One of America's Best Painters

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:24

    David Reedis one of America's best painters. Having figured out how to infuse art's mosttraditional practice with an arm-shot of the here and now, Reed's paintingshave updated-in the manner of sea-changers Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol-apractice many thought deader than Latin. A cinephile and pop-culture junkieinspired by computer screens and Miami Vice pastels, Reed has during the pasttwo decades formulated something fundamental. Shinier, brighter and more substantivethan the work of most artists of his or any other recent generation, Reed'sCinemaScope abstractions perch neatly atop America's layered heap of culturalbugaboos: They concern sex without depicting people, observe carefully our growingdependence on technology and the media, and turn out to be about painting asmuch as anything Caravaggio or de Kooning ever did. If art, as Ezra Pound declaredmore than half a century ago, is "news that stays news," David Reedappears to have got a jump on everyone for the look of painting in the nextcentury. This summer,Reed's first retrospective exhibition, originally organized by the Museum ofContemporary Art, San Diego, has come to Long Island City's P.S. 1 ContemporaryArt Center. Last year, as the MOCA San Diego exhibition kicked off its yearlongrun, Reed's parents finally told their friends that their son is an artist.

    "Theythought their friends would picture the cliche of an artist, a guy wearing aberet, with a Chianti bottle under his arm," Reed explains. Instead, whatfriends of the elderly Reeds found as they decamped in vanloads at the San Diegomuseum were voluptuous, polished canvases and clips from a favorite movie.

    The moviewas Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which Reed has incorporated into hiswork by recreating the bedroom sets of the characters played by Kim Novak andJames Stewart and by digitally inserting his paintings into key scenes, whichplay in a continuous loop. The effect is striking, a marriage of celluloid dramaand Cibachrome-crisp hues unspooling in Reed's characteristic reel-like formsthroughout several of P.S. 1's rooms. "We dream in pans, closeups and movingcamera shots," Reed has said, giving rationale for why he thinks paintingshould "reflect our current environment." In an attempt to draw thoseTechnicolor dreams in sharper focus, I had the following conversation with DavidReed in his modest, painting-strewn Broadway loft. When didyou get interested painting, David? Well, Iwas always interested. But as a kid I thought painters were kind of dumb guyswith beards. I had a very smart teacher at Reed named Willard Midgette. He taughtme that you could be smart about painting. I felt drawn to painting. It wasas if I had inside knowledge, it seemed strangely familiar. Then I got a leavefrom Reed College to go to the New York Studio School. I studied there withMilton Resnick and Philip Guston and got a taste of the New York School. What wasyour relationship to Philip Guston?

    I was nolonger a student when Philip did his first group critique, but I was organizingthe library so they let me bring some paintings in. I showed him some landscapesI had done in Oljato, near Monument Valley, the summer before. The trees inthe painting had been influenced by trees in Piero della Francesca's work. SomehowGuston picked up on that. It blew my mind. When he started talking about Piero,he began crying. We became friends. He was living at the school that semester,doing some of his first figurative drawings. It was through our love of Italyand Italian painting that we connected. We'd go see Sergio Leone spaghetti westernson 14th St. It was at a time when he had great doubts about what he was doing.He hadn't painted for two years, had given up abstract painting and was startingfigurative work. It was a great time to know him.

    How didyou relate to some of the art being shown in New York when you first arrived,to Rauschenberg, for example?

    I lovedRauschenberg. He was one of my heroes when I was growing up in San Diego. Thefirst show I saw in New York was a Rauschenberg show at Leo Castelli. Leo cameout and spoke with me. I was an 18-year-old kid with cowboy boots. He was sosweet. He took me into the back room and showed me prints. He sold me a Warholprint for $25. I took Elizabeth Taylor instead of Marilyn, probably a mistake.In those days I hated the white borders around images so I would snip them.Believe it or not, I cut out the white border and threw it away, including Warhol'ssignature. Then I pinned the print to the wall. I still have it, but it's worthless.

    You've talkedabout making painting "relevant to the present." Well, what do youmean by that?

    I hate paintingwhen it's nostalgic, when you look at it and you have comfortable, familiarexperiences with it. I find, for example, that if you hang a painting on a wallin the traditional way, it's very hard to get a new experience. I keep lookingfor other ways to install a painting. I think paintings have to be installednow, not just hung. You give the viewer something a bit unexpected, so theycan have new experiences in relation to the painting.

    One of theinteresting things about your work, though, is that it's not just in the hanging,or the installation, that you reflect the environment. It's also integrallyin the facture, in the making of the work itself. It's there in an amazing wayin terms of process.

    I thinkthese two things feed back and forth between each other. My idea for insertinga painting into Vertigo came from the paintings looking so filmic tobegin with, from their having a surface like film, and something of the structureand content of film. Therefore, it made sense to put them into a film. I'm lookingfor something like breaks in my paintings so that the outside boundaries areless important than some of the internal breaks. I want the painting to seemto extend past the edges and then to have breaks, ruptures or leaks inside thepainting that are more jarring than the outside boundary.

    Well, doyou consider what you are doing installation art? Besides being a painter areyou an installation artist?

    I don'tthink I am. Sometimes I fall into talking about my work that way, but it's amistake. In installation art, you take things from the outside world and bringthem into the museum, into the white cube, into a neutral space.


    Yes, readymades,with the connotations of the outside world. And that's not what I'm doing. InsteadI try to change the white cube or the museum into something else, so that whenI hang my paintings it's not a neutral space but something that engages theviewer in a different way.

    I don'tknow if anyone has ever said this to you, but your paintings have a distinctWindows 97 look, a heavy-duty computer esthetic. But you were doing this beforecomputers became such a generalized phenomenon, before the era of Macs and PCs.

