Almost 10 years ago, it was unthinkable to imagine an artist like Wade Guyton lashing out against his own market, which at the time was fast ascending. Guyton had by then received plaudits for his paintings of stuttering Xs and Us, made with the help of Photoshop effects and an Epson printer that struggled to keep up with the large size of his linen pieces. These works had appeared in a lauded Whitney Museum survey in 2012 that launched him to fame.
In 2014, when one of his painting headed to a hyped-up Christie’s sale with a $3.5 million estimate, he posted to Instagram many identical versions of it. He name-checked the auction house, wryly tagging a picture of the prints laid out across a floor with #harddayatthestudio. The work that Christie’s was touting as one of a kind was no longer as singular as it once was—and Guyton wanted them to know it.
Artists are not supposed to acknowledge their prices, let alone decry them, so when Guyton explicitly targeted the commercial frenzy, it was regarded as abject. Critic Jerry Saltz wrote that Guyton was trying to “torpedo” his market, using devalued duplicates as ammunition against the powers that be. It was, however, a losing battle. The next day, at a Sotheby’s sale, a different but similar-looking Guyton painting sold for just under $6 million, setting a record for him that still stands today.
Guyton’s market is no less torpedoed now than it was then—his paintings still regularly sell for more than $1 million at auction—but that doesn’t mean his critique of the commercial art world has dulled. If anything, it’s only sharpened. His latest show, at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, is his most biting rejoinder yet to the blue-chip ecosystem of which he is a part.
Most of the works in it are not hung on the walls but mounted to a metal structure that occupies the center of the gallery. These racks have their roots in Guyton’s relocation of his New York studio two years ago, when he took up residence in the former home of a clothing company and discovered similar ones still intact. The structures turned out to be gorgeous for displaying art. For my money, this is the most beautifully installed New York gallery show of the year so far.
By design, these new paintings do not come alive, since they appear more like a dealer’s inventory, evoking hanging storage, a fixture in many galleryies’ backrooms. Now, the inventory has been made nakedly visible for the general public. Their presentation style also compares them to chic garments whose relevancy will wane with the coming season. But to me, these emotionless pictures, with their unfeeling pixilation and slick graininess, look like carcasses hung on meat hooks.
As to the paintings themselves, they are, more or less, retreads of imagery that has long been in Guyton’s wheelhouse: split and distorted images of New York Times webpages, Xs that double and drip, pictures of the undone armature of a Marcel Breuer chair. There are even paintings that enact a mind-bending hall of mirrors, offering images of other Guyton works being photographed.
Individually, these new works aren’t very exciting. With their central cleavages, some seem to reference deep fissures within the very fabric of this nation, like a painting of a halved Times article, about a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest, that is partially hidden beneath a camouflage-like web of digital lines. They feel opportunistic more than anything else—less an earnest reflection on the revolutionary potential of moments like the 2020 uprising than they are an attempt to make a quick buck from them.
Profit, after all, is what someone will do from a work like this one, whether that person is Guyton himself, the dealer Matthew Marks—or even the work’s buyer, a few years down the road. Guyton seems resigned to this fact, suggesting that there is no way in which avant-gardism trumps commerce.
A case in point: one untitled work includes a poorly cropped image of Manet’s painting The Ham, depicting a fatty slab of pork on a silver platter. Here, the still life is turned on its side and set amid a white void, where it floats unmoored from Manet’s reputation as an art-historical game-changer. The Ham, as it happens, is on view right now uptown, in a Manet-Degas double-header at the Met. You can’t buy it—a Scottish museum has owned it for almost 80 years. You can, however, purchase Guyton’s shoddy representation of it, smudges and all. It’s a simulacrum, just like the copies Guyton produced around the time of the 2014 Christie’s sale, but it’s almost as good as the real thing.