Thursday, January 29, 2009

Inspiration for Painting - Philip Guston

Yesterday I was thinking about writing a piece on Philip Guston. It was a gloomy, stormy day and I felt kind of melancholy and annoyed, really too cranky to write. In the afternoon, as I went to the door to let the dogs out, I saw a red-tailed hawk in the yard standing over a kill and eating warily. When I opened the door, the hawk flew off with the corpse in one talon. I went over to look at the spot where he had been eating. In the center of the area, surrounded by a ring of feathers (a mourning dove I think), were pieces of viscera - intestines, a foot, pieces of flesh. They were the same dingy pinkish-red color that Guston used a lot.

It's funny the way artists develop a personal pallette - it's just those certain colors that have more meaning than others. Mine has orange, blue, green, white and - the favorite - black. Guston developed his pallette early in his painting career and it never changed even though his painting style went through contortions: white, black and what looks like cadmium red medium plus a weird green and a blue. That pallette identifies Guston nearly as much as the forms he painted over and over in the latter part of his career.

A friend asked why I liked Guston and I told her that the paint handling was what attracted me so much - I liked the luscious surface and the way you could see that he changed his mind in a painting and painted over an area so that it looked like an obvious change, not like it had always been the way it ended up. I admire that because that obvious over-painting gives me a little inkling into the process of construction and lets me see the painter's struggle.

I have a quotation from Guston pinned up on my wall in the studio: "Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing." I'm not sure I agree that satisfaction is nothing, but lord knows there's plenty of frustration in making art. Is it the overcoming of frustration or the frustration itself that keeps us making?

I think I have three or four books on Guston that I used to spend a lot of time studying. The main one is the hardcover Philip Guston Retrospective, organized by Michael Auping. Another very intimate look at Guston is Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by his daughter Musa Mayer, which is also about her own life as well as his. The Retrospective has lots of reproductions of works from throughout Guston's career. (There is also a paperback version, but I'm not sure if it's as extensive.)

Looking closely at the works in the Retrospective one afternoon, I began crying because I empathized so strongly with the sadness and despair Guston expressed in those late paintings that are referred to so often as "cartoons." The depth of feeling he painted is intense and the loneliness of his battle against depression, alcoholism, injustice and futility hit me. What a weight he took on! The forms he painted repetitively such as shoes and boots, spindly legs, the huge head with one eye, the bottle, the hooded figures, the bare lightbulb, the pointing finger, the cigarettes, the books, the clock - all became so weighted with meaning, both universal and autobiographical.

Guston, born Phillip (with two l's) Goldstein in Montreal in 1913, had two very traumatic events in his childhood and youth. Most shockingly, at about age 10 he found his father's body hanged in suicide. (His father had been a blacksmith in the old country of Russia and was forced to make a living as a junkman when the family moved to California.) Secondly, when Guston was about 17, his older brother Nat had his legs crushed when his own car rolled down a slope, pinning him. Within a short time he died of gangrene in the hospital.

As a boy and young teen, Guston began drawing and hid himself away in a large closet with a bare lightbulb where he practiced cartoons. He dropped out of high school and had a very limited art education, but he became a talented muralist, who worked for the WPA during the depression and later taught at the University of Iowa. Beginning in the 1950s, Guston began painting abstractly and became a member of the New York Abstract Expressionists.

"To BWT", 1952, 48" x 51", oil on canvas

In the 1950s and '60s Guston made beautiful, abstract paintings that were very successful and extolled by Clement Greenberg and the AbExers.

"Zone", 1954, 46" x 46", oil on canvas

Guston's work began changing as he explored abstraction. Dark shapes started appearing on the canvas but he painted out recognizable images because an image "excludes too much." The paintings he made in the 1960s were called the "dark paintings" and were not well received by critics because they seemed to exist outside the accepted definition of abstraction.

"Close-Up III", 1961, 70" x 72", oil on canvas

By the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was in full swing, Guston was mobilized by the atmosphere of protestors, riots and the election of Nixon in 1968. What he referred to as "the final mask" came down and he began painting recognizable forms - especially hooded figures that looked like Ku Klux Klansmen. (I should say that Guston didn't regard the KKK in an admiring way but said that he was fascinated by evil and wanted to show the KKK carrying on their normal activities - more as ironic models of political actors. These hooded figures actually had been an early theme in his painting in the 1940s.) Rebelling against the prevalent belief of the absolute purity of non-objective form, Guston said, "I got sick and tired of all that purity … I wanted to tell stories!"

In his 1970 show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, Guston revealed the full extent of his defiance of orthodox Abstract Expressionism when he showed paintings such as "Bad Habits." He was excoriated for leaving the fold of abstraction in much the same way that Bob Dylan was criticized ad nauseum for going electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival.

"Bad Habits", 1970, 73"x78", oil on canvas.

Guston continued painting in his own style for the rest of his life, developing the portfolio of forms that meant so much to him.*

"Painting, Smoking, Eating," 1973, 77 1/2" x 103 1/2", oil on canvas

This work is so much about painting to me. I read it as the painter obsessively seeing his work (all those shoes) in his mind even though the actual painting is not in front of him.

"Head and Bottle," 1975, 65 1/2" x 68 1/2"

Can any image express alcoholic dependency more vividly? (This painting sold in May 2007 for $6.5 million. Drink up!)

"Talking," 1979, 78" x 68", oil on canvas

*Guston was pretty well known in Boston since he taught at Boston University for five years in the '70s and developed a following among his students. His painting "Talking" seems to me that he is gesturing and talking about painting - never out of his thoughts.

Guston died at age 67 in 1980, just three weeks after the opening of the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


ambermaida said...

Thank you for sharing such a vision of Guston, i am inspired to dig deeper into his art and life.
I am currently reading and viewing a large book on Anselm Keifer, one of my favorites... Guston will be next!

Leslie Avon Miller said...

Thank you Nancy! "Head and Bottle"! Well, there is is. Wow. I am so enjoying your blog, and extra thanks for art history lessons that I am delighted to read.

Nancy Natale said...

Dear Amber and Leslie,
My father always told me I should have been a teacher so I guess I'm finally getting it out of my system now. I hope these "Inspiration" posts aren't too pedantic, but when I get rolling, I feel like I have to do right by the artist I'm talking about. Also, I think that I feel the need to explain just why I am inspired by their work when it is so different from my own and there's apparently so much difference between each of the three "master" artists I've written about - at least on the surface.

I'm glad to hear that you've gotten something out of the post and that you may look at Guston's work a little differently now.

Blue Sky Dreaming said...

Thank you from me as well. I have known Guston's work for years but your piece filled in the holes for me, when he changed his style and expression and his early life experiences. The photos intermixed with your writing have been wonderful!

Nancy Natale said...

I appreciate your comment, Blue Sky, and am glad that you gained some info about Guston. His work was really so autobiographical that knowing about his life adds a lot to understanding and appreciating his painting. And I'm glad you like the photos. The quality is not great, but perhaps you will seek out other sources that give a better reflection of the real work - or see the real thing!

Anonymous said...

Philip was my tutor at New York Studio School in the 72-73 sessions. He was such a humble, loving person, and the first time he came to my studio I had just done a small painting of an old vintage phone. He loved it! We talked like I was one of his colleagues—never condescending, and always incredibly insightful. Have never met a man like him.