Roundtable: Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth
No modern painter gets today’s practioners talking quite like Philip Guston. Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition of the “pivotal decade” in his career, nestled between the canonical “abstract impressionism” of his postwar style and the readmission of overtly referential, cartoon-like figuration of his late style, is the subject of an in depth conversation, moderated by Hearne Pardee, with fellow painters Katherine Bradford, Gaby Collins-Fernandez, Stephen Ellis, David Humphrey, David Rhodes and Jennifer Riley. Philip Guston, Painter, 1957–1967 is at Hauser & Wirth, 511 West 18th Street, through July 29, 2016.
Hearne Pardee: I suggest we take a fresh look at the paintings on view — not just as a transition to the figurative work, or in terms of their historical context, but in terms of what stands out for you in this decade of painting.
Writing at the time, Bill Berkson commented on their “luminous” grays, which he compared to the “barrel of a gun” or to the “luster of old black and white movies.” Something that strikes me is a loosening up around the edges that takes over in the 1960s — Guston doesn’t work all the way to the border, so that the visual field is up for grabs along with everything in it; he no longer relies on the frame, or the “window” of the Renaissance painters he studied. Image and field are mutually dependent. Guston seems immersed in the midst of things, constantly looking for a piece of firm ground — a process he seems to have to undertake all over again with each painting. At the same time, there’s a progression underway.
Katherine Bradford: In addition to the “loosening up around the edges” that Hearne mentions I noticed that in the final galleries you also see amazing examples of a painter painting wet into wet, with what Roberta Smith in her review called “fat luscious strokes.” That a painter could take his palette of black, pink, white and red and mush it all together with no off-putting muddy areas earns my respect and awe. We don’t see many painters trying a wet into wet technique — I can think of Georg Baselitz, Andre Butzer and Bendix Harms — but none of them achieve the shimmering surfaces of these Gustons. Looking at the paintings, I imagined his brushes sitting in cans of medium and never washed clean. The brushes seemed loaded with the perfect mixture of paint and whatever it is he is using to keep things shiny. These aren’t the tools of a palette painter, these are the tools of an alchemist.
Jennifer Riley: Right Katherine, I was thinking about other work of the same time — work that Guston no doubt would have known or seen, in addition to his deep investment in the art of the past, especially Joan Mitchell’s pastels and paintings before her move to France. Her lines, marks, strokes and daggers retain their chromatic clarity, while the image, as in Guston’s work from 1960 forward, is drawn away from the frame edge. Her broad range of color is masterfully clear and, most often, only momentarily, minimally and intentionally muddied but poignantly mixed. Her surfaces, at times dry, evoke an entirely different inner panorama — minus the juicy shimmer that we see in the work of Guston in this exhibition.
David Humphrey: I like what Jennifer and Katherine are saying about Guston’s mark-making. It feels like he is stirring up a drama between black and white with psycho-mythic overtones. The turbulent field, or grey habitat, comes into being out of black and white’s struggle to mix with each other while the compressed tangle of isolated black protagonists are arrested at a moment just before or after a dissolution into the viscous surround. I think black, for Guston, is redolent with Morandi and de Chirico’s metaphysics of shadow; objects cast a dark double with substance and the power to disturb.
Hearne’s observation that Guston doesn’t “work all the way to the border” is worth talking about. Maybe the whiteness of the canvas has a radiant purity that casts the whole procedure of painting as a sustained besmirching; a mucking up of the clean thing. But in some ways the relation of the black blobs to their world is like the shaggily edged painting to the primed canvas. Guston muscularizes doubt to tell a story about flawed or incomplete personhood woven into a world made of the same slippery stuff. Could we call these works auto-metaphors? Representations of themselves?
David Rhodes: Hearne, I think in these 1960s paintings Guston is already beginning to question, self-critically, what is to be done about the issues of composition and content on the level of basic forms. Letting the brush marks appear as process and exposing the ground on which they are painted is Cézanne’s solution to the problem of transition to edge in a painting made up of relational parts. The interlocking of forms on the brink of dissolution recalls Morandi. It’s interesting that both Morandi and Guston were steeped in Quattrocento painting, in particular Piero della Francesca. The oddness of Piero’s outline of ambiguous positive/negative spaces is present in late Guston and Morandi paintings. For artists used to Guston’s painted fields of variegated marks, the confrontation with associative shapes like skulls/faces/heads during the ‘60s must have been as much liberating as confounding. The more form-driven Guston got, the more articulate and urgent his painting became.
