PRINT October 2010


Philip Guston

Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010. 352 pages. $30.

PHILIP GUSTON’S CAREER swung like a dangling lightbulb—from figuration (starting in 1930) to abstraction (around 1948) and back to figuration (from 1968 until his death in 1980). Yet he often insisted on the continuity of his work. In 1958, when asked about the “change in approach” in the late ’40s, he remarked, “I really don’t believe in change.” In 1979, a year of outlandish paintings such as Moon, which shows the artist at work in a barren, spider-infested landscape, Guston looked back to White Painting #1, 1951, a languid amalgam of abstract strokes that he had painted without stepping back to appraise it: “I feel as if I am the same painter I was then.”

If you find the artist’s protestations of continuity hard to believe, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations should put those doubts to rest, or at least assuage them, for the surprise contained within is just how little his enthusiasms, his favored images, and even his verbal formulations changed from the statements and interviews of the ’50s—alas, there is little before that—to the marathon talks and fragmentary notes of the ’70s. The poet Clark Coolidge, who lovingly compiled this collection, says as much in the preface, even admitting that he spared us some word-for-word repetitions. Guston was always the same thinker—almost.

“Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world,” Guston wrote in 1958 in It Is, one of the little magazines of the New York School. In the ’70s, in an unpublished fragment titled “Where I Paint,” he wrote: “I look out to see the end of the street, the edge of town.” The later dictum revisits the earlier one, but in a plainer, more vernacular mode. The shift is telling, for Guston made some very vernacular paintings in the interim, such as Edge of Town, 1969, which depicts two cigar-puffing Klansmen driving their flivver into a white wall. (It was but one of the shockers of the notorious 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery in New York in which Guston unveiled his new cartoonish mode.)

In short, the edge (of street/town/world) was a meme for Guston, a repeated yet altering unit in his artistic evolution. The clock was another. In 1958, he described the process of bringing a painting to completion as a “clocklike path of recognition” and even titled one abstract painting, of 1956–57, The Clock. Then, starting in 1969 with a pencil drawing, the clock itself burst on the scene—an ungainly hero, gesticulating and ticking. As Dore Ashton, his friend and biographer, notes in a valuable introduction, the clock “became an ominous avatar, as it had been metaphorically long before.” Thus Guston’s diction of the ’50s, which solicited existential depths that his quivering abstractions could never quite secure, became his visuality of the ’70s. It was as if he woke up one day to realize that the metaphors he had attached to his abstract work would make some great images, if he only dared literalize them.

Reading the collected writings with Guston’s paintings in mind, one learns just how programmatic this daring was. In the mid-’60s, in a conversation with the poet and critic Bill Berkson as well as in a short essay in Art News, Guston compared the canvas to a courtroom where the artist was both prosecutor and defendant, judge and jury. In painting, he insisted, there were no shortcuts, no out-of-court settlements. Then came Courtroom, 1970, one of the stars of the Marlborough show, with its paint-spattered Klansman, its debris of frames and stretcher bars, its victim in the trash, and its long arm of the law with a Mickey Mouse glove. The work exploded the painting-as-courtroom metaphor, illustrating it without exemplifying it. (Guston painted the Marlborough canvases easily: They almost poured out of him.)

Or take Guston’s fascination with the golem, that Frankenstein’s monster of Jewish lore, a man of mud who was created by the rabbis to serve and protect but who often ran amok. (Remember the second commandment: No graven images.) For Guston, born Goldstein, the golem stood for the hubris and guilt of the artist: “One would be a fool, some kind of fool, to want to paint a picture,” he told David Sylvester in 1960, and you can still hear him lean on the repeated word. By 1966, for his show at the Jewish Museum in New York, Guston painted as if he were making golems, mixing black and white paint directly on the canvas to form gray blobs. And then, in the ’70s, he depicted golems, for what else could his all-hood-and-no-body Klansmen or his Cyclopic lima-bean heads be?

Guston’s memes abound, and their perseverance is striking, but the turn from metaphor to illustration in 1968 was nonetheless a profound rupture in his evolution—a great leap downward, so to speak (from abstract to concrete, figurative to literal, philosophy to fiction, etc.)—and Guston knew it. Goading himself on, he would lambaste his ’50s work as inside baseball, art for artists. “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! wanted to tell Stories!” Berkson records him exclaiming in 1970. And yet many of the stories he wanted to tell were about—what else?—art. Guston’s favorite pictures were the ones of Klansmen (he called them “hoods”) painting and discussing paintings.

