PRINT February 1995


In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.

I FIRST SAW HEAD AND BOTTLE more than a decade ago, at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, in a show of paintings done by Philip Guston in the last years of his life, 1969 to 1980. It was work I was immediately at home with. By this time Guston had stripped his vocabulary down to a few sturdy basics—soles of boots, bodies of water, planks, pipes, and bulbous stub bled heads with one huge eye and no features. His themes were art, death, and the self. There’s a strong sense of mortality throughout, an impatience at the end to be done with everything but plain talk about essentials.

This was 1983. It seemed likely then that the affable duffer Ronald Reagan would take the world blundering into a thermonuclear war, and mine was not the only imagination dominated by the pleasure of ruins. I was writing stories with titles like “The Erotic Potato,” about a world inhabited entirely by insects, and “The Boot’s Tale,” in which an old boot in an empty landscape reflects ruefully on the passing of humanity. Black snow drifts down, and the few irradiated survivors cannibalize one another. Guston’s late paintings were preoccupied with the same sort of entropy. They too seemed Beckettian efforts to knock together a few primal meanings out there in the wasteland. Nails recurred, big thick spiky ones that held together simple wooden structures or cobbled the sole of a boot to its uppers. Guston had been a distinguished abstractionist, and before that a figurative painter, before embarking on these bleak cartoons. Hilton Kramer called him a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum, but this was quite wrong: these paintings expressed a genuine and timely refusal to tolerate rhetoric. They were frank rejections of manners and embellishment and decoration and masks. Art, boots, and wine—that’s all there is, they seemed to say. If Guston was a mandarin, he was one who had done the equivalent of giving away his money and settling into a fleapit rooming house to drink Thunderbird and think about the sea.

I was living on the Bowery in those years, a block from the men’s shelter, and I reflected on this old man and his angry preoccupation with last things, and found something Lear-on-the-heath about it, something cranky and irrational and romantic. I was impressed at how much he was able to say in these deceptively crude paintings. His titles alone conjured a richly derelict world: Box and Shadow, Edge of Town, Night, The Desert, The Floor. (I appropriated the entire set for a short-story collection that never saw the light of day.) There’s a bitter, reductive materialism here, with just the faintest ironic hint of spirit. A skeptic hears the beating of the wings of death, and is briefly tempted to reconsider. Human relationships are definitely not an issue anymore. Nonetheless, an entire world view is contained in these few stark paintings, wedged between the opposing poles of artmaking and despair, with hovering in back the doubled figure of the painter wino.

Head and Bottle comments on this Bowery esthetic. It’s Guston’s one self-referential painting in the group. There’s a book, a bottle, a lightbulb; and a man. Or, rather, not a man but an eye, a great Emersonian eye, drinking in the world. Emerson’s eye drank in Nature and found God, but Guston’s drinks a bottle. He mostly made these works while he was a professor at Boston University, but there’s no Nature in them, and no God. Instead there are rooms, pits, black seas, darkness, and turds. The paradox is, as it is with Beckett, that identifying the void, and attempting to depict it, brings something into being that is other than a void. I read and drink by the light of an unshaded bulb, that’s all I do. I have no mouth, for there’s nothing to say. I have no body. In the act of issuing these denials, however, I make art.

In 1990 I managed to work up the Bowery esthetic into a novel, Spider. The book’s furniture is meager—a room, a canal, a potato patch, and a shed. Spider, a schizophrenic, drifts about this empty world, his mind collapsing as memories, delusions, and nightmares gradually overwhelm him. Spider inhabits Guston’s wasteland, a shifting, menacing region where material reality is charged with latent horror. He too can only react and record as he struggles feebly and in vain against the current sweeping him toward oblivion.

Head and Bottle makes me uneasy now. It has so savagely excised manners and masks and clutter and vanity that what’s left throbs with an unbearably harsh feeling of solitude. It’s a painting that figuratively reveals the skull beneath the skin, a sort of memento mori. But against its yawning emptiness, against the death that’s in it, it itself constitutes a structure of fragile defiance, the very fact of its production. It’s the closest thing to silence, but it isn’t silent. It’s the closest thing to death that isn’t dead. It has a morbid vitality that attracts and repels at the same time, like some unknown creature shuffling in the shadows behind the studio door.