Saturday, June 6, 2015

Philip Guston - Ross Feld

Thinking is arduous. Rethinking is even harder. And most frustrating of all, a constant, subversive shuttle seems to operate between the two. Cut into calendar time are the marks made by a certain kind of troublemaker who insists on stepping forward periodically to remind us of just this; each time we're satisfied that we've succeeded in containing thought--keeping rethought out, stopping the ping ponging once and for all--all these troublemakers appear, and pluck the cork. 

I look at a painting. If my eye is blithe and well-tempered, I can take real pleasure in skipping it over the various surfaces and concentrations, letting it be seduced by a color here, deflected by a tension there. When appropriate, I've decided already what it is I'm seeing. Thirteen men at a long table, all of them looking very anxious but One. The delectable back of a face-turned-away woman, so thick and smooth and faultless, she might have been sculpted out of a block of butter. A spiky horse, its mouth pried open by agony. If I can't immediately recognize what it is I'm seeing, my educated sympathies are called up, fall into place, and engage. I confront a rill of charismatic color or a single slash of brush or a shape or a plain stain: I understand. (And am flattered that I do; the mirror of art gleams brightest at this self-registering moment.) I am able to understand, because I already know what led to what, know all of the leading characters, and have some idea, finally, of the upshot.

I know about cave art and icons; I know about religious tableaux, and I know when the holiness drained out, leaving the vividness in street clothes. I know when vividness, later, turned completely naked, and fluttered as the sum of its parts. I know when it became all parts. I know all these things...

At which point these troublemakers show up, stamping onto the stage with taunts of You do? and That's what you think! Their entrance is untidy; they stagger under the weight of everything I know and more; their right and left hands fight with each other; they're bound up by crowded cross-purposes, the ravishing and the crude, and are in love with their own unease. They are either dignified to the point of spookiness--Augustin, Piero della Francesca, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard--or are masses of unpredictability--Rembrandt, Picasso, Beckett. And always, always, they totally break up the plot. 

Suffice it to say that Guston's paintings represented a thoughtful, poetic cove of the New York School for many admirers and, soon, disciples. "Abstract Impressionism" was the tag put on it, maybe owing to the decorum of the palette, the pulsing, perspectiveless, amorphous space, and the inch-by-inch climbing and rubbing and chinking of the forms. Harrowed by close attention and care, the paintings were strikingly and availably lovely. Possibly, for the intimate New York art scene of that time, also soothing and ratifying: a Guston canvas from the fifties, taken superficially, usually promised a community of forms in close concert. 

But, examined in sequence, Guston's work increasingly featured gray and black, active centers, torn middles that detached and hovered. The titles, too, were pointedly individual--Painter, To Fellini, Actor--as though Guston, more than merely hinting, was beginning to say clearly: Enough of being geniuses together.

In 1913, Apollinaire wrote that in turning away from the poignance and poetry of the observed and toward the harsher analytics of Cubism, Picasso had proceeded to "carry out his own assassination with the practiced and methodical hand of a great surgeon." This was exactly what Guston, too, had done: assassinated himself. Had he turned into a landscapist, a portraitist, a dreamy Bonnard-like houseband, we would probably have understood: an older artist softened by autumnal stirrings. But what to make instead of these cheesy provocations? Few noticed that the act, although bold and disorienting, was hardly rash--Guston had been painting hoods and sticks and lightbulbs and shoes thirty years previously. Instead, every was too busy being shocked. 

The "subject" has to be the Subject, the agent who proceeds. At first these artist-persona pictures of the late fifties parallel Samuel Beckett's understanding of abstraction: "Total object, with missing parts, instead of partial object."


Someone once said, speaking about the public, that if a violinist came on a concert stage and played his violin as if to imitate the sound of a train coming into the station, everyone would applaud. But if he played a sonata, only used to imitate something else and in the latter, as they say, is pure and abstract. but isn't it so that the sonata is above all an image? An image of what? We don't know, which is why we continue to listen to it. 
There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually define its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is "impure." It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting's continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.

The two strands of 1976, the private/autobiographical and the grotesque, knot in Wharf one of the richest, most indelibly moving of contemporary paintings. Put together without an inch of pause is a single mass of painter, glass, easel, wife, limbs, all sitting in a glimmering sea. By now we recognize each separate element, down even to the subtleties: the painter's dread-filled eye, and the God-help-us ones of Musa; the torn-off mob of legs here beginning to look slightly sack-sack,  actors in the same comedy Guston produced with the awful-turned-hapless hoods. Like a sentence written in script the undulating form of the whole ends with the easel's exclamation point. The elements, forged as one, ride up into their own special weather, a sfumato that's neither air nor water but a numbing fog. In this in-between realm, frozen and run through, sits the composed image--an ingot of nobility, love, and unspeakable punishment.

One time, in Woodstock, I stood next to Guston in front of some of these canvases. I hadn't seen them before; I didn't really know what to say. For a time, then, there was silence. After a while Guston took his thumbnail away from his teeth and said, "People, you know, complain that it's horrifying. As if it's a picnic for me, who has to come in here every day and see them first thing. What's the alternative? I'm trying to see how much I can stand."