Stephen Ellis: To me, Guston began as a moralist, became a sensualist under the influence of Monet and AbEx, and ended by synthesizing something original from the two—a sensual, ironic moralism, less didactic and more grounded in personal experience than the generalized outrage of his youthful paintings. The artist I associate with Guston’s early ambition is the angry, accusatory Goya of The Third of May, the one closest to the spirit of the late figurative work is the funny and unflinching Beckett of Krapp’s Last Tape, and the spirit-guide of Guston’s abstract paintings of the ‘60s is clearly Giacometti — the painter. The similarity between Giacometti’s portrait heads, dense and light-absorbing, like black holes embedded in luminous gray space, and Guston’s weirdly sentient matrices of black and gray is unmistakable. The flurries of background strokes in Giacometti’s portraits also trail off as they approach the edges, just as Hearne describes in Guston’s paintings. And the bleakness and sense of loss in Giacometti’s work is much closer to the looming, ominous feeling in Guston’s ‘60s paintings than the stillness of Morandi or the exuberance of Mitchell.
Of course Guston was interested in formal issues, but I think only as a means to an end — that end being the darker, more personal and powerful expressive language he searched for in the ‘60s. The proof of that goal is the novelistic world where the search ended, a place you’d be more likely to trip over Gregor Samsa than find yourself contemplating the eternal present with Morandi or mourning the fugitive present with Giacometti.
Riley: Stephen, I may be reading into the Gregor Samsa analogy too literally, but I see Guston as a body making a painting — trying to figure out how to move forward from his ‘50s paintings, where a main problem he addresses (to my mind ) is “surface.” His was a sustained engagement with the surface, challenged by the possibility of being both inside and outside of the painting at the same time. I also see the shift from “moralist to sensualist” as a natural development as he matures through lived exposure to a whole gang of artists — Kline, de Kooning, Newman, Rothko, the rise of Minimalism — in addition to new commercial potentials. He was interested in making paintings not products, trying to make a new “real” world.
Pardee: We should also recall the huge cultural and political shifts of the 1960s.
Gaby Collins-Fernandez: I’ve been trying to imagine what it felt like for those to be the last things Guston had made, the freshest and newest! Very intense and strange.
Looking at them, I got the sense of someone trying to make emotional room in painting from physical, spatial terms that weren’t available in the dominant painting discourse of the time. I read the shadows and the way the forms feel heavy and connected to gravity in terms of a desire to understand forms in relation to recognizable physical-causal dynamics — to make abstract, all-over mark-making compete with gravity, light, and the kinds of environmental conditions that stuff, matter, and people have to deal with, outside of blank, white surfaces. A lot of those early forms inside the grays look like they have feet.
Even though there is a lot of gestural energy in the work, I see Guston’s marks in relation to drawing, to drafting both the dimensions and air of this new emotional space. That’s also a connection to the early Renaissance, and the sense that those artists were visualizing a new operating concept of space in painting through drawn perspective.
There is certainly an openness about doubt in these works that runs contra the more heroic mid-century narrative about painting. Focusing on doubt and dependency exposes “the autonomy of the art object” as an ideological delusion: it forces the artist to account for art within existing social dynamics in which very few things exist independently from everything else.
Humphrey: What I think is so exciting about this show is the way Guston articulates and celebrates incipience, the potential for a thing to come into being. He lays out the basic terms that will later be used to more emphatically name things, but things still haunted by a prior incipience. The blunt forms that after 1968 become books, canvases, shoes or heads, bear the memory of and often slip back into undifferentiated muck — or sometimes, after some scraping or smushing, an entirely different object. The habitats emerge tactilely, the way one imagines a space by means of blind groping. I like thinking of his work as ham-handed — that corporeal seeing is performed through touch and makes cured meat of our paws. His work argues that we are made of the same stuff as the things we make or consume.
Pardee: Is there a particular painting that stands out for you? Katherine mentions alchemy, and there’s a great 1960 painting called Alchemist with a stew of colors. Path II, also from 1960, seems to subdue the color interactions into blue and red, dominated by gray, after which the black and white take over. These are among my favorites.
Riley: Ah! Very hard to pick just one painting as a favorite from this exhibition. I suppose if the building were on fire I’d try to drag May Sixty-Five (1965) with me. This painting has a large rectangular black form coming to rest off-center, lower right , upon a cloudy zone of pink, red and grey. The color in the lower foreground seems to be filtered through the black form as it passes through to the upper central ground evoking a sense of air, time, distance and compression simultaneously. The roundish, pink form nestled to the left of the black rectangle opens a door that hints at looming inchoate emotions and a potential narrative. The tautness of that relationship, the slippery light and shimmering, icy grays, enchant me.