As with the clock or the courtroom, the surfacing of “the art world” into the paintings is a literalizing turn, an especially self-critical one, and it raises the Big Question: Did that turn make Guston’s passions less arty and more legible, as he hoped, or did it just deflate them? Did his art survive the self-imposed trial by farce?

I don’t know whether Guston (who was the best-read high school dropout ever) was familiar with Friedrich von Schlegel’s concept of romantic irony, but it illuminates the shift in his painting, for what Schlegel advised was the acknowledgment of artifice and the pursuit of self-parody—a determined lightness of being in face of the absurdity and chaos of life: “It is the freest of all liberties,” the German poet wrote, “since it allows one to rise above oneself.” Schlegel’s concept harmonizes the two antithetical reactions to the Marlborough show: de Kooning’s exclamation “It is freedom!” which Guston loved, and Hilton Kramer’s review in the New York Times, “A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum,” which he hated. In Kramer’s mind, Guston had willfully sunk below himself. The sophistication of Guston’s practice was invisible to Kramer, but what the critic nailed in that memorable phrase was the work’s built-in distance, self-mockery, and irony (from the Greek eironeia, “pretended ignorance”).

Guston’s new visual wit—his stew of high jinks, puns, and misrecognitions—was almost impossible for a generation raised on abstraction to swallow, but his verbal wit had always been there. When Ad Reinhardt read a list of artistic thou-shalt-nots to a panel of painters in 1960, Harold Rosenberg asked Guston to comment. His reply: “The artist should not want to be right.” In 1972, near the end of a painful-to-read discussion with Louis Finkelstein, who kept making the mistake of disagreeing with Guston (a war of mutual interruption and misconstrual ensued), Guston defused the tension in one blow: “I didn’t realize I would run into somebody as paranoid as I am.”

Guston didn’t like talking to painters: He preferred the allusive comments of writers like his wife, Musa; Berkson; Ashton; William Corbett; Philip Roth; and Coolidge (whose private conversation with Guston in his Woodstock studio in 1972 is one of the highlights of the book). But Guston’s favorite interlocutor was the composer Morton Feldman, who ran the New York Studio School for several years and gave many talks there, including one with Guston in 1968, which is transcribed here. Van Gogh had Theo, Guston said, “so I had Morty.” In Feldman, Guston met his intellectual and verbal match. When Guston summoned his friend to Florida in 1967 to see his new, one-line drawings, Feldman said, “Hold that line,” and flew in from Texas. Guston felt he was working without a net, risking everything in the new spareness. Feldman looked, ruminated, and then told Guston a parable about Houdini’s last trick: going off the Brooklyn Bridge in a trunk with no key. He added: “But you haven’t thrown away the key.” Guston loved it.

But Feldman could not come to terms with the new figurative work that immediately followed the Houdini trick. He was literally dumbstruck when he saw it, and that was that: The two friends never spoke again. Their breakup haunts this volume (Guston worries it, justifies it, regrets it), and it brings us back to the question of Guston’s turn.

Reading the book twice convinced me that Guston’s return to the figure in 1968 was predestined, or at least that his abstract career was a sojourn in a land where he was never at home. (No true-blue abstract painter could give the kind of lecture that Guston gave on Piero’s cycle of paintings at Arezzo.) The problem wasn’t just the hermeticism of abstraction, or its purity, or its self-importance, or its narrative incapacity, or its artiness. (“He wants art,” Guston said about Feldman.) Abstract art did not satisfy Guston’s yearning for what he called tangibilia, touchable stuff, the thickness of things, a dissatisfaction he kept relocating earlier, even back to the ’50s. And abstraction was too easy, he said in 1979—too thin, too quickly consumed, too lacking in the “contest” between structure and meaning. When the interviewer (Jan Butterfield) nicely objected that abstraction might be considered thicker and more real than figuration because it does not depict something else, Guston replied excitedly, “I don’t think you can begin with what you should end up with.”

It’s a key moment, a revelation of Guston’s dialectical streak, his love of the winding path. It explains why so much of his talk twists around opposites: recognition and blindness, freedom and impossibility, movement and fixity, exposing and masking, acting and witnessing, doing and knowing, self-consciousness and self-forgetting, art and life, good and evil. And it explains—despite his unease with abstraction—his lifelong love of Mondrian’s work, especially the drawings of the teens and the paintings of the ’40s, tangled by revision, when Mondrian “became involved in sensations and intimations of the absolute, rather than grabbing the absolute by the throat,” as Guston told Feldman. “It’ll die if you grab it by the throat. Like [crumples papers].” Thinking about Mondrian made Guston hungry. “Well,” he said to no one in particular, “should we send out for some Chinese food?”

Harry Cooper is curator and head of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.