Where Painting and Photography Blur
Painters have nervously vied with photographers ever since Daguerre announced his invention to the world in 1839. Smug representatives of the avant-garde from each medium have at various times declared the other one crass or elitist or monocular or dead. A succession of art movements, from Impressionism to Pop, can be defined by their rejection or adoption of the latest picture-making gizmos.
Several New York shows in the past six months indicate that painting and photography remain locked in an uneasy, co-dependent relationship but have also learned to feed off each other in the digital era as never before. New possibilities for mutating images in Photoshop and other programs have energized artists young and old. In some blurry cases, it's no longer clear what is a painting and what is a photograph.
The Wade Guyton midcareer retrospective now at the Whitney Museum of Art (through Jan. 13) showcases a 40-year-old artist for whom computers are everyday tools and the usual divisions between media irrelevant. He refers to many of the more than 80 pieces here—some as long as 48 feet—as "paintings" because most are on linen, "a support," curator Scott Rothkopf notes in the catalog, "that has come to signify painting as much as paint itself."
But paint from a can or tube is not part of Mr. Guyton's working vocabulary. The means by which he "draws" on these surfaces are photomechanical. Claiming to have no manual skills with a brush or pencil, he finds his images by surfing the Internet or tearing a photograph out of a book or magazine.
He scans what he has discovered into his computer, then moves the image around on his screen, adding bits of other scanned images until he has decided on a composition. Finally, he hits print.
The smears, bruises, ridges, bumps and spots on his "canvases" are the result of his feeding cloth into a place where it was never designed to go—into the mouth and through the guts of an inkjet printer. Accident is as crucial to his process as deliberation.
If Mr. Guyton's works exhibit no anxiety about where images come from or what should or shouldn't happen to them, the same isn't true of Gerhard Richter. No living painter has been more ambivalent about his rival medium than the 80-year-old German. His "Strip Paintings," at Marian Goodman Gallery this fall, only confirmed this preoccupation. Instead of making soft-focus paintings from photographs, as he has off and on since the 1960s, he began by having a computer algorithm "analyze" an earlier abstract work, "Painting 724-4" from 1990.
This software program randomly generated some 4,000 different patterns. From the 8,190 distinct bands of colors and striations in these scans, Mr. Richter selected tranches that vibrated in combinations he liked. The results—like close-ups of mineral layers or the grooves on a psychedelic LP—were processed on photographic paper, each machine-made print sold as a unique "painting."
The 85-year-old American artist Alfred Leslie has also updated his craft for the digital age. Like Mr. Richter's, his show this summer at the Janet Borden Gallery was recycled from earlier art: a series of 25 portraits of louche female fleshpots in various stages of undress that he had painted between 1968 and 1986.
For this new series, called "The Lives of Some Women," he redrew and rearranged them on a computer tablet, aided by a stylus, mouse and Photoshop. He produced the hybrid results as lightjet prints on photographic paper, some as big as 5 feet tall and 7 feet across but sold in traditional print editions.
Famous since the 1960s for the corporeal realism of his figures, Mr. Leslie relished the challenges that programs such as Photoshop present for artists. "I layered in a mix of different color transparencies of 'skin' tone keeping it as broken as possible," he explained in an email. "My painting experience in creating optical color gave me a leg up." These new works are not, in his mind, "photo-collages"; he prefers to call them "pixel scores," finding a similarity between digital files and musical notation.
In James Welling's exhibition of photographs at David Zwirner, titled "Overflow," the artist also revisited his past, conducting a conversation across generations and media about the importance of painting in a culture of visual excess and perishability. Based in part on Andrew Wyeth's work, a decisive influence on the younger Mr. Welling (California-trained but Connecticut-born), the pictures were a record of his travels in the past two years to "Wyeth Country" in Maine and Pennsylvania.
His inkjet prints on rag paper—of frosted windows in a white room, a cropped front door, a truck interior, hooks protruding from a barn ceiling, an easel against a wall and, of course, a sloping lawn beneath a farmhouse—were either explicit references to canonic works by the painter or their weathered equivalences. Mr. Welling, like Mr. Richter, is unwilling to abandon photographic realism and the stability of the world implied therein. At the same time, he is alert that too intent a focus on precious details of anything—especially signs of a more rural America—can be a nostalgic trap.
Another series within the show, a group of photograms titled "Fluid Dynamics," were created by sampling colors in the Wyethlike photographs and running them through a program of gradient maps in Photoshop. The unpredictable aftermath became swirling abstractions, the element of chance playing as vital a role here as in Mr. Richter's software-determined pattern paintings.
In the catalog for Mr. Richter's show, the art historian Benjamin Buchloh describes the new work, begotten by subjecting a hand-brushed canvas more than 20 years old to aleatory computer decision-making, as "exceptionally fragile" and yet "powerfully assimilated in its technological challenges, as though painting was once again on the wane under the impact of technological innovations." He salutes the artist for refusing to "operate in regression to painting's past" while in effect "mourning the losses painting is served under the aegis of digital culture."
As the phrase "once again" implies, debates about the sway of machines on picture-making are not new. Nor are they ever settled. Photographers and painters have borrowed freely from each other—there were hand-tinted photographs in the 19th century and photorealist paintings in the 20th century—even as they struggled to establish their own artistic identity and supremacy.
Some sort of parity or truce may now be in order. It is hard to say in Mr. Richter's "Strip Paintings" which element in their genesis is dominant, whereas in Mr. Leslie's show, his hand—brush-wielding or mouse-moving—holds the cards. Even if a computer-savvy artist such as Mr. Guyton isn't mourning the loss of painting, his work aspires to its scale and decorative élan. The tension between media has not vanished. All images in the digital age seem to exist in a kind of soup that anyone is free to sample. But the identities and sources of the ingredients are still essential if art is going to retain any flavor.
Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.
A version of this article appeared December 27, 2012, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Where Painting and Photography Blur.