Pardee: That one seems like a still-life. I like the small red dot showing through the veil of gray — both behind and in front. A lot seems to have to do with just the contrasting directions of the brush-strokes — the compact black ones opposed to the vigorous gray “erasing marks” just above it.
Riley: I didn’t see still life at all — but I could stretch to go there — the scale, marks and forms cued me toward reading it as a non-objective abstraction with landscape referents. Do you see Guston at this time also still struggling against his natural abilities that make elegant and beautiful paintings?
Pardee: I see more struggle in the earlier works in the show — the colored shapes seem tortured, overworked. The release from color that leads into gray seems to help open up the process of painting itself. Here he seems comfortable to me — there’s elegance in the variations of brushstrokes and the adjustments of scale. Perhaps he’s getting too comfortable in this sort of balance between field and form?
Your reference to landscape as opposed to still-life gets into a metaphorical dimension — relations of similarity, of what it looks like. I think there’s also a strong element of metonymy at work in these paintings, or relationships of meaning set up by proximity — how brushstrokes interact and suggest meanings by contrasts of direction and scale. Finding meaning through the sort of blind groping Gaby and David Humphrey describe.
Rhodes: Proximity and metonymy play vital roles, particularly in the 1960s paintings. Here, for example, in Position I (1965), the white of the primed canvas is the third tone in a scale of white to black, and contributes to the light of the painting. The spatial quality of so much manipulated paint simply runs out, appearing as just an accumulation of brush marks toward the outer edge of the physical support. Each facet is in relation to the other, its suggestion of representation not undermining its existential impact, but rather amplifying it. By the time Guston leaves for Rome in 1970 the paintings and drawings are a clear reflection on his environment. The drawings here, though enigmatic and fragmentary, still attach to a seen environment more than the paintings, which of course was soon to change.
Ellis: Honestly, I don’t have a favorite painting in the Hauser & Wirth bunch. I enjoy them more as an ensemble from which one or another emerges as you move through the show. That’s a function of the open-endedness of the paintings, one of my favorite aspects of them. Of all Guston’s work, these are the ones with the most “negative capability” in the Keatsian sense, the most ambiguous and immanent. Your reading of them from portrait or figure to still life or pure abstraction is constantly shifting as your attention moves back and forth from the marvelous surfaces to the images the surfaces form. There’s a quality of being in the moment in these paintings that’s different from the more resolved images of the later work. The strokes, as everyone points out, are alive—not merely in a formal way, but mysteriously as a psychic presence, a physical record of the hand moving in thought. You can’t fake that transmutation of the inert matter of paint into the gossamer stuff of thought, and when it’s real, it’s magic.
Humphrey: My favorite painting in the show changes at every turn. I love the determined contingency of all of them, as though each decision was a response to the question “what if?” I’m with him when he decides to completely exclude color, then around the corner a rare green surprises. Pink hovers from the margins or beneath, sometimes fleshy, sometimes crepuscular. Blue reminds us that these are picture spaces, haunted by the outdoors.
Collins-Fernandez: The painting I’ve looked at most since visiting the show, in reproduction, is Fable II (1957) which ended up clarifying Guston’s transition in terms of internal organization as well as style. In that small painting, colors become forms that are undefined but open to association. I can read those forms as a mask, a city-scape, a still life, but I don’t have to — they lend themselves to interpretation around kinds of groups without making claims to specific genre or subjects. The composition, in terms of how the forms hold together, is close to the ’50s, “shimmery” abstractions. But the impetus to shift is there. In the later and sparser black and gray paintings from the show, the shapes that appear (often singularly) are more definite in having a kind of objectness/identity. There’s a big difference, which may be best characterized grammatically: in Fable II, forms emerge which function like adjectives, inflecting one another, the general composition, and possibilities of signification, whereas by the time Guston makes paintings like Position I (1965) and Portrait I (1965), the forms which appear are more like nouns, concrete objects with a kind of “person-place-or-thing”-ness.
In an extension of the comments around metonymy, I would argue that in the mid-60s, Guston is moving from the more metonymical (part of x might=y) meaning-structure of the earlier abstractions to a structure more based on metaphor (x=y), which will then carry through to the kind of assertive, definitional vocabulary of the drawings.
