David Reed is one of America’s best painters. Having figured out how to infuse art’s most traditional practice with an arm-shot of the here and now, Reed’s paintings have updated—in the manner of sea-changers Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol—a practice many thought deader than Latin. A cinephile and pop-culture junkie inspired by computer screens and Miami Vice pastels, Reed has during the past two decades formulated something fundamental. Shinier, brighter and more substantive than the work of most artists of his or any other recent generation, Reed’s CinemaScope abstractions perch neatly atop America’s layered heap of cultural bugaboos: They concern sex without depicting people, observe carefully our growing dependence on technology and the media, and turn out to be about painting as much as anything Caravaggio or de Kooning ever did. If art, as Ezra Pound declared more than half a century ago, is “news that stays news,” David Reed appears to have got a jump on everyone for the look of painting in the next century.
This summer, Reed’s first retrospective exhibition, originally organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, has come to Long Island City’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. Last year, as the MOCA San Diego exhibition kicked off its yearlong run, Reed’s parents finally told their friends that their son is an artist.
“They thought their friends would picture the cliche of an artist, a guy wearing a beret, with a Chianti bottle under his arm,” Reed explains. Instead, what friends of the elderly Reeds found as they decamped in vanloads at the San Diego museum were voluptuous, polished canvases and clips from a favorite movie.
The movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which Reed has incorporated into his work by recreating the bedroom sets of the characters played by Kim Novak and James Stewart and by digitally inserting his paintings into key scenes, which play in a continuous loop. The effect is striking, a marriage of celluloid drama and Cibachrome-crisp hues unspooling in Reed’s characteristic reel-like forms throughout several of P.S. 1’s rooms. “We dream in pans, closeups and moving camera shots,” Reed has said, giving rationale for why he thinks painting should “reflect our current environment.” In an attempt to draw those Technicolor dreams in sharper focus, I had the following conversation with David Reed in his modest, painting-strewn Broadway loft.
When did you get interested painting, David?
Well, I was always interested. But as a kid I thought painters were kind of dumb guys with beards. I had a very smart teacher at Reed named Willard Midgette. He taught me that you could be smart about painting. I felt drawn to painting. It was as if I had inside knowledge, it seemed strangely familiar. Then I got a leave from Reed College to go to the New York Studio School. I studied there with Milton Resnick and Philip Guston and got a taste of the New York School.
What was your relationship to Philip Guston?
I was no longer a student when Philip did his first group critique, but I was organizing the library so they let me bring some paintings in. I showed him some landscapes I had done in Oljato, near Monument Valley, the summer before. The trees in the painting had been influenced by trees in Piero della Francesca’s work. Somehow Guston 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 Italy and Italian painting that we connected. We’d go see Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns on 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 starting figurative work. It was a great time to know him.
How did you relate to some of the art being shown in New York when you first arrived, to Rauschenberg, for example?
I loved Rauschenberg. He was one of my heroes when I was growing up in San Diego. The first show I saw in New York was a Rauschenberg show at Leo Castelli. Leo came out and spoke with me. I was an 18-year-old kid with cowboy boots. He was so sweet. He took me into the back room and showed me prints. He sold me a Warhol print 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’s signature. Then I pinned the print to the wall. I still have it, but it’s worth less.
You’ve talked about making painting “relevant to the present.” Well, what do you mean by that?
I hate painting when it’s nostalgic, when you look at it and you have comfortable, familiar experiences with it. I find, for example, that if you hang a painting on a wall in the traditional way, it’s very hard to get a new experience. I keep looking for other ways to install a painting. I think paintings have to be installed now, not just hung. You give the viewer something a bit unexpected, so they can have new experiences in relation to the painting.
One of the interesting 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 integrally in the facture, in the making of the work itself. It’s there in an amazing way in terms of process.
I think these two things feed back and forth between each other. My idea for inserting a painting into Vertigo came from the paintings looking so filmic to begin with, from their having a surface like film, and something of the structure and content of film. Therefore, it made sense to put them into a film. I’m looking for something like breaks in my paintings so that the outside boundaries are less important than some of the internal breaks. I want the painting to seem to extend past the edges and then to have breaks, ruptures or leaks inside the painting that are more jarring than the outside boundary.
Well, do you consider what you are doing installation art? Besides being a painter are you an installation artist?
I don’t think I am. Sometimes I fall into talking about my work that way, but it’s a mistake. In installation art, you take things from the outside world and bring them 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. Instead I try to change the white cube or the museum into something else, so that when I hang my paintings it’s not a neutral space but something that engages the viewer in a different way.
