As many of us know, to be in the presence of a work of art is to be present with your whole body. One doesn’t just look, one feels. This is especially true for those whose artwork has become so well known that we think we know it because of all the times we’ve seen its image reproduced. Sensitive viewers understand this predicament with acute awareness and receptivity. For this reason, we asked a few among our friends to pay pilgrimage to the profound works by the great artist Philip Guston on the occasion of his mostly timely retrospective Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. We’re honored to share their personal reflections below.
Without making a fuss, the National Gallery of Art version of Philip Guston Now, shows an artist rising to the cultural moment again and again. It’s a brilliant exhibition, undiminished by the controversy, lovingly arranged and lit so that everything but the luminous hues fall away. It’s striking to remember that this artist, who died relatively young at sixty-six, spanned three eras of the American century: the Depression, the Atomic Age, and the hope and terror of the sixties and seventies. In each era he made works that came from and commented on the times without ever being didactic or obvious. The “abstract” paintings of the 1950s and early ’60s looked especially good to me, partly because they’re so utterly out of step, manifestly a “thing” in a center, but neither fish nor fowl. By the time he had found his way into his own unnamable language with The Return (1956–58) and Painter (1959), he was outside of a contemporaneous context. When the hood paintings arrived in the late 1960s, they are—as perfectly demonstrated by the recreation of the Marlborough 1970 show—sui generis. I could feel how shocking they must have been in form and subject. It also reminded me that while, yes, Guston was influenced by the bigfoot and balloon-tire vernacular of American cartooning, his relationship to Robert Crumb is one of shared influence and, most importantly an attitude: Both artists indict America and themselves. Both act as observer and participant. No innocents allowed. But ultimately, the paintings are found in the paint. You can see it in the 1981 Michael Blackwood film; Guston is painting with El Greco and his beloved Piero della Francesca: the scale, the scope, the process, the color, the amount of space devoted to color and atmosphere. The work looked astonishingly fresh and felt, in time and space, generous. This is not, as the show demonstrated, art to be afraid of or cautioned against. It’s art in which to find nourishment. Those cadmium horizons are eternal.
On the Guston show at NGA
One thing I was persistently struck by when seeing this stellar, beautifully installed exhibit, was the backstory on the Marlborough show in 1970, which was shown in this retrospective in its entirety in one room. I tried to imagine, after spending so long looking at the abstractions (which always hinted at figures anyway), that we were all pals with Phil, arriving at his opening in October 1970, and tried to get some kind of whiff of what that might have felt like, walking in and seeing that work for the first time. I thought of other artists—Robert Crumb, Maryan, Peter Saul—all contemporaries who were similarly engaged in far-out figuration. The outrage and total repulsion from his “friends” and the ensuing negative press … it all seems so quaintly provincial. His best friend Morty stopped talking to him?!? Trying to remember if any of us have friends that stopped talking to us because of a change in our work … maybe I just haven’t noticed. And if this show doesn’t demonstrate with total clarity the utter unreliability and (potential) foolishness of art critics, then what else does?? De Kooning was apparently the only buddy who stuck by him, saying something along the lines of “We don’t all have to play on the same team.”
I first encountered Philip Guston as a teenager thumbing through an issue of Smithsonian magazine. There, in those pages, was a tiny reproduction of Guston’s Head and Bottle, painted in 1975. The head in Head and Bottle has no body to speak of. It lay face down on a hardwood floor, a bean shaped head with no mouth, and one big sad eye. The eye is fixed on a green bottle, also face down—the scene illuminated by a bare lightbulb hung from above. I remember being struck by this image. Who would paint such a thing? I was only just beginning to take an interest in painting and had never heard of Guston, but I was smitten right off the bat. I clipped Head and Bottle out of the magazine and tacked it up on the wall of my bedroom.