    Yes, thethings I do with structure are very much like what can be done on a computer.I was amazed when I first started working with paint programs. I saw that thekinds of things these programs do were just the kinds of things I'd been doingin the paintings. It was as if they'd been designed for me. But I don't usecomputers to plan my paintings. I keep meaning to get more involved.

    And nowthere are so many young painters using computers. There's Monique Prieto andJeff Elrod, whose work I saw recently. He uses an old paint program and thenblows up the images on canvas.

    Yes, I lovetheir work. I'm very excited by the relationship between painting and media.I think that what makes painting good is that it's a very corrupt and corruptiblemedium. It's very good at absorbing influences from outside itself and pullingthem in. This happens very naturally. Painting is also very good in symbioticrelationships with other forms of thought, like religion. The relationship ofpainting with Christianity is the great symbiotic relationship of all time.You can hardly think of Christianity without thinking of painted images andpainting-matter into spirit. The two became so intertwined that the imageryand the metaphors became very similar and related. Now I think painting canhave just as rich a relationship with the media, with film, photography anddigital technologies.

    Is thereanything left of the Christian referent in your work?

    I thinkvery little.

    What aboutyour use of light?

    I thinklight is a good thing to talk about. The religious light in these Baroque paintingsthat I love is directional. It comes from God, and the figures either go withit or go against it. When you think of the Conversion of St. Paul byCaravaggio, there is this directional light from the sky. God's light is above,beyond the human, that's the main thing about it. Now we have technologicallight, which comes through screens and is not directional, it's homogenous throughthe whole screen, but it also covers all the figures, and the figures move throughthis light. Again the light is coming through from beyond the human. You caneither go with it or go against it. So the light is very different in that it'snot directional, but it has a lot of the same qualities.

    There'sa great story in one of the essays in the catalog to this exhibition that mentionsyour going out to the desert and having something like a near-mystical experience,which you later discover has been informed by film. I find that story hilarious.

    That wasone of the experiences that taught me how much we've all been influenced byfilm and the media, how it's become such a part of our lives and affected usin so many ways that we don't realize it. I had been painting a landscape nearMonument Valley and went into a cave to rest and get out of the sun. The caveseemed familiar and I thought this was due to some deep spiritual connection,thinking that perhaps I had a past life in which I was an Indian. You know,because I loved the landscape there so much. And it wasn't until 10 or 15 yearslater, when I saw a restored version of The Searchers by John Ford, thatI realized that I had seen the cave in the movie, not in a past life.

    You've beenquoted as saying you want to be a "bedroom painter." What do you meanby that? How tied in is this to real sex and sexuality?

    I want thepaintings to be very sexy. When I say that I want to be a bedroom painter, that'sreally what I mean. I often put it in slightly different terms because I don'twant to talk about this directly. I want people to look at the paintings anddecide that they are sexy for themselves.

    Sexy likewhom? Sexy like what?

    Well, takeScottie's Bedroom at P.S. 1. I'd like to think that all that's missingis Kim Novak. With the 10 horizontal paintings hung around the bed, somehowit's the sexiest it's ever looked. There are so many paintings. They're almostlike bodies that have been in the bed, like Scottie's former girlfriends orhis fantasies of women or something like that.

    I neverknew Jimmy Stewart could be such a cad.

    He is inVertigo. I love it that collectors who own my paintings now often hangthem in their bedrooms. When loaned to a show of mine, the paintings go frombedroom to bedroom. I often have the feeling that the painting in Scottie'sbedroom has been a witness to what happened in his bed. When filming Vertigo,Hitchcock couldn't shoot the sexiest scene. Scottie saves Madeleine after shejumps into the bay and rather than taking her home to her husband, he takesher to his apartment and undresses her in his bed. Judy pretends to be in atrance. They wouldn't let Hitchcock film that scene, so he referred to it by swinging the camera by Madeleine's wet clothes drying in the bathroom. Theywouldn't even let him hang up the bra and panties. That's an amazing scene,a very erotic scene. And my painting, I believe, witnessed that scene whichwe weren't allowed to see. Maybe the other paintings at P.S. 1 have witnessedother equally erotic scenes that we haven't seen.

    Would youcare to explain what happened at your opening at the MOCA San Diego?

    I lovedthat. On opening night, a young woman told the guard she was "there forthe performance" and got under the covers in Judy's Bedroom andtook off her clothes. Then a young man came in, dressed in his underpants andgot in with her. The two of them rolled around a bit and snuggled, then startedto make love. Or at least pretended to. At that point the guard came up andsaid they had to leave or he was going to get fired. I missed it all while talkingto friends in another part of the museum. Later, when I was giving my walk-throughtalk at the museum I was talking about the incident and I said, "You know,if it had been me, I would have picked Scottie's Bedroom because it'sa little more private. Judy's Bedroom is so theatrical." And a youngwoman spoke up and said, "That's why I picked it." This was the personwho had done the performance. Her name is Joey Azul. She said she was inspiredby the talk (art critic) Dave Hickey gave earlier in the auditorium. I toldDave and he said, "Then I should have been the one in bed with her."I thought about sending her plane tickets to the opening at the Wexner Centerin Ohio (where the show traveled previously) and here in New York.

    That wouldhave gone over great in Columbus.

    I thoughther performance was a wonderful compliment. It's a shame there are no photographs.I love to tell this story almost as a challenge.

    "DavidReed Paintings: Motion Pictures," through Aug. 29, at P.S. 1 ContemporaryArt Center, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave., Long Island City, 718-784 2084.