I don’t know if anyone has ever said this to you, but your paintings have a distinct Windows 97 look, a heavy-duty computer esthetic. But you were doing this before computers became such a generalized phenomenon, before the era of Macs and PCs.
Yes, the things 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 the kinds of things these programs do were just the kinds of things I’d been doing in the paintings. It was as if they’d been designed for me. But I don’t use computers to plan my paintings. I keep meaning to get more involved.
And now there are so many young painters using computers. There’s Monique Prieto and Jeff Elrod, whose work I saw recently. He uses an old paint program and then blows up the images on canvas.
Yes, I love their 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 corruptible medium. It’s very good at absorbing influences from outside itself and pulling them in. This happens very naturally. Painting is also very good in symbiotic relationships with other forms of thought, like religion. The relationship of painting with Christianity is the great symbiotic relationship of all time. You can hardly think of Christianity without thinking of painted images and painting—matter into spirit. The two became so intertwined that the imagery and the metaphors became very similar and related. Now I think painting can have just as rich a relationship with the media, with film, photography and digital technologies.
Is there anything left of the Christian referent in your work?
I think very little.
What about your use of light?
I think light is a good thing to talk about. The religious light in these Baroque paintings that I love is directional. It comes from God, and the figures either go with it or go against it. When you think of the Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio, 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 technological light, which comes through screens and is not directional, it’s homogenous through the whole screen, but it also covers all the figures, and the figures move through this light. Again the light is coming through from beyond the human. You can either go with it or go against it. So the light is very different in that it’s not directional, but it has a lot of the same qualities.
There’s a great story in one of the essays in the catalog to this exhibition that mentions your 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 was one of the experiences that taught me how much we’ve all been influenced by film and the media, how it’s become such a part of our lives and affected us in so many ways that we don’t realize it. I had been painting a landscape near Monument Valley and went into a cave to rest and get out of the sun. The cave seemed 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 years later, when I saw a restored version of The Searchers by John Ford, that I realized that I had seen the cave in the movie, not in a past life.
You’ve been quoted as saying you want to be a “bedroom painter.” What do you mean by that? How tied in is this to real sex and sexuality?
I want the paintings to be very sexy. When I say that I want to be a bedroom painter, that’s really what I mean. I often put it in slightly different terms because I don’t want to talk about this directly. I want people to look at the paintings and decide that they are sexy for themselves.
Sexy like whom? Sexy like what?
Well, take Scottie’s Bedroom at P.S. 1. I’d like to think that all that’s missing is Kim Novak. With the 10 horizontal paintings hung around the bed, somehow it’s the sexiest it’s ever looked. There are so many paintings. They’re almost like bodies that have been in the bed, like Scottie’s former girlfriends or his fantasies of women or something like that.
I never knew Jimmy Stewart could be such a cad.
He is in Vertigo. I love it that collectors who own my paintings now often hang them in their bedrooms. When loaned to a show of mine, the paintings go from bedroom to bedroom. I often have the feeling that the painting in Scottie’s bedroom has been a witness to what happened in his bed. When filming Vertigo, Hitchcock couldn’t shoot the sexiest scene. Scottie saves Madeleine after she jumps into the bay and rather than taking her home to her husband, he takes her to his apartment and undresses her in his bed. Judy pretends to be in a trance. 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. They wouldn’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 which we weren’t allowed to see. Maybe the other paintings at P.S. 1 have witnessed other equally erotic scenes that we haven’t seen.
Would you care to explain what happened at your opening at the MOCA San Diego?
I loved that. On opening night, a young woman told the guard she was “there for the performance” and got under the covers in Judy’s Bedroom and took off her clothes. Then a young man came in, dressed in his underpants and got in with her. The two of them rolled around a bit and snuggled, then started to make love. Or at least pretended to. At that point the guard came up and said they had to leave or he was going to get fired. I missed it all while talking to friends in another part of the museum. Later, when I was giving my walk-through talk 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’s a little more private. Judy’s Bedroom is so theatrical.” And a young woman spoke up and said, “That’s why I picked it.” This was the person who had done the performance. Her name is Joey Azul. She said she was inspired by the talk (art critic) Dave Hickey gave earlier in the auditorium. I told Dave 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 Center in Ohio (where the show traveled previously) and here in New York.
That would have gone over great in Columbus.
I thought her performance was a wonderful compliment. It’s a shame there are no photographs. I love to tell this story almost as a challenge.
“David Reed Paintings: Motion Pictures,” through Aug. 29, at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave., Long Island City, 718-784 2084.