Pardee: Just isolating one shape is already a move in the direction of representation, eliminating what you call the “adjectives.” It goes back to your earlier remark about Guston’s lending weight and dimension to abstract forms, much as the artists he admired in the Renaissance did for the space of the world around them. There’s a grammar and phenomenology of painting.
Bradford: Hearne mentions the “tortured” look of Guston’s earlier paintings, which is apt because it evokes the “doubt” Gaby mentions, without the satisfying search more evident in the later galleries. Hearne also remarks that it seems Guston cannot find his forms until he lets go of color and turns to gray paintings with black rock-like forms. In the earlier group, I see the color egging Guston on to give us more line than form, as if he could not bring himself to admit to colored “stuff” only colored “mark.” I think of Christopher Wool here, also an obsessive master of “erasure,” especially Wool’s most recent gray/black/white paintings, because I perceive them as not containing “doubt.” They look more like the presentation of an experiment whereas I see Guston performing in the moment, truly searching for something that in fact does not appear, and this gives his work the pathos that we find so endearing.
Pardee: Do the drawings shed light on what’s going on in the paintings? Are they more metaphorical?
Collins-Fernandez: The more I think about the drawings, the more I see them as a relational alphabet, bringing the viewer from dot to line to window to squiggle. There seems to be no hierarchy; a cluster of lines has the same importance as a building or as a rough rectangle. The consistency of Guston’s line in width and character is not about expression, per se, but seemingly about a kind of existential attitude. The works carry ideas about doubt, etc., in the line, rather than in some explicit drama. It seems that this idea about line comes directly from the way that Guston builds up the surface in the works in this show — ie, from painting: the line in the drawing compresses all of the energy of his earlier fields into one single mark. The effect is of an infiltrating tone, a “show-don’t-tell” kind of move, which underscores his late-style relationship to comic illustrations.
Humphrey: The drawings are unburdened by his roiling brushstroke fields. They don’t emerge out of wetness but crawl directly across the clean expanse of the store-bought paper with slug-trail deliberateness. The drawings have a show-off audacity, perhaps fueled by minimalist permissions, but also as caricatures of that younger movement’s severe reductions. I imagine Guston chuckling, followed by a feeling that this might be the royal road to new freedoms.
Bradford: Are the drawings more confident than the paintings — with David’s “show-off audacity” — or are they evidence of an artist going back to ground zero, needing to reset himself after having lost his belief in the “roiling brushstroke fields”? That he left each one so spare says to me that he’s not chuckling at all, he’s testing all that’s gone before and coming up with very short answers.
Humphrey: Of course I am projecting, imagining that Guston’s drawing of a right angle is a precursor to his later drawing of Richard Nixon. His “short answers” surely lay out the constituent elements of the work that will be made one year later or less.
Pardee: Maybe we should step back now and look at the larger historical context, including Guston’s relation to the contemporary scene: what sort of context does the history that this show brings to light provide for other shows currently on view in New York? I’m thinking of Gerhard Richter, who ranges from abstract to representational, or Nicole Eisenman, who develops vernacular narratives, just to pick two extremes. Or you might want to pick up on some other topic suggested in the comments that hasn’t received its due.
Ellis: Looking at the historical context, I’d like to talk about an issue that’s come up once or twice—the notion of the “dominant discourse” of that time, something that’s often misunderstood. The idea of a confident, triumphalist Greenbergian discourse dominating American painting from the early ‘50s on conflates several generations and schools of artists in a way that from my memory of the period is simply false. The older AbEX artists — specifically de Kooning and later Pollock rebelled early against Greenberg’s obsession with self-referentiality — de Kooning with the “Women” and Pollock with his later figurative work. With their talk of philosophical and mythopoeic themes (Newman, Rothko) or erotic, landscape and other-worldly references, it’s hard to see how they would accept Greenberg’s ideal of formal autonomy.
By the late ‘60s, Judd’s ideas were far more fashionable than Greenberg’s, and the Abstract Expressionists, especially the older ones — with the exception of Pollock, who served as a conceptual model for non-painting practices a-borning — were widely seen as irrelevant. Like Guston, they were closer to Surrealism and Existentialism than to Greenbergianism. They saw their work as engaging broad and fundamental questions of existence. Guston talked of many things in his Studio School visits. He had certain subjects and certain artists he returned to obsessively—Morandi, Ensor, Piero, de Chirico, Kafka. I can’t remember him ever mentioning Greenberg. I doubt if he ever thought about him, except maybe, if asked, to harrumph, “Greenberg, that asshole?” The Studio School circa ’68–75 and the other painting programs Guston taught in were very fringe places. Not fashionable, not even close. I know he was bitter about having to teach so much after such a long career and bitter, I think, at being regarded by the young art world as an eminence very grise.
