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David Reed, Installation view,© 2020 David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Painters in Dialogue:

A Conversation with David Reed

By Deanna Sirlin  

“What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms.”


       From Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation"

Description is perhaps the best way to talk about the works of David Reed. But there is also my history of seeing his work over the course of more than forty years. I first encountered David Reed’s paintings in New York in the late 70s at Max Protetch Gallery where Reed showed his work from 1976 to 2007. I was immediately interested in the work: these were paintings that were at once conceptual, abstract, and physically interesting in a way that I had not seen before or since. I was drawn to the brushstrokes that were wed with color. In 2016, Reed had a provocative exhibition, Vice and Reflection – An Old Painting, New Paintings and Animations at PAMM in Miami, and on an early morning visit to the museum I had the pleasure of meeting Reed for the first time. Later that winter I was in NYC and visited his downtown studio and saw his new work in progress. The paintings in Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975 at Gagosian in 2016, which Reed had made forty-five years ago, were a new window into his process. I responded both to the physicality of the work and the personal nature of the abstraction that reflected on the architecture of his studio and the length and breadth of his arm to create horizontal strokes that moved across the canvas. The strokes are only red or only black depending on which work you are viewing. I loved the presence of this show and the triumph of the work over time and place.

After the opening of Reed’s recent exhibition New Paintings at Gagosian (January 10–February 22, 2020) Reed and I dialogued about three works from the exhibition that we chose together to discuss in terms of both formal values and the process of making the work. Each discussion begins with a description of the work, followed by an exchange between Reed and myself about it.

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DAVID REED #714, 2014–2019 Acrylic, oil, and alkyd on polyester 28 x 118 in 71.1 x 299.7 cm
© 2020 David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

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DAVID REED #714 (detail), 2014–2019 Photo: James Welling

David Reed #714, 2014–2019, 28 x118 inches.


Deanna Sirlin: #714 is a long horizontal in acrylic, oil and alkyd paint. It is divided by vertical pink lines into four sections of equal size. The painting is created in layers which build up both in the tonality of the brushstrokes and in the density of the paint. The brushstrokes turn and curve; they are translucent and curvilinear and form three-dimensional marks that curl back upon themselves. These images in blue-gray appear against a lighter gray ground that suggests a denser grisaille rendering of similar forms. They move all over the surface with a complexity that reaches a kind of peak in the right-hand section, in which forms that also appear in the other sections are repeated and overlaid with a gray, cloud-like shape made from thick, white opaque paint that breaches the pink borderline between the two right-most sections and contains the image of a gestural brushstroke that is different from the other marks.

Deanna Sirlin: #714 was made over a period of five years. How did this extended period of creation affect the work? the process? 

David Reed: I started by painting over the neutral grey ground and the pale, transparent red bands with nasty marks of cold, dark Payne’s grey. What kind of light would be made by this combination of colors? What would the feeling be? The Payne’s grey marks on one side, nearly half the painting, were not well done – too regular and dark. We sanded off the whole left side of the painting and put the same grey ground and vertical red bands back in. Then I repainted the Payne’s grey marks with more transparent paint. The tension created this time by the different senses of transparency on the two sides was closer to the feeling that I wanted. Was the seam between the two sessions of mark making too abrupt and obvious?  At first I thought it might be, but then decided the obviousness was good. To modulate the light, I put a second glaze coat of Davy’s grey over the whole painting. I thought this would hide the seam and unite the two sides. It didn’t, but it did contain the tensions. All the trouble that I got into helped the painting.

I knew from the beginning that I would want to disrupt the continuity by adding a stencil somewhere in the painting. I have a library of possible stencils printed out on paper and tried several marks in different locations and moved them around. I enjoy this part of the process, because I can try things and take my time deciding. I looked and thought for several months about different possibilities.  There was no rush. I knew that the ground behind the stencil mark needed to be the same gray as the rest of the painting to keep the light even.  But what color should I make the stencil mark?  Black? Red? Pale or dark blue?  Should I glaze over the stencil mark or leave it bare? I tried all these possibilities and many more on plastic and in my imagination. It took me a long time to figure out that I preferred the mark white and bare.

Each stencil mark in a painting is modified for that particular painting. In this case I simplified the inner striations of the brush and added a lot more splatter outside. To do this we had to go back to the original scan (which is from painting, #600-2, 2006-2009/2012-2013) and pull out more details. We added another stencil layer of an in-between value of grey. I wanted the mark to seem like it was still in a process of becoming.

Then, I made a stupid mistake and painted the in-between grey darker than the ground. It should have been lighter since the mark is white. We had to sand off everything we had done on the stencil part of the painting, prepare the ground again, and then paint the stencil again with a grey that was lighter, between the white of the mark and the grey of the ground. When this was done, the stencil worked.

It did not take that many steps to make the painting.  But my thinking and deciding did take time. My mistakes also slowed the painting process. Redoing half of the original marks and then redoing the stencil took the most time.  But, it was fixing these “mistakes” that made the painting work and added the tension and feeling that I wanted. The white stencil mark that seems in a state of becoming gives the light of the painting the feeling that I wanted.