I have looked at and thought about Guston’s work quite a bit over the years, and my admiration has only grown. As an artist, influences come and go, but Guston has remained a more or less stable presence. Naturally, I was excited to make a pilgrimage to DC along with a group of friends and fellow enthusiasts to visit Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art. It’s a beautiful show. Though much of the work is by now familiar, tracing Guston’s evolution, his hero’s journey from WPA to Woodstock, still thrills. Head and Bottle didn’t make the cut, neither did Back View (1977) or Head and Smoke (1974) or Green Rug (1976). But who cares? We got Painter’s Forms (1972), Couple in Bed (1977), and Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973), not to mention the bulk of the infamous Marlborough show. In fact, Guston’s batting average was so high, particularly during his 1970s Rumspringa, there really isn’t a dud in the house.
While Dan and I were standing in front of The Street, (a grimy number painted in 1977, and maybe my favorite in the show…) Dan remarked that Guston had accomplished much for an artist who had lived a relatively short life (Guston died in 1980 at the age of sixty-six.) Now, what if our man had cleaned up his act? Layed off the Camels and booze? What would another ten years of Guston have looked like? Or another twenty? It boggles the mind. Lucky for us, the body of work Guston left behind is alive and kicking, and continues to give.
In Defense of Philip Guston’s Rejection of his “Abstract” Works.
“…you paint the way you have to in order to give. That's life itself, and someone will look and say it is the product of knowing, but it has nothing to do with knowing, it has to do with giving. “
—Franz Kline, Evergreen Review, 1958
Philip Guston was the smartest and most generous person I’ve ever known. He was a man of omnivorous, unrequited appetite. His hunger for connection was manic and he received the bulk of his sustenance from pictures, ingesting tons of useable bits, a sucking, surging whale.
A voracious image collector he consumed and distributed visual nutrition and handed out roads of possibility by his example. He validated affection over research and imagination over tactics. He sent back to us everything he had acquired for our own use. We needed to learn no theory or ascribe to no world view. From the inhospitality of academic strategy we could fall back into the rich, stupid arms of desire, indulging truths unleashed by the irrational. The humility of his offering is incalculable.
He was instantly intimate, offering quick friendships to anyone who indicated a thirst for any item on his menu of enthusiasms. Philip’s every acquaintance was made to believe they were his closest friend. Visitors would be treated to his signature pasta carbonara and much Corvo wine, vodka and grappa.
His stately, hulking torso on toned, agile legs that propelled him through rooms shimmered with the patina of a compressed energy. Our dearest mutual friend, Ross Feld, once compared him to Zero Mostel and I imagined his colossus frame sturdily fitted to and tripping about on Jules Feiffer’s nimble Astaire feet.
Philip of course could brood. Operatically. At the table his eyes would lock, holding you fast in his speech. A conspiratorial lean-in with eager eyes acknowledging receipt of his confidence. And then a conversational gorging. Yes, yes, Sironi, Evergood, Leger. Yes, Bartolomeo Bimbi’s and Giovanna Garzoni’s gargantuan bowls of fruits: Cherries! Bimbi’s red tassles! Yes!
In 1970 Ross Feld and I went to the Marlborough Galley, easily six times, to spend the day looking at the Guston show. Ross was fascinated and I was dumb, forcing myself to find an entrance to the absorption of this work. The telltale surface showed that one of the Klan paintings was obviously painted over an impastoed abstraction he had pulled from his racks and then eradicated. I was puzzled as to what that may have meant.
Some have taken Philip to task for disowning his 50s–60s works of Becketty-fidgets. But he was right. Not that they aren’t beautiful artworks…..but….. Pollock, Kline and Newman had made paintings where analogy to lived experience could be catalyzed, magically, to the illusion of a conjoined human narrative. In their paintings the viewer was pulled towards a habitation rather than given an exhibit to understand. Philip felt that his paint splotch survivors standing after the “doubt battle” was philosophical illustration, a pie chart, and not story enough for the Philip who wanted to “make”. His doubt period didn’t supply the home base ingredient of recognition as did Giacommetti’s scratches or Bram Van Velde’s structural surrender. He acceded to victorious America’s Calvinist disdain of imagery. He accepted but was not convinced that he was harboring a secreted constricting pretense as he was acting within a format consonant with received polemics.