The point I’m making is that the history of their times: poverty, immigration, two wars, the Depression, lack of recognition, political strife (Spain, Communism in the ‘30s, McCarthyism) — did not create a bunch of triumphalist Greenbergians; it created a bunch of skeptical, tenacious, idiosyncratic, ambitious idealists — an alarming number of whom committed suicide, either actively or passively. So, let’s separate these two world of experience and of ideas. Maybe Olitski, Poons, and Louis can be understood under the sign of Greenberg and fit into the Mad Men moment of the Pax Americana, but the Abstract Expressionists in general and Guston in particular do not belong there. Nothing could be clearer proof of that than his late work, which is not a departure from Greenberg, but a separate track altogether.
Rhodes: I agree with Stephen’s remarks about Greenberg. A great writer whose influence was a strand, certainly almost only a New York strand, not a European one. Europe post-World War II was a wreck, very unlike America at the same moment. There was an extreme skepticism of any dogma. I think Guston shared this; as he said, “I’m sick and tired of all this purity.” His use of the vernacular idiom of comic strips and political cartoons was seen as kitsch by many abstractionists, Greenbergian or not. Were his early paintings also seen as Soviet Socialist Realism as opposed to American abstraction during the Cold War period? In any case, the figuration emerging in this exhibition was seen as a betrayal. Here, Guston works with ambivalence between formal abstraction and objectification.
Pardee: Perhaps with a nod to Greenberg’s concern for the medium, the show is subtitled “Painter,” and it appeals to painters in particular, both for Guston’s engagement with the material but also for his unabashed enthusiasm for the painters he admired — I recall a story I think he told of meeting a Russian man at the Accademia in Venice; they shared no language, but just shouted out “Rembrandt!” “Giotto!” “Caravaggio!” etc. Seeing these paintings today raises the perennial question of painting’s place. What does it mean for Hauser & Wirth to devote such a lavish show to painting? Has painting become spectacle?
Riley: I find that the art world of our context is not unlike this transitional phase in Guston’s career. The coin of the realm, so to speak — Painting — is also (once again) surprisingly not dead. It is very much alive amid increasing competition for art world attention. Painting today has expanded way beyond the barriers of Guston’s time — as Stephen mentioned the plurality of expressive forms and approaches in painting. The spirit of Guston’s work of this period may be may be our own epoch’s true character.
I also think it’s not surprising that this exhibition is here in NYC, which is an absolutely unique creative environment in all of the world, where the constant influx of new talent, and blunt market forces, generate ideas, innovation and new approaches. That painting garners such attention today in both its pure or conventional form and as part of multi-platform work is one reason why I believe H&W found it an opportune time for this exhibition. Another might be the profusion of recent scholarship, such as Peter Benson Miller’s terrific exhibition and catalogue of 2010, at the Museo Carlo Bilotti in Rome, “Philip Guston, Roma,” focusing largely on Guston’s works on paper made during his return to Rome in ’70–71 after the Marlborough show. It was at that time Guston developed original images fusing the vestiges of antiquity, Roman Gardens, Fellini films, Piero and De Chirico underscoring his lifelong attentiveness to Italian culture and art that we sensed in these ’60s paintings and which play out subsequently in oeuvre. Now seems a perfect time to take stock in this earlier, less known and often misunderstood period of Guston’s work. Also to reassess his legacy just a few years after the centennial of his birth in 1913 and to coincide with the release of the revised edition of Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by his daughter, Musa Kim.
Bradford: Just to add a footnote to Jennifer’s excellent answer to Hearne’s question about why a lavish Guston show now, I’d say there are a good number of leading painters who want to speak to Guston with their work and are probably quite pleased when he’s mentioned as an influence. At Nicole Eisenman’s current New Museum show the painting Selfie (2014) shows a large Guston head with a giant eye looking into an iPhone screen. Both Amy Sillman and Dana Schutz are frequently mentioned in the same sentence as Guston and were part of a show that Steven Zevitas mounted last summer in Boston called the “The Guston Effect.” It had work by 45 mostly New York painters and every single one (of us) were happy as can be to be included.
Rhodes: Certainly Guston argues for a continuity with the day to day world through painting, but with no conceit about actually knowing exactly what that might mean. The corporeality we share with objects and the back and forth between what we see and what we touch and how we feel about that seems to be a two way street.
