Thursday, September 11, 2008

Essay: Paul Reed

By Wim Roefs

Washington, D.C., native Paul Reed has experimented with media and techniques throughout his long career. After an Abstract Expressionist period in the 1950s, Reed in 1959 began to use water-based acrylics, then a recent invention. “I started staining canvas, wetting the canvas, pouring the paint and letting it bleed,” he says. 

Reed would in the next five decades also create metal sculpture and photographic collages in which two seemingly unrelated photos and their mirror images were joined. He would make pastel drawings and shaped canvases, some of them directly nailed to the wall. He also produced gouache paintings done on plexiglass and transferred to paper. In the 1980s and 1990s, he did “stone portraits,” simply appropriating from nature stones that reminded him of sculptures by Rodin, Giacometti or Boccioni and putting them on pedestals. 

By then, Reed was already part of art history. In the 1960s, he was integral to Washington Color Field painting. The color field painters included Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who in the early 1950s had picked up the staining technique when visiting Helen Frankenthaler. Reed, Noland and Morris, plus Gene Davis, Howard Mehring and Tom Downing, were the artists in “The Washington Color Painters,” and exhibition that traveled the country in 1965-66. The show marked the development in Washington, D.C., of a cooler, post-painterly, frequently hard-edged abstraction that stood in contrast to the more gestured, individualistic approach of many Abstract Expressionists. 

Reed was represented in the mid-1960s show with his geometric, relatively hard-edged “Disc” paintings. The paintings on unprimed canvas all had a circle in the center of the rectangular canvas and two triangles in opposite corners. Within this format, Reed would vary the colors of the individual fields to great visual and spatial effect, not unlike Josef Albers in his square paintings. 

But, as Claudine Humblet wrote in her recent three-volume book Nouvelle Abstraction Américaine 1950 –1970, Reed “approached the abstract adventure with individuality, without deliberately subscribing to the grip of a single dogma or giving in to the attraction of a single infatuation.” He would follow the Disc paintings with his Upstart series, such as the 1965 paintings Upstart 18F, #18L and #18R. By painting bands of colors that simultaneously overlay and sat next to each other, Reed explored color effects within a context of expressionism and geometry. 

Reed does so again in recent work such as GIJ and GMK, albeit in different forms. The equal attention to color, space and shape that Legrace G. Benson noted in a 1969 review in Art International remains, as does the spatial illusion created by layers of thin transparent glazes. Reed enhances the spatial effects nowadays by adding strips of thicker paint that form diagonally placed “platforms,” creating paintings that are reminiscent of some of his 1950s Abstract Expressionist work. The thick-and-thin contrast adds another dimension to what Benson called Reed’s “ambivalent spaces.”