop song by the 80s New Wave group Blondie, which Reed’s studio assistants frequently played while working on one series of his works. The lyric phrase from which it is excerpted is completed “it matches your skin.” This is appropriate for Reed’s color-range, which consists of tertiary, quirky, yet rich hues, which feel personally associative yet can be almost inhumanly cool.

Reed’s eccentric colors and formats suggest a mannerist antimodernism; his abstract, painterly integration of the technological image and the hand-made one proposes a new anti-Postmodernism which can be compared to art at the birth of the Baroque. Postmodernism thus far has been an ever-duller period of transition. The shadow of High Modernism hangs over us, much as that of the Renaissance did over the Mannerists. In place of Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, etc., — and most of all Michelangelo, we have the School of Paris, the Action Painters, Pop, the Conceptualists, Minimalists, etc., — and most of all Duchamp. The postmodern artworld is dominated by distended copyists of Duchamp; Mannerists such as Vasari endlessly “sampled” and combined aspects of Michelangelo’s work. As summed up so well by famed art historian Walter Friedlaender, Mannerist art’s traits tended to be stretched proportions, capriciously patterned rhythm, broken symmetry, willful dissonance, unreal and unresolved space, overly fashionable (although not intellectual) theorizing, coldly calculated style, exaggeration of borrowed forms — in short, confused over-refinement. This list can be easily converted by anyone knowledgeable of contemporary art into a description of the various Neo-Styles of Postmodernism. Exaggerated spectacle, capricious “shoddy-chic” structure, unresolved technological borrowings, overly fashionable poststructuralist theorization, and so on. Where Mannerism had great artists such as Rosso Fiorentino, it also included Alessandro Allori “who flooded all Tuscany with his insipid pictures,” as stated by Friedlaender (in Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, originally published in 1925). Substitute the postmodern junk installation, commodity critique, "bad painting," "shitty drawing" or spectacle artist of your choice in that phrase.

However weak, historical Mannerism was not merely a bewildered conjunction between the Renaissance and the Baroque. It was a necessary and meaningful passage, allowing the development of that less bizarre and more natural successor to the Renaissance, the Baroque. Some things simply must be worked through. In this vein, we have required Postmodernism in art and culture at large. Nevertheless, we have dragged out the learning phase far too long, for various commercial and sophistically careerist reasons. Mannerism transmuted into the Baroque by achieving an aggressive purposefulness, a vigorousness that was the reverse of the Renaissance in technique (painterly as opposed to linear), yet similar temperamentally. Artists made Mannerist dissonance more practical, more individual, seemingly natural, less abstruse, more corporeal, more playful. They were able to accept influence without being driven into pastiche. The way was shown by Cigoli, Cerano, the Carracci and most importantly Michelangelo da Caravaggio. These artists believed they were returning to a more classical form, when in fact they were integrating and uniting Mannerist traits into a new whole. Caravaggio gave density back to hue, brought forthright vision back through reference to everyday life, and replaced clutter with dynamic effect. His tools importantly included naturalistic reference and chiaroscuro — that amazing effect of simple light and dark which allowed him to plastically retain distortion by transforming it into theatrical space. The realistic portrayal of a pre-framed, mediated yet real event, the stage. His simple breakthrough was astounding in its implications, empowering such later masters as Rembrandt and Rubens.


This could serve as both an astute parallel to our period and a promising roadmap of where to go. The path is being cleared now by an ever-growing group of painters beginning with Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann and others, but most notably by Reed as shown in this exhibition and catalogue. He has invented several artistic devices that could lead to a much needed post- (anti-?) Postmodernism which incorporates the discoveries of this period into a healthier whole. This will establish the next phase, a parallel of the change to the Baroque, yet decidedly not a neo-Baroque (which would be merely another postmodern Neo-ism).

