Monday, April 18th, 2011

Teller of Tales: The Loquacity of Philip Guston

Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011, 328 pages, ISBN 978-0-520-23509-0 (cloth), 978-0-520-25716-0 (pbk.), 26 illustrations, $65 (cloth), $29.95 (pbk.).

Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works
, by David Kaufmann, University of California Press, 201, 118 pages, ISBN 978-0-520-26575-2 (cloth), 978-0-520-26576-9 (pbk), 10 illustrations, $60 (cloth), $24.95 (pbk).

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973. Oil on canvas. 196.8 x 262.9 cm. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973. Oil on canvas. 196.8 x 262.9 cm. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

In his 1994 book, Understanding Comics, artist Scott McCloud considers the cross-fertilization of words and pictures in comics and observes that verbal and visual arts have moved closer over the past century. He might have used Philip Guston as an example. For all his physical involvement with paint, Guston was also a consummate man of words: not only did he borrow from comics and use words in his paintings, but he engaged with language at all levels – avid reader, tireless conversationalist, eloquent writer, and voluble panelist and lecturer. He studied allegory and collaborated with poets.

Appropriately, poet Clark Coolidge, one of those collaborators, has compiled Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations (University of California Press, 2011, with an introduction by Dore Ashton), assembling documents generated during Guston’s development from WPA murals through abstraction and back to the personal form of representation he practiced from the late 1960s until his death in 1980.  These can be usefully read in conjunction with Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works, a compact, multifaceted analysis of that productive last decade by David Kaufmann (University of California Press, 2010), himself a poet and critic.

While Guston liked to stress the continuity of painting, his own career remains defined by rupture, by the paintings of hooded figures in his 1970 Marlborough Gallery show, which not only abandoned abstraction but opened the door to popular culture. Together, Kaufmann and Coolidge offer a framework that helps us understand that move, Kaufmann by placing it in its cultural context and Coolidge by assembling texts that document the ambiguities in Guston’s approach to modernism.

In contrast to Kaufmann’s compressed analysis, Coolidge’s texts offer the raw material of Guston’s words – tangled at times, but conveying his voice and enthusiasm. Protesting how difficult it is to talk about such things, Guston nonetheless attempts to describe his process of self-discovery and self-abnegation. Conversations with Bill Berkson, Harold Rosenberg and David Sylvester about his 1966 abstractions are inevitably somewhat repetitive, yet the persistent reader can profit from their different takes, like stereoscopic views, on Guston’s engagement with his medium, waiting for that “run”, in which something other than his personal will takes over.  Best are the texts that refer to specific works, like the talk at Yale Norfolk, where he tells how the green whiskey bottle emerged in “Bad Habits”, or his conversation with Coolidge about how a painted book “vibrates”.

The books under review

For his part, Kaufmann outlines the situation in the late 1960s, when painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation felt besieged by Pop and Minimalism, with their impersonal, commercial facture; Guston, struggling with dark abstractions that combined Mondrian’s austerity with Rothko’s meditative uncertainty, stopped painting for two years. In the simple line drawings of everyday objects he produced during this hiatus, Kaufmann sees “visual puns” that carry the ambiguity of the abstract forms into the “story” paintings with their masked figures. Kaufmann invokes Wölfflin’s art historical distinction between “painterly” and “linear” styles to lend formal coherence to this stylistic transition, but this formal bridge was lost on most contemporary critics, and on many painter colleagues, who felt betrayed by any  apparent concession to current conditions.

While Guston never really abandoned his mooring in the picture plane, his efforts to restore painting’s vitality posed a challenge to critics schooled in formalism.. In his own words, Kaufmann describes a new “literalness”, where “both mental and physical stuff hangs out on the surface of Guston’s paintings, pressed up hard against the picture plane” (p. 46). Kaufmann charts the evolution of Guston’s work in the context of changing critical stances towards painting in the early 1970s, until “the register had shifted from counterculture to high culture” (p. 41), and writers compared Guston’s work to the absurdist dramas of Samuel Beckett.  He enlarges the context further to include the emerging positive attention to allegory among postmodernist critics, inspired by the translation of Walter Benjamin’s theories.

The two books converge as Kaufmann analyzes Guston’s collaborations with Coolidge in poem/pictures, in which words and images collide to generate force fields of potential meaning. Coolidge publishes one of his own conversations with Guston about things, words, and pictures. Calling images “masks”, Coolidge and Guston meditate on the distance between things and the words and pictures that represent them. Kaufmann shows how postmodernist critics’ narrow approach to allegory ultimately excluded Guston’s personalized stories, again placing his work outside accepted narratives.

Kaufmann pulls together the threads of his observations in a final chapter entitled “Jewish Jokes”. Calling Guston a Jewish comedian seems transgressive in its own right, but also persuasive, as Kaufmann compares his break with decorum to that of his literary friend, Philip Roth. As he does throughout, Kaufmann brings in wider references, citing Cuddihy’s Ordeal of Civility to show how the issue of Jewish identity is submerged in the work of Rothko and Newman. His account suggests that one of Guston’s final accomplishments was to weave that personal heritage into the tradition of Piero della Francesca he so loved.