Train whistle or sonata--whether you approached it connotatively, as abstraction or denotatively, as representation--the old dilemma sat in wait. Image-making is at best a presumption: reality is sufficient and just unto itself. Since, at least unconsciously, all artists know this, they know too that their only approach to the discrepancy is to devise the most transparent of membranes, a style, with which to plug the gap.

Now that he was painting "recognizable" things again, Guston's membrane should have been expected to vibrate more emphatically than ever. If shoes, clocks, books and hands  were the subject, odds were they they would be as achingly subtle as any earlier hue or tone.
In fact, they were the opposite. Guston had boldly welded shut his chief escape hatch: his elegance. Elegance is, finally, what certifies possibility, while impossibility has always been Guston's most meditated concern. He expected out of figurative work nothing less than the same mix of perplexity the abstract work provided: image as both archer and target. Elegance could only stand directly in the way of this, rooted as it is in the domination of method over things. Instead of giving in to the creating of images of images, Guston pledged himself to an unlubricated approach that admitted style only as a desperate intrusion.

In 1970, Guston excitedly told Bill Berkson, "You're painting a shoe; you start painting the sole, and it turns into a moon; you start painting the moon, and it turns into a piece of bread."

Simply, Guston intends to hide nothing. If the truth is to be had, it must be found. The act of finding is resonantly and invariably private. Since it is private, no amount of clear outlining, impoliteness, gross ballooning, or self-mockery will ever do anything but honor its inviolable mystery. Why then pussyfoot? Whether they acknowledge it or not, all artists are stevedores, hardly more delicate, shoving around large, untidy, embarrassing chunks of the real.

Thinking of Scriabin once led Pasternak to conclude: "indeed, it is not only true that music needs to be more than itself if it is to mean anything, but that everything must surpass itself in order to be itself." 1976 was a year in which the naked candors of Guston's personal, water-borne paintings shared studio space with works, done sometimes in the same week or day, which were so much more than themselves that they made even the painter nervous. Pit is red and black once more, the gear-shifting signal, with the frame on top like the window on a furnace. Sulphurous and brimstoned, lit by jets of flame, the picture is so overly much that we are forced to plant our feet before it and and bear down to take it seriously. We all know better than to credit such hellish histrionics.


It's what Kafka knew also. That beyond imagination, all is calm--and triply terrible, since the mind there, bespelled, surrenders its freedom. Past a certain point, nothing is more "normal" or "regular" than the odd; and whatever it was that brought this image of dismembered limbs to Guston--nightmare, intriguing structural complexity, remembrance--whatever it was, he goes about illustrating it innocently and generously, as parents are innocent and generous who add to the world they know not what.

The favorable and specific aegis of the Musa/sun/brain on the horizon, a golden thumbprint of what Guston likes to refer to as the "generous law" of art is the leveller, propping the oddness against the delicate, lightsome pulse of the background. The generous law, in Guston's case, is amended with the rider of risk: Its virtual definitions as slippery as grease, this painting should not by any convention "work" at all, yet it vibrates in the mind. 

The same spirit of law and oversight shades Track. A toad-like foot pushing a ball along a track that is barely hoed and widened by the scraping heel of the foot. Light is shut off, reduced to stripes, but little of it was ever required: predetermination vises the picture. The artist who pushes furthest is also likely to be the one who first reaches art's obdurate boundaries, who feels the most slotted despite his daring. 

In a funk once, feeling sorry for myself when something I was working on was fighting back, I wondered in a letter to Guston if it wasn't the sheerest gall to assume, when you come right down to it, that there was any nourishing relationship between the artist and the art. It went its way--and you tagged along a good number of paces back, in agony. Guston, a hair-trigger when it comes to questions like these, ones he mulls over all the time, wrote back promptly, disagreeing. "It is not gall--no, it is shame---shame to be an artist--shame to create--Embarrassment--a huge dose--to be an artist... God says, 'Don't fuck around with my stuff, boy--you just love, adore, cherish what I have made." But, the next hour and my desires have changed. I WANT TO MAKE."

It isn't that Guston's unaware of the niceties. Knew knows that it is art's clever game to allow the word shoe to be actually shoe instead of an eosh. He knows that, conversely, to view a skillfully untampered depiction of the boats into which we all put our feet is curiously ennobling. But he has the bad manner to mix these both up. The Guston shoe is not a sweeping together of pieces, is not particularly "real looking," is neither a granulation, nor a paraphrase. The part that isn't lovely is ugly, why hide the fact?

He both loves the objects of the world and is cast down by them. Depression and delight are impartially described with a foolish amount of courage: foolish courage--art-making--in turn becoming one additional and transcendent object for the artist's consideration.

"Thou canst indeed be sought and found, but thou canst not be anticipated," warned St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and if there is one sterling quality to any Guston it is steadfast nonanticipation. It has been the basis of his life in art. When, in the fifties, he made a statement like "Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world.," most took it as an instance of a metaphorical bent of mind. Now we know better--and have to catch up.

--Ross Feld, 1980

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