Reed’s breakthroughs correspond to those of Caravaggio. Reed has the courage to repeatedly refer to “life,” something hardly allowed by theoreticians nowadays. On the other hand, his work is informed by mass media, in his case in the form of Technicolor film, more than by illusionistic rendering. The paintings have an emphatic and iconic use of light and shadow which is highly contrived. It feels correct yet artificial, while being the direct result of the artist’s imaginative use of painterly facture. Reed’s ribbon-like strokes are painterly yet not expressionist. In particular, Reed utilizes the evocative beauty of translucent alkyd or oil glazes, with curlicue marks often sprayed lightly from the side to feign shadow. His integration of mediated reality with haptically achieved effect is a promising guide, not to be copied but to serve as inspiration for similar innovations. Reed amalgamates the conceptual and sensual, naturalizing the quirky antagonisms of Postmodernism into a rebirth of the self-secure impact of Modernism, while turning Modernism on its head by rejecting purism and reductivism. Not least of all, he does this cultural metamorphosis in painting, a medium still under censure by many powerful Postmodernists. Each of the essays in this catalogue addresses in its own fashion an aspect of Reed’s status as the pre-eminent pathfinder out of Postmodernism.

One joy of many recent artists’ catalogues is that they contain several essays, allowing one the pleasure of considering the same works from distinct, even conflicting, viewpoints. This can be a terrible weakness as well. Often catalogues become nothing more than examples of the International Consensus Clique patting themselves and each other on the back for "appreciating" (in all senses) the correct, CC artists, with no actual scholarly criticism, a new form of vanity publication that becomes a vanitas. This is one reason why catalogues have been looked on somewhat askance in the US while being loved in Europe, where criticism is in even a sorrier state than America, as hard as that is to believe.

Nevertheless, this publication is quite good and features 3 essays, each in both German and English. Katy Siegel offers "David Reed: Painting Over Time;" Konrad Bitterli authors "Pictorial Striptease: On David Reed and His Painting No. 467, 2000;" and Stephan Berg contributes "Technicolor Vampires." These three discussions supply a fine opportunity for comparison. Wouldn’t it be exciting to extend this idea and have two or more reviews of the same exhibition or book in an art magazine, where the articles would have the freedom to be even more critical? That would be truly fascinating postmodernist publishing. And — perhaps including essays more critical of the artist in catalogues? It is a shame, but the economics of the funding of such books makes that impossible.

Siegel is a professor of contemporary art history and criticism at Hunter College, City University of New York, and a frequent contributor to Artforum. Bitterli is the curator of the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, one of the co-sponsors of the show. The other sponsor is the Kunstverein Hannover, where the third essayist Berg is the director. This last contributor also co-authored the Forward with Roland Wäspe, the director of the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen.

Publications such as David Reed : You Look Good in Blue are so vital that they beg for a designation other than “catalogue.” They are too small and not scholarly enough to be termed monographs, yet too intellectually stimulating to bear the sales-brochure-like associations of the word catalogue. I propose we find some new word, perhaps like monotract. I beg artworld masters of neologism to please do better than that.

In additional to it’s textual complexity, this catalogue has several visually interesting design traits. Scattered throughout the book are small photos of the paintings “as they live,” that is in situ — where they hang in private homes, offices, galleries or storage. Several sections are on colored background pages in hues derived from Reed’s paintings. The last 13 pages bear images placed end-to-end, much like a filmstrip, stretching edge-to-edge horizontally on this 20 H by 29 L cm catalogue. Additionally, these photos of paintings are often split, continuing on the following page. This section playfully alludes to Reed’s odd, extremely long horizontal stretcher formats and split-screen-like surface divisions. The majority of reproductions in the catalogue, however, are thankfully centered on pages in a traditional way.

The various senses of Siegel’s title "David Reed: Painting Over Time" are explicitly elaborated by the author to succinctly describe Reed’s development. She begins with the painter’s early body-based works and continues to the present, thus delineating a sense of painting as occurring through a lifetime.