A man aware of his skills and sacrifice and attainments he was not happy occupying a subordinate position within the ranks that buddy and former underling Jackson Pollock had made a necessary enlistment. Copping a Mondrian-ish trope from Bradley Walker Tomlin (as did Reinhardt) he took on abstraction with courage and extraordinary intelligence but without the deepest of commitments. In many of these pictures, which avoided a relationship to the frame (as did Pollock’s), he nonetheless reflexively added almost Greenbergian touches of classicism, holding the corners and edges with subtle compositional pushpins. This action, to which he succumbed often, drained the paintings of a fealty to the sincerity supposedly inherent in the pictures, whose screenplay was to read that the “horrible din subsided and left us with smoking, stateless remnants of the struggle.”
In short, he was both devoutly earnest and faking it. A fiercely proud, egocentric man he was confused and ashamed of “riding with the Cossacks” a situation that was foretold by his favorite author, Isaac Babel and that he now, retrospectively, felt he emulated. A Jew, from an icon-free people, he was painting Talmudic argument. His hereditary diet left him bereft of the tales that fed his Catholic Italophilic love of imagery. Picasso had said, “Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun” and Philip felt he was painting the yellow spot.
That is, he was making “paintings”. With the last strokes he unconsciously “fixed” them. He had wanted them to evidence a process and felt that concessions to an imported pictorial unity nullified the integrity of those truths. He was fully aware of that and felt guilty that the current intellectual atmosphere would not give berth to his more desired path.
His social realism was well-intended propaganda, meant to be a teaching mechanism, a public declaration of an articulate, well-crafted pictorial philanthropy. What bothered him most about his 50s-60s work was that their constraints prohibited the fullness of his “giving”. Not to be maudlin but his art was how he gave his love. Really.
By the mid-60s his handful of victorious paint daubs finally coagulated to stoic, black, pulsing blobs, emerging center stage from the bleating, gray ravage. Now, these large homeless plots of black would crave shape. When the squiggles, lines and blots inflated to their required comfort of identifiable forms Philip remarked that he had two kinds of friends after the 1970 show: Those who called him “Philip” and those who called him “Phil”. He said he had no use for the people who called him “Phil”. He said that he didn’t want to die like Clyfford Still, replicating a product.
By 1967 his only behavioral model was the outdated “anti-hero”. This persona format he tenuously entered to display his affection. Philip as James Dean…or (horrors!) Sal Mineo. There was no cultural assignation available in which to deposit these works. Starting in 1967 his inchoate drawings and fledgling small works refuted the air of the swinging 60s.
Art Spiegelman and I have debated whether R. Crumb’s Flaky Floont had any impact while Bill Berkson told me that Philip maintained that he hadn’t seen Crumb’s work. However, it’s moot as they both derive from similar available sources and DeChirico’s turn to comic style is an even more valid a contender for any imagined influence. Most importantly, Philip himself was a practiced cartoonist since his teens.
As Apollinaire said of Picasso, Philip “assassinated himself.”
In Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet” the artist is resurrected but only when the trigger is pulled, the suicide completed. The resurrection is activated only through a faith born of something as sappy as integrity. Philip was disgusted by cleverness, by the preening sophistry of art talk. He saw himself at an impasse. He banished himself from the surface of a discourse upon which he had spent his lifelong energies and intelligence to remain visible. He said he didn’t care if he ever exhibited again.
At this transitional coordinate it was the poets with whom he collaborated that gave his meandering imagery, refugees of his collapse, the semblance of meaning. The poets, the story-tellers, fixed his rudimentary images in a context, any context, until he could reflect more articulately on what would be his subject.
The Hebrew Bible has plenty of stories but there is little visual history of representation in that culture so there was no trajectory on which he could deposit his added velocity. However, his favorite authors, Babel, Kafka, Dickens, Gogol even Philip Roth, wrote rich storylines, much of it in the narrator’s voice, allowing Philip a segued access to a fanciful style of not autobiography but memoiresque reflection and invention, with protagonists.