DS: Thank for that description and the chronology of how you made #714. I know you take notes and make drawings for many (all?) of your paintings. Does one exist for this work?

DR: Yes, I make a “working drawing” for each of the paintings. The drawings are like short stories or diary entries. I can go back and see what I was thinking: my questions and plans, decisions about materials and other technical matters, and comments by friends. Images are sometimes included in these drawings: paintings that I thought about while working and iPhone photos of the painting in progress. Never knowing what might be helpful, I write down anything that comes to mind. Picking up the pencil involves a different part of my brain. Sometimes the drawings go on for years and cover as many as twenty pages. The drawing for #714 is 9 pages long, done over the five years I worked on the painting.  Each page is 11 x 17 inches.

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DAVID REED Working Drawing for #714, 2017–19 Mixed media on graph paper, in 9 parts 11 x 17 inches, 27.9 x 43.2 cm 

© 2020 David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

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DAVID REED Working Drawing for #714, 2017–19 Mixed media on graph paper, in 9 parts 11 x 17 inches, 27.9 x 43.2 cm 

© 2020 David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

DS: Since this painting went through so many changes and decisions do you ever feel the need to just make a new work based on those decisions?  I believe Matisse would make numerous changes in a work -- so much so that he would then not exactly discard the work but paint one alla prima in one sitting based on all the elements that had been worked out in Painting 1. 

DR: I try not to lose the whole painting. I don’t want to start over, but sometimes it happens, or I keep just a small area and sand off all the rest. One painting leads to more paintings. Often the final notes in a drawing are about new possibilities that I’ve discovered for future paintings.

DS: You have chosen to sand the work down to the original level --- has this always been a part of your process? 

DR: I always like to feel that I can destroy anything or everything. I’ve learned that if I become too fond of any particular part of a painting, it will cause difficulties with future decisions.

DS: The connections among the paintings you create by scanning and stenciling are important, as is the way the stencil itself relates and lives in the new work. Is the choice of stencil a decision like the choice of color or tonality in a work? 

DR: Yes, it is very interesting to pick the particular stencil for a painting. Each stencil changes the rest of the painting in a different way. It’s fun to see this happen. Each painting also changes the meaning of the stencil. The stencils are like characters in the paintings, actors or models playing a part. St. John the Baptist, for example, is portrayed in different, but related ways, in various Baroque paintings.

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DAVID REED #717, 2018–19 Acrylic, oil, and alkyd on polyester 26 x 118 inches 66 x 299.7 cm

© 2020 David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

#717, 2018–2019, Acrylic, oil, and alkyd on polyester, 26 x 118 inches. 


Deanna Sirlin: #717 is a horizontal painting built in luminous layers of intensely hued brushstrokes that overlap, translucent marks that form a long sentence of strokes paired with color. The painting radiates light from within; the entire work is illuminated by a technicolored palette of light of red, green, cyan, and some yellow. It is as if the painting was made in the palette of a back-lit computer screen or television monitor. The brushstrokes undulate over the entire face of the canvas. These curvilinear brushstrokes give the work an all-over quality. 

DS: #717 is distinctive in its color palette and overall movement without the additional layering of stenciled or flattened solid areas. There seems to be a reference here to abstract expressionists, Pollock in particular, because of the feeling of the brushstrokes moving across the canvas. But #717 also evokes the Baroque, both in the painting’s energy and the way the brushstrokes suggest folds of cloth. Does this work in particular refer to both Ab Ex in the allover composition and to the Baroque in the drama created by the tensions of the palette? What is your relationship to both of these art historical moments? 

DR: Yes there is a relation. But this is a big question and difficult to answer in general terms. I would rather talk about specific painters and paintings.


I love Pollock’s “Convergence,” 1952. It has been an important painting for me. It was painted in two layers. The first layer is made with pours of black paint, probably enamel, on raw canvas. I think the paint might also have been moved around with a brush. When this first layer was completely dry, Pollock painted a second layer of marks in red, yellow, blue and white. The two layers work together even though they were painted in separate sessions. When I was a young painter I dismissed the painting, thinking that Pollock had cheated by salvaging a weak under-painting with the second session. Who knows what happened. But now I understand that it was a brilliant idea to separate the two layers because our brains work to combine them visually, and this makes the painting come alive. #717 uses the same colors as the Pollock, but has shifted them away from the painting spectrum to the current technological spectrums used for reproductive printing and screen display. My painting was also done in two layers, but on a ground of square areas of pale yellow and white. This first glazed layer is turquoise, cobalt teal. The second glazed layer is a bright red, scarlet lake. The first glaze layer was dry when I painted the second. The colors, because of the different layerings and different densities of glaze, combine together to make many colors.

I would like the glazes that I use to be like the folds of cloth in Baroque paintings.  But my glazing does not depict drapery as the glazing does in those paintings. Instead my glazes make colors that can seem to cover us while we are viewing the painting: covering our bodies, surrounding us, all around us, as we look. Have these colors come off the painting onto us; or have they come off of us onto the painting? All of this is affected by how we relate to screens and the light in screens.