Reed’s intention in his first mature works was to make panels bearing clear and direct brushstrokes, each adjoined to another panel of straightforward monochrome color. Upon viewing the completed works, he realized that they achieved the inverse of his objective. The monochrome section looked linear, the strokes seemed colorful, and both appeared to be representations of themselves, due to the elegance of their application. According to Siegel, Reed was astute enough to expand on this surprise. It led him to a provocative “unreality” effect. The artist changed from a brush to a palette knife and from thick opaque paint to translucent glaze, making his fluid marks perversely appear to be “pictures of brushstrokes,” merging the haptic with the iconic. This is both a celebration of the mediated and an intensification of real painterly surface, a discovery with affinity to Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, returning us to the Mannerist/Baroque comparison once again. Siegel, like Berg later, concludes that photography is “the implicit ghost haunting” Reed’s work, that he is using painting to cover time, simulating the frozen instant of mechanical images.

Siegel goes on to describe two fashions in which, in addition to the still camera, Reed’s cinematic desires manifest themselves in his works: his video-painting installations and the long, narrow, horizontal format of many canvases. Some pieces are more than 10 times wider than they are high. The installations are a droll and marvelous way to trick ill-disposed curators into contemplating the dreaded media of painting. Reed digitally inserts a painting of his own into a favorite film scene, such as one from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The same painting then hangs near the monitor playing the video amidst recreated furniture from the shot sequence. The horizontal stretchers are more momentous, though. Through them, Reed forces the viewer to scan the surface in what is called a pan in film . Whereas the Baroque borrowed from the stage, this visual tracking in Reed’s art makes what is “natural” becomes theatrical in our contemporary terms, cinema. Thus this painting locates time within the perceiver.

In conclusion, Siegel points out how Reed’s works are a result of our culture’s continued basis in physical fact, but are saturated with virtuality. She mentions that there are at least three possibilities for visual art now. The first is to use technology to mimic technology (such as Neo-Conceptual commodity works, or photo-copyists). The second is to retreat into oneself or ones medium (examples would be the Neo-Expressionists and the “radical” monochromists). Third, an artist may make traditional art objects which are highly affected by current technology, in which category she places Reed. Siegel has a good point, but her “at least” must be emphasized; several additional possibilities can also quickly be envisioned.

My contention is that however it is done, the best new art such as Reed’s arises from a new multi-medial literacy. One which is already so thoroughly a function of thought, a Denktechnik, that it can be present in any medium and is often most effectively embodied in the so-called traditional media of painting (and the novel for that matter). HOWEVER, rather than practicing an adoration of new media technology and disparaging older ones, the best current art has stopped worshiping or reproaching our tools and begun to use them. It is also critical, even negatively so, of the aspects of popular (or vernacular) culture it addresses — unlike the plethora of bad drawing featuring snatches of half remembered TV culture. The importance of an idea is in its application — the philosophical interaction of the artist with new ways to envision life. Significance can often be better thought through in conditions of self-imposed circumscription, testing and transgressing the boundaries of received deliberation. In this light the “traditional” media of painting is the major league of discourse. It offers slightly more resistance than newer forms to the vagaries of trendiness, a large measure of self-reliance in production, proven philosophical openness, sheer presence, anti-Puritanical sensuality, and a tradition of shedding the skin of tradition itself — confidence in redefinition rather than cultural amnesia and ignorance.

Reed’s paintings supply this, with a surfeit of physical quality as well: beautiful surface, seductive paint handling and composition refinement. All in a quirky, individualistic fashion that can bring one to recall Francesco del Cairo or Lorenzo Lotto, both of whom Reed is very knowledgeable of and loves to discuss. Reed’s work is art about art, but with a connection to tradition, according to Siegel. As she writes, it is possible to both “paint and go to the movies.” Furthermore, one can put these acts together to elucidate life, Reed himself adds in conversation.

