From Brush and Palette to Printer and Cartridge: ‘Picasso Black and White’ at the Guggenheim, ‘Wade Guyton OS’ at the Whitney

  • IN ADDITION to being the most celebrated artist of the 20th century, Picasso is also the most difficult to pin down. So it is not surprising that an austere exhibition of his paintings, sculptures and drawings, ostensibly all in black and white, actually yields smudges of color: jade, olive, lemon-meringue yellow, midnight blue. Less surprising is the fact that the pieces on view—some 118 paintings, sculptures and works on paper, including 38 being shown for the first time in the United States and five displayed for the first time in public—are full of his signature muscular shapes. The show’s curator, Carmen Giménez, brought Richard Serra to the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1999, and her taste for the sculptural is evident in this exhibition.

    When Picasso purged color from his work, he did so to emphasize the formal autonomy of the picture plane and focus on problems of form. The show starts with a 1904 painting of a woman, from the artist’s so-called Blue Period, but moves swiftly into the most radical of Picasso’s styles, his 1909-1914 cubism, rendered in the sepia tones of faded newspapers. The show leaves you wanting more of the collages, like Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table (1912), but there is a gallery of five great, rare sculptures, including the volumetric, monochrome Woman’s Head (Fernande) (1909), with her Klingon-looking forehead.

    Ms. Giménez has a light touch with the linear Picasso of the 1930s: two languid paintings of sleeping figures—Sleeping Woman (1931) and Sleeping Nude (1932)—contrast with the spiky forms of The Kiss (1930). The show gives us the full spectrum of Picasso’s women (Olga, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, moon-faced Marie-Thérèse) rendered in lush grisaille: pneumatic breasts and buttocks modeled in monochrome like so many dirty postcards from the 19th century. Elsewhere there are rarely-seen gems, such as the sculpture Head (1928) (made from interlocking brass shapes on a delicate iron tripod) and several sheet metal sculptures that read as freestanding paintings and are paper-doll-like in their delicacy.

    Heat rises in this show—its fiery core is the late work, at the top of the rotunda. Still Life with Blood Sausage (May 10, 1941) depicts Picasso’s wartime fantasies of food from his native Spain; it’s shown alongside studies for Guernica. The Women of Algiers (Version L) (1955) is Picasso cheekily rendering the 19th century’s greatest colorist, Eugene Delacroix, in black and white. And The Maids of Honor, in which he drains the color from Velázquez’s Las Meniñas, is a knockout, from the Infanta’s tiered cake of a dress to the playing card Jack standing in for Velázquez.

    PICKING UP chronologically where the Guggenheim show leaves off is the Whitney Museum’s “mid-career” retrospective of Wade Guyton, who was born in Hammond, Ind., in 1972, the year before Picasso died. Mr. Guyton’s paintings are studies in the beautiful seams, glitches and errors that result from jamming linen through inkjet printers—it is the drips, smears and striations accidentally produced by modern technology that render his chalkily-colored abstractions seductive. The Ab-Ex-sized canvas Untitled (2006), which dominates one wall of the show, is made up of pretty, saturated red horizontal stripes that thin out as the Epson Ultrachrome printer on which it was made ran out of ink.

    As the pedagogical apparatus around it makes clear, with its talk of “our changing relationships to images and artworks through the use of common technologies,” this is an exhibition about the ways in which a whole generation of viewers thinks about materials. In Mr. Guyton’s work are sights that will be familiar to many—the slight grit that we associate with a reproduction, the mechanical mishaps inherent to the analog output of digital files. Anyone who has experienced desktop printer mishaps, problems caused by the constraints of printer paper size, file corruptions or depleting ink cartridges will be able to relate to Mr. Guyton’s process. Like a post-Pictures Generation Frank Stella, he makes gorgeous, adamantly banal paintings using average office technology: desktop computers, Epson printers, flatbed scanners. His works, which embrace accident and technological failure, suggest something of the wobbly, ersatz materiality of a Blinky Palermo. Mostly, with their black “X”s on white ground, they look like what might happen if someone tried to print out full-scale Christopher Wool paintings or enlarge Russian Constructivist abstractions using an inkjet printer.

    The wall text focuses on process to an almost comical extent, as if you might indeed go home and try to make your own Guytons: “He began with rectangles of 50 percent black, which he converted to bitmapped files,” one reads. “Because his medium-size printer can accommodate materials only up to 44 inches wide, Guyton generally folds the canvases in half and prints each side separately,” another informs. “Relying on an optical sensor that determines where to begin dispensing ink, the machine draws in the canvas unevenly and often gets jammed by the thick linen, which Guyton has to yank to continue printing,” yet another tells us. Convert bitmapped file, fold, print, yank. Got it. Such instructions make apparent that despite the pleasure the show takes in supposed accidents and mishaps, this work is not about subverting any given system, technological or social, but is instead, it would appear, about following directions.

    The show’s title, “OS,” is short for “Operating System,” as in a computer or mobile device, and the open layout, established by curator Scott Rothkopf in collaboration with the artist, is terrific: the staggered arrangement of the walls mimics the layers of a computer’s windows. The paintings suggest the way images jitter and pixelate on a laptop screen. The show has its thrilling moments: one portion is taken up by nine large glass-topped vitrines, seven containing pages from art history books, two left enigmatically empty; 18 mirrored stainless steel sculptures of the letter “U” in a variety of sizes form the centerpiece of the show’s main area; a wood rod printed with inkjet stripes (an untitled work from 2009) leans in a corner, in the manner of works by the late sculptor André Cadere.