#717 was finished recently in my loft at 315 Broadway. I had to move out after living there for nearly 50 years. The elevator is not working and the rest of the building is nearly empty, about to be torn down. I knew that I would have to move out soon, but I returned to paint in the nearly abandoned building to finish painting for this show. The light was still beautiful and it was very peaceful and quiet.  In these ruins a number of paintings were finished quickly in ways that seem now like a miracle or a special gift. I think the building and my memories were helping me as I painted. The paintings liked being there alone and especially being in the dark at night. I think they heard me talking about them as I painted and knew that they would be going uptown to where Cy Twombly’s paintings had been shown.

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(For Jack and Arshile), 2018–19

Acrylic, oil, and alkyd on polyester

102 x 34 inches 259.1 x 86.4 cm

© 2020 David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever.

Courtesy Gagosian.

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DAVID REED #724 (For Jack and Arshile), (detail)  2018–19 Photo: James Welling.

#724 (For Jack and Arshile), 2018-2019, acrylic, alkyd and oil on polyester, 102 x 34 inches


DS: #724 is a vertical painting – its height is 3 times its width. The palette is built in monochromes of blacks and grays, the overlay of the paint creating a density of darkness. There is a complexity of overlaying strokes that are transparent and varied, and the tonality of the strokes is a cool black against the warmer grey of the underpainting. The proportion has the presence of a lap pool, one that you can immerse yourself in and become one with the surface and what lies underneath. Standing so vertical, so long and narrow, the painting is also like a large figure in movement fueled by the energy of the intersecting strokes. The eye moves across and through the canvas traversing the rectangle.

DS: #724 is subtitled for Jack and Arshile (Whitten and Gorky), two great abstract painters. They were both tremendous colorists but they also painted some important works that embrace a dark tonal palette built of multiple grays.  

DR: Yes, both Whitten and Gorky made great paintings with black and grey. But this wasn’t what I was thinking about with the dedication.  

DS: Please tell me about the connection between yourself and these two artists. 

DR: Like many artists I love Gorky. He is so sensitive and his work is so emotionally revealing. The last painting that Jack made was “Quantum Wall, VIII (For Arshile Gorky, My First Love In Painting),” 2017. In January 2018, this painting was shown at Häuser & Wirth in Chelsea. Shimmering colored tiles open up into new spaces as one looks, revealing Jack's vision of the immensity of the universe and the world of painting.

I have noticed that Gorky sometimes isolates an early mark – paints a rough rectangle around it, as if saving it for later. These isolated marks seem to cause all that happens later in the rest of the painting. 

Like #717, this painting, #724, was painted in my abandoned loft and in the special atmosphere there then. While painting I noticed a strange falling drip that I couldn’t bear to cover over. I painted around it and thought of Gorky and Jack. 

I knew that I wanted the painting to be mostly black. I painted an overall glaze of Payne’s Grey, and then, when this was dry, coming back to the empty space, I painted another glaze overall of Charcoal Grey. I planned to add more layers of grey and cut out a space for a black stencil. But, to my surprise, the painting was finished before I knew what had happened. Thinking of the painting as a gift from Jack and Gorky, I dedicated it to them. I used their first names to show how intimately I felt their presence. I was shy to do this, but Jack often dedicated paintings, so I gathered my courage and went ahead. 

DS: As a colorist, you normally use intense color, but here there is the absence of color that still relates to your coloristic work through its tonality and the richness of the darks. Do you think about tone and color in the same way when working in black and gray, or is the process making a work like this one completely different?

DR: In my show, I wanted to include black paintings because I had noticed while working in the studio how a black painting made the color in the other paintings look better. So from the beginning I thought about the black paintings in relation to the others. I didn’t think about what the black did inside all black paintings. I was slow to get it, but understanding this was, for me, a surprise of the show. Several people said that the black paintings were “complicated.” I couldn’t figure out what they meant. Color is complicated, not black. Pepe Karmel explained to me what he saw: in the black paintings, the drawing done with the knife either makes the paint into lines or instead makes shapes and contours. Drawing in black can more easily imply different kinds of form, and different purposes for making form. That sure is a complication, and I want to further investigate the possibilities.

DS: This work also has a different proportion than most of your other recent works.

DR: Yes, the vertical format seems squeezed in this painting. This causes one to read the marks in a more figural way.

DS: Is that proportion in reverence to Whitten and Gorky as a kind of monument?

DR: No. No painting of mine can be a “monument.” Jack made monuments, his vision was that all encompassing. I have to find my own way to broaden what I am doing. 

David Reed

March 10, 2020

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David Reed is an American painter, born in San Diego, California in 1946. He came to NYC in the 1960’s and studied at the Studio School with Milton Resnick, Philip Guston, Charles Cajori, Mercedes Matter and Esteban Vicente. He went to Reed College in Oregon and then returned to NYC in 1968. David Reed New Paintings was on view from January 10 to February 22, 2020 at Gagosian in New York.

Photo: George Melrod

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Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

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