I’ve written about Konrad Bitterli’s essays in the past. Although a painting-detractor in the 80s, Bitterli has evolved into a curator who now appreciates the medium, or at least claims to do so. He has a tendency to be too Consensus Conscious in his choices for shows and articles, however his best essays have been published discussions of the painters Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann and Hanspeter Hofmann. His contribution here breaks new ground. He tries nothing short of attempting to resurrect, close-reading and formalist attention to detail for a new, wholly anti-formalist agenda. Much like Reed’s paintings, Bitterli’s gambit, if indeed he is conscious of it, may be baroque-like too. He is outflanking the current proclivity for manneristically quaint theories, jumping back to a neigh-High Modernist form of “paying attention” to the object. Nevertheless, he has clearly learned from the insights of postmodernist theorization how to include a healthy measure of uncertainty in his critical tactic. This is a heady vision of artwriting summed up in an excerpt from Bitterli’s epigraph quoting Dave Hickey: “the efficacy of images must be the cause of criticism, and not its consequence.”

Bitterli’s essay begins with a description of Reed’s studio rooms (painting room, sanding room, viewing room, etc.), which leads into a precise explanation of Reed’s techniques, in particular his subtraction by sanding. That is, first Reed paints freely with alkyd glazes and a palette knife. Due to a dense layer of hard ground primer, the artist is able to have assistants sand off what he doesn’t want, then repaint those areas, again and again. This gives Reed the seemingly incongruous abilities to paint with physical spontaneity, while creating an aloof, glass-like surface.

The article then continues by anchoring the author’s insights in a close, bit-by-bit visual analysis of the work titled simply No. 46 7, the painting also featured on the cover of the book. No.467 and another painting called No. 464 are the two most important and promising works in the show and book. They beg to be the harbingers of the next Baroque. In them, Reed leaves the pastel colors and ribbon-candy marks behind, but still achieves all his goals. No. 467 is one of the most visually dense and rich paintings of Reed’s to date. By analyzing this piece, it’s unfettered strokes, intensely cinematic hues, and dense layering , Bitterli succeeds in conveying his contention that Reed’s work is a “kind of striptease, a simultaneous strip and tease process of both painterly clarification and painterly camouflage: a pleasurable, even erotic approach to painting that is itself extraordinarily sensuous.” Thus the title of the essay is not only an insight in Reed’s art, but serves as an equally good description of Bitterli’s mutated-formalist reading. He strips the painting visually element-by-element, then puts it back together, teasing out multiple meanings by appreciative and sensual attention to the object.

While being wholly in the present tense by concentrating on the singularity of one painting, Bitterli links Reed’s work to history in two senses — the artist’s personal development as a painter and art history in a larger cultural sense. This is important nowadays, when too many people appear to purposefully ignore history in order to be better consumers, yet contrarily also seem unable to concentrate on the necessarily sensual “presentness” of paintings. Reed himself has beautifully stated his awareness of being within living history, at the present, accepting the fact that there is art both before and after his own. We must abandon the desire to do the first or last painting, a permanent mirage of Modernism. At the same time, we need to forsake Postmodernism’s spurious memory-loss. Both have become attempts to aggrandize oneself and avoid one’s horror of influence.

Bitterli’s summary paragraph shows, with his epigraph, where Reed, painting and Bitterli’s criticism are going. “[A]n analytical approach can in no way explain the fascination that radiates from Reed’s work. Formulated as a thesis, this lies in its outright, shameless beauty,... a sensuous-erotic presence of color and form.”

The springboard for Stephan Berg’s discussion "Technicolor Vampires" is Reed’s well-known obsession with Technicolor films of the vampire genre. This popular cultural interest of the artist’s culminated in his 1996 exhibition in Graz, Austria based on the theme of the undead and mirrors. It has implications for the works seen in this catalogue as well. These films are perfect inspiration for deliberating on Reed’s art, with their visually startling protagonists who conversely have no reflections in mirrors and cannot be photographed. It is conceivable that Reed’s pictures themselves have no looking glass images and can only come into your life if invited. Berg sees vampire films as a pivotal metaphor for understanding Reed’s art, “instead of a window on reality ... the idea is born that paintings are the shadows of realities that can never claim for themselves the status of solid, corporeal existence.” Furthermore, the author indicates how much Reed’s hues and long horizontal formats owe to wide-screen cinema. As if to emphasize this in the exhibition, the painter hung a grouping of works from floor to ceiling on one wall, thereby creating a distinctly split-screen effect.


