David Reed: The Painter and Late Style, by Michael Brennan

David Reed is a grandmaster — no painter has contributed as much in terms of expanding the vocabulary of abstract painting and maintaining its relevance during this era of marginalization, although there are many in New York who currently enjoy greater status. With a rare combination of technical virtuosity, historical ambition, and genuine image innovation Reed’s work is advancing in a world that’s dissolving into total digital delusion. No other post-modern painter has developed an oeuvre this rich in the last 30 year period.

Reed’s recent show at Max Protetch picked up where the last one left off, but, surprisingly, there was a detectable fracture within his continuum that perhaps foreshadows some future break. The exhibition included five large abstract paintings along with some corresponding works on paper that revealed the artist’s working process in great detail. All of the qualities one associates with Reed’s paintings are still firmly in place—the scalloped rotary gestures with their shifting velocities, the implied cinematic scale, and his rhapsodic use of color at full bleed. When looking at any of Reed’s horizontal paintings, such as #517 or #477-2, one can almost hear the Niagara heavy voice of some fifties-era narrator theatrically boom “THIS…IS CINERAMA!”

Unfortunately, the rapturous spell is broken at times by some of Reed’s more niggling tendencies—his endless retouching, the harsh recutting of contours, or the visual blight of wayward sandpaper grain. In some way these incidental glitches add to the paintings’ mystique of customized handicraft, but more often than not they just interrupt the surface polish and overall flow of the image.

There’s much to be said, however, for the stunning mechanics of these paintings. In Reed’s vertical #516 one can enjoy his deft polyphonic fusion of purples and pinks that weave, cleave and hover over a reverberating chord of yellow and orange underpainting. His complex chromaticism becomes compounded as the banded colors drop in temperature from warm to cool, no achromatic blacks or grays were applied this time. Reed is essentially a color glazier who dramatically laminates the split spectrum to both harmonious and dissonant effect. His process results in paintings of unparalleled visual splendor that have often been labeled “decadent” because of their spectacular flourish. These paintings are undeniably, perhaps suspiciously, seductive, but in terms of today’s wider culture Reed is competing for attention in a world that’s been blindsided with such wild technological opiates as The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX.

Frank Stella once famously railed against the anemia of modern painting in his Working Space lectures (1983-4), insisting on the necessity of reincorporating Baroque/Caravaggesque type complexities:

After Mondrian abstraction stands at peril. It needs to create for itself a new kind of pictorality, one that is just as potent as the pictorality that began to develop in Italy during the sixteenth century. The problem is not the overwhelming ambitiousness of the undertaking, but the difficulty that abstraction has today of relating to the past—for example, in extending its roots beyond Cubism.

At long last, hasn’t Reed responded in a manner that Stella’s own scrap metal sculpture can never hope to fulfill? Only within the microcosm of abstract painting itself, where one pole is dominated by the extreme reductiveness of the so-called “Radical” painters and the other is exhausted by the sheer scope of Gerhard Richter’s all encompassing photo-expressionism could Reed be seen as decadent.

Reed is really a special case. His work’s overt sensuality reaches towards the engagement of a broader audience. If David Reed hadn’t digitally inserted one of his paintings into Scottie’s (James Stewart) bedroom in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, if he hadn’t broached that virtual realm, we would then really have to take George Lucas’s claims to being a “true painter” seriously?

Critics who earlier may have mistaken Reed’s project as some kind of reinvestment in Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-cartoon brushstrokes, or more bizarrely targeted him for his compulsive chronology, have been proven short-sighted. They failed to grasp the breadth and potential of Reed’s program. How many abstract painters have even tried to engage popular culture at any level? How many painters have successfully addressed the inescapable impact of film and more recent domination of digital media? The necessity of Reed’s contribution should not be underestimated, nor should the excesses of his painterly effect be denigrated. In short, Reed defined and refined a whole new set of possibilities for abstract painting that extend well beyond an endgame strategy. The artist himself once stated “I don’t want to be the first painter and I don’t want to be the last.”

#517 is a large, horizontal painting defined by 3 bubbles, or subsets, that each encapsulate a loose, lyrical green line that is at once both dislocated and locked in place. There is a tension here within the gesture that goes beyond the striking red/green color contrast and seems to embody the subversive desire to disrupt the careful synthesis that the artist has so carefully and painstakingly achieved. It’s almost as if that serpentine gesture, in its struggle to set loose, may be the herald of an emerging late style within Reed’s painting itself.

In his unpublished essay “Thoughts on Late Style”, the late Edward Said outlined several, mostly intransigent, qualities that often define an artists’ late work. Adorno defined a similarly difficult and contradictory event when analyzing Beethoven’s final string quartets:

The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art. Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself.

#517, like some tropical storm upon landfall, is as much falling apart as it is gathering itself together.

Reed’s painting is beginning to become more interesting in its discord than it previously was in its harmony. This new dissolution is best witnessed in the polyphonic fusion of #516 where the color is clearly acting out, becoming intransigent—behaving badly. In #516, an array of individual forces are separating from the overall image and fracturing the armature of an artificial synthesis. Within the core of #516, dithyrambic disenchantment and pleasure freely collide. The painting is alarmingly unstable, like the radioactive isotope Uranium-238. There is something new to admire in Reed’s work, and it manifests itself in the emergence of a late style. Or more succinctly, in the words of Josef Albers:

By giving up a preference for harmony, we accept dissonance to be as desirable as consonance.

With real maturity there often comes a stripping away. Maybe this is something that a discussion of style cannot even truly approach, however, we recognize this quality in the late works of all great artists. In terms of painting one thinks of Titian, Hals or Rembrandt, Cezanne, or pre-feeble DeKooning. The fissure is already there in Reed’s work; will style prevail or the painter himself?


Michael Brennan is a New York painter who writes on art.


1 Stella, Frank. 2001. Caravaggio from the Norton “Working Space” lectures at Harvard University, 1983-4, reprinted in The Writings of Frank Stella. Koln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig.

2 Lucas, George. [nd] Beyond Star Wars: What’s Next for George Lucas. Interview with Kevin Kelly and Paula Parisi. www.darklords.net.lucasin3.htm

3 Foster, Hal. 1980. David Reed, The Clocktower. New York: ArtForum 19, no. 4 (December): p.72-73.

4 Smith, Roberta. 1999. A Luscious Journey, Exhaustively Annotated. New York Times, August 20: p. E35.

5 Reed, David. 1990. Interview with Stephen Ellis for David Reed. Los Angeles: A.R.T. Press.

6 Said, Edward. 2004. Thoughts on Late Style. LRB, Vol. 26 No. 15 dated 5 August 2004. www.edwardsaid.org

7 Adorno, Theodor. 2002. Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

8 Albers, Josef. 1963. Interaction of Color. New Haven: Yale University Press.