Last week, the Whitney Museum unveiled a show named after an operating system, that collection of software and hardware that makes any digital device run. But unlike Android or iOS, Wade Guyton OS is the product of one man: Wade Guyton, a 40-year-old New York artist who uses digital tools to create large-scale paintings.
“The title links Guyton’s art to the tools he uses and the systems by which he works,” explains Scott Rothkopf, the young curator who staged the show. These “tools” are scanners and a massive inkjet plotter. The “system” is Guyton’s intuitive and sometimes irrational process, which includes dragging pieces of linen through his $7,000 printer.
If you’re not familiar with Guyton’s technique, the works on view don’t seem particularly digital. They have more in common with Rothko or even Warhol: One 50-foot-wide canvas stretches across the entire north wall of Marcel Breuer’s 1986 masterpiece, dominated by repeating stripes of green and red. It looks screen-printed. In fact, Guyton created the painting--which is his largest ever--by feeding special linen into his plotter. Because the printer isn’t designed to handle material like linen, it frequently makes mistakes--the printer heads get clogged, the fabric gets jammed in the trough, and ink drips and smears across the surface.
On a rainy morning before the show opened officially, Guyton (whose shaggy hair gives him the air of a Rockaway surfer) introduced the show with a few nonchalant remarks. Guyton has been an unexpected star, after coming to painting fairly late in life. For a time, he worked as a guard at DIA’s former Chelsea space, making paintings from his apartment at night. Now, only a decade later, Guyton is enjoying a midcareer survey at a major museum. He explains that he went "kicking and screaming" through the 12-month curatorial process. "Most of the paintings are dragged across the studio," Guyton explained, "the studio is in the work, and when I show the work in exhibitions, they become connected to that situation. My big worry was that all of these works were being uprooted. But today, the works have found a new context."
On the gallery floor, glass vitrines of smaller works illustrate how Guyton’s process emerged in the late 90s. Working from a small apartment, he didn’t have much space to spread out. He found himself tearing pages from old books on Modern architecture and design, scanning them and using Microsoft Word to make marks. "I was never a doodler. I had never felt a drive to draw," he explained in 2010. Instead, he wold let the software draw for him. "The small Epson printer sitting on my desk could make these marks much more efficiently." He developed a vocabulary of lines and patterns, and in particular, two capitalized letters, "U" and "X," that appear again and again, fractured and smeared.
"X has become a trademark in Guyton’s oeuvre, at once suggesting a rudimentary signature, violent cancellation, and a host of allusions from pornographic films to pop references like The X-Files, Xbox, and the X-Men," explains Rothkopf. His "U" mark manifests as sculpture, too, and is sometimes wreathed by flames. "Simultaneously beckoning and menacing, these fiery paintings record Guyton’s physical process as he and his chosen technologies struggle to bring an image from the screen to the canvas." As Guyton’s career took off in the mid 2000s, he began working at a larger scale, using linen rather than book pages. But his newer paintings still maintain the critical bite of his early work, calling attention to the ways scanners, printers, and software subtly alter our relationship with art.
Guyton is often compared to painters from older generations, like Rothko and Pollock, who challenged the primacy of traditional painting. Warhol is present, too, in Guyton’s mechanical process and his sly subversion of commercial imagery and type. But Guyton pushes further than Warhol ever did, involving the computer and printer as equals in the art-making process. Where Warhol made commercial culture his subject, Guyton is making it his collaborator.
Guyton embraces the machine’s mistakes--a corrupt image file, a jammed printer cartridge--as the things that elevate his paintings from the mundane tools they emerged from. They are “beautiful accidents," explain the Whitney’s curators, "that relate to daily lives now punctuated by misprinted photos and blurred images on our phone and computer screens."