Reed’s Draculaic trope rests in the self-contradicting vitality of painting, that “the reality of a painted image always includes its unreality.” This art form is self-referential and yet oppositely dependent on life as well. However, in addition to Reed’s interest in popular culture, he is in deep discussion with the tradition of his chosen fine-art form. Reed’s paintings are, as discerningly stated by Berg, a “reflection on the painterly contexts of Mannerism, the Baroque, American Abstract Expressionism and Minimal Art.” The painter has discovered a new mode of creating effects of light and shade through the thickness and thinness of paint application. The great cinquecento painter Tintoretto, through late Titian, united the supposed dichotomies of desegno and colore in the painterly (yet not expressionist) stroke, a daring synthesis of linear Roman and haptic Venetian ideals. Correspondingly, we now need such a philosophical approach in contemporary visual art. Reed’s paintings point to a potential transumptive integration of antitheses like mediated and physical experience, semblance and concept, sensuality and intellectuality.

Berg, like Siegel, describes Reed’s painting as haunted by the ghost of photography. If so, he has incorporated its traits far more ingeniously than Gerhard Richter. I feel that Reed is haunted by film more than by photography. Artists now should be bewitched by many things, as Caravaggio was possessed by theatrical stage space. Image-making media can learn from one another and press their own individual boundaries thanks to the differences between them — interaction with difference. Although painter Sean Scully has correctly pointed out that a limiting obsession with the seemingly photographic surface has become all pervasive, we should not abandon allusions to the photo, just not limit our spooks to that — and we must not forget to evaluate and criticize our ghosts as well. The field of ghosts can be expanded to include references to life including any other ways in which we encounter images in life. Reed accomplishes this in both his paintings and video installations. Berg sees this “double constellation of painting and installation” as “the creation of a link between the painting and the site in which it is adequately visible now only because the site is partially undermined.” Visual art is a haunted yet auspicious site, where one can practice sciomancy, divination by shadows. Reed’s images suck on, and are suckled by, other images — yet also life.

To reiterate my introductory question, “Is David Reed our Caravaggio?” Is he an art revolutionary giving us strategies which we can use to recreate a self-assured energy similar to that of Modernism, while oppositely rebelling against and inverting modernist premises? Does he supply indications of ways to deny Postmodernism, while integrating and transuming it? Should we be following his lead as “Reedisti”?

If he is not comparable to Caravaggio, then Reed is our Annibale Carracci. This is also a fine analogy, because it could be stretched to include Lasker and Heilmann as the other two Carracci, Agostino and Lodovico. Together this family of painters pointed toward a forward-looking resolution of Mannerist, anti-Mannerist and Renaissance desires, thus heralding the Baroque — with Annibale leading as the exuberant chief reformer. Indeed, I estimate Reed to be the Caravaggio-like innovator OF THE STROKE we now require, or at least the invigorating reformer most requisite to the moment, and find this clearly evident in this catalogue and exhibition. His "media-stroke" requires additional breakthroughs in other areas to form a complete Caravaggeschi-package — invention in composition, surface, image-formation, subject matter and more. However, these are underway, I believe, in the work of the artists mentioned as well as many other contemporary painters including Kimler, me, Bullock and more.

Hence, let us hail Reed as at least the Caravaggio of out new "media-aware," yet painterly stroke.

The catalogue / book referred to is:

David Reed: You Look Good in Blue
Essays by Katy Siegel, Konrad Bitterli, Stephan Berg and Roland Wäspe
Verlag für moderne Kunst Nurenberg 2001 paper £ 22, € 30, $ 45, Sfr 52.50
88 pp. 56 color illus

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