His digested Catholicism would be exorcized migrating to the slovenly mis-shapes of Yiddishkeit. A Yiddishkeit with little edible picture product and almost no introspective precedence. The final barrier to the self-exile from submission to discourse was being cleared. It was a Goya-like migration, off the map. One can almost read, “And This I Saw…” Ross and Philip would argue, Philip claiming that his work was allegory and quoting Walter Benjamin, saying that allegory corrects a false notion of unity. His relief was palpable.
We bonded when in 1976 he came to see my in-progress mural work at Brooklyn’s Congregation B’nai Yosef. My commission was to cover the entire wall space in thematic paintings. He was appreciative, flattering and graciously related this project to his recall of the Works Progress Administration. My wife, Maria, born in Sicily, conversed with him in Italian and we served him Sicilian food, which he loved.
We visited him in Woodstock sometimes with Ross and Ellen Feld and sometimes alone. I met up with him often in New York and we would visit museums and galleries or schmooze over coffee and sandwiches. I was always awed at having his friendship and never got over it. In his Woodstock studio one night Philip, in front of an active canvas, asked me with only partially disingenuous distress, “Archie, can I do that?” Shocked by the question that seemed to imply my advisory response, I said, shakily, “You’re Philip Guston, you can do anything.”
What did I get from Philip?
"Between phrases I said to him [Caruso], under my breath, 'I'm dying!' 'Sto morendo! Sto morendo!' And he said, 'Courage! Courage! I'll sustain you!' between phrases: 'Coraggio! Coraggio! Io ti sustegno,' in his Neapolitan dialect. And he did. He gave me the encouragement I so badly needed."
—Rosa Ponselle, opera singer
Thank you Philip….from all of us.
Congratulations to Harry Cooper whose selection and layout of the NGA Guston show was superb, allowing for a seamless understanding of Guston’s evolution and triumphs.
For the NGA opening the GSA allowed entrance to view Guston’s magnificent and rarely seen 1942 New Deal mural, Reconstruction and Wellbeing of the Family that was made for the now reconfigured Social Security Building in Washington, DC. His commission was the result of a competition for which Ben Shahn received first place and Guston’s proposal came in second. So, in the main hallway there is an enormous Shahn mural that Guston saw, daily, while painting his own work. Shahn was of course a huge influence on Guston (see image). Bits of Sironi, Luini, Bimbi and so, so many others pop up in Philip’s late works, delighting astute artists and art historians by adding snips to the rebus of his memory. To my happy surprise I found in Shahn’s painting an image that shows up in a lot in Philip’s work that I could never place, thinking it a Savinio swipe or a, less likely, completed horseshoe. In Shahn’s painting, located maybe two hundred feet away from Guston’s, is this image of a steam pipe with rivet holes, a mainstay character in a number of Guston’s paintings. What a delight to see!
Initially I was not really all that crazy about going down to DC to see the Guston show. Mainly feeling that I had seen the work, especially late stuff, so often and for so long that I didn’t really know to see them anymore. As great as all that work is, what am I really going to take away from seeing it all one more time?
However … After I woke up in a bag swaying back and forth on an overhead Amtrak luggage rack, and realized I had been drugged and kidnapped by my “peers” it was clear the trip was on. Oh well, so be it.
It was so great to be back at our nation’s capital, especially at this peaceful and almost Buddhistic moment in US history. Not to mention how nice it was to be reacquainted with how nice and easy it is to just stroll into any given museum free of charge!
So ultimately, of course, it was great to see those damn Gustons again. A rather well installed recreation of the 1970 Marlborough show (replete with warnings telling viewers to look to “the left” to avoid coming into contact with any disturbing images) contained maybe the best paintings in the show, other than some of the less seen (perhaps?) mid-sixties clumpy things, kind of my favorites all-in-all.
Anyway, one thing that did come to mind: as I always say about punk rock, that in spite of its fundamentally nihilistic message it is played and delivered with an astounding sense of purpose and often with hysterical enthusiasm. Seems the same is true with Guston. (His paintings were made during punk rock times…something in the air?) The imagery of those late things is pretty damn grim most of the time, but the paint activity is so lively and somehow reassuring.