For the past four decades, New York City-based painter David Reed has insisted on painting's relevance in contemporary art, slowly carving out his own approach to abstraction. With the uncluttered survey Lives of Paintings, Reed returns to where his career began: Reed College, where he completed his painting thesis in 1968. The 14 works included here, which range from the mid-'60s to the present, trace Reed's evolution from a precocious young painter attempting to synthesize his influences to a confident conceptualist in command of them.
The earliest work in the show, which dates back to the artist's time at Reed, reveals him immediately grappling with issues of representation. One senses a boyish reverence for Matisse and Cezanne being reshaped by Abstract Expressionism's lust for the infinite. And while Reed's subjects—sweeping Southwestern vistas—would seem ripe for meditating on the immeasurable, they were painted with claustrophobic heaps of paint and bullying strokes, as if he literally pushed the paint around the surface. Likewise, Reed's rendering of the Southwest's expansive desolation often feels contradictorily oppressive. The terrain of "Lordsburg," for example, is compartmentalized across the canvas, divided into a messy grid of dim blues and grimy earth tones.
In the decades since, Reed has shrugged off any traces of representational painting, developing an increasingly sophisticated formal language while the scope of his work has grown to towering, totemic canvases and eight-foot-wide murals. In the enormous "#320" (1993/1995-99), he foregrounds the work with a cluster of looping figures which seemingly allude to both the intellectual and the corporeal, as the shapes conjure Zen-like Möbius strips and wound intestines. By sandblasting sections of blue paint away—and revealing a second layer of pink paint beneath—ghost patterns seem to play, like shadows, across the foregrounded image. Technically, the way Reed haphazardly superimposes multiple depths is a masterly trick. Not only does it disrupt a viewer's gaze, but its vertiginous composition charges it with an air of mystery. In that sense, it's haunted by the same expressionist impulses that hover over his early work. Reed's work may have remained thematically singular over the years, but Lives of Paintings fascinatingly showcases its many shapes.