However unfashionable it may sound, it’s fine, though very unnerving, to not know what you are painting, to forget an imposed narrative and let the content assert itself retrospectively through dialogue with the painting process. Paintings should be smarter than the artist, or what’s the point? Guston is a difficult act to follow; no one paints like he did because his paintings are the results of his personal endeavor. Christopher Wool is an interesting case as he continues with gestural painting without resorting to mimicry, re-coining this form of abstract painting in his own voice. The automatism implicit in Guston is there in Wool also, and in both artists it’s only part of the story, but a vital one.
I’d like to conclude by quoting from the discussion between Berkson and Guston in 1964:
Berkson: “Much modern painting has denied that the ‘eye’ is the receiver and judge of painting. Delectation is an afterthought. Paintings as realized thought… They are perceived intellectually.”
Guston: “It seems to me the only thing you can ask is: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘What is it?’ and ‘When are you finished?’ To find out ‘what’ is the only thing you can do.”
Guston is proposing and working through an ontology of painting.
Pardee: We could add “ontology” to Gaby’s idea of Guston’s building up a visual structure for abstract “things” and a grammar to go with it — a sort of phenomenology of painting.
Collins-Fernandez: I’ve been thinking a lot about a certain distance I felt from the show. I love Guston’s work, and felt the richness looking at the works individually, but also felt a bit unsettled by it — and I thought this conversation could be a good place to lay some of these thoughts out a bit.
My first impulse when looking at the show was to think of it historically, more a document of Guston’s evolution than immediately relevant. Not just because the distinction between abstraction and figuration is played out, but because Guston’s invention, creating unification through connected material relations, feels removed from my own experience, where materiality dissociates and does not conform with representation.
Like David and David, I find the late works in the show and Guston’s subsequent paintings to be descriptive of a more or less monadic universe. The material bleed between foreground and background in the mid-’60s foreshadows the later life-art blurriness of Guston’s paint and imagery: painter and painting; objects and representations — all are, for better and for worse, inseparable.
Nicole Eisenman (among others who Katherine mentioned in her response) is a good example of a painter continuing to work in this mode of material thinking in relation to technological devices. While looking at Guston’s work, though, I kept thinking about how the kind of continuity between our selves and our images he’s positing would be much more complicated and perhaps fractured in our world of digital avatars and proxies, which serve representational and imagistic functions through largely abstracted (although still material) processes.
The show’s title (“Painter”) establishes a sense of continuity through the practice of painting. While as a painter I am heartened by this, I also find myself comparing the show to Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s concurrent show in LA of abstract sculptures by women, which they titled “Revolution in the Making.” Rhetorically, these are very different strategies, with the latter evoking rupture, change. I wonder whether the conversation in New York is really furthered by folding Guston into a tradition and the shifts in his paintings into the very occupation of painting, when his breaks and turns through good taste, style, and art history have caused such a long-lasting and fruitful ruckus.
Bradford: Reading through Gaby’s summary statement I got to the last sentence and wondered where she was going to go with it. To end with the word “ruckus” seems perfect.
Pardee: I like “monadic painting” and speculations about technology. I’d be curious to see Guston’s work exhibited in relation to other contemporary artists.
Riley: We use tradition to help us invent, not to maintain it. That’s why I find an advantage in placing Philip Guston in the tradition he was working in, as he simultaneously busted moves and widened the net of painting and practice. Thus, a delightful consequence of debate, permissions, and possibilities is available to scores of artists in all kinds of disciplines, including poetry, sculpture and so on. We cannot help but embrace and express the conditions of our time and one could find Guston’s invention(s) no longer very useful as our problems are different. However, to my mind, as David Rhodes emphasized in his Guston quote, “To find out ‘what’ is the only thing you can do.” Indeed Katherine, what a beautiful ruckus!
Humphrey: It’s true, as Gaby suggests, that Guston’s paintings don’t immediately suggest the fracturing effects of “proxies and avatars.” As an artist I don’t look to him as a guide through the possibilities of techno-virtuality and the unfolding prosthetic imaginary. But his relevance is still determined by how much he moves us or motivates changes in our work, which I feel he does. Guston’s swampy ambivalence matters to me, and tugs with a certain moral gravity at my own anarchic tendencies in the semio-romper room of a computer-inflected studio.
Pardee: So we’ve talked about the “Early Renaissance” of Philip Guston — its philosophical and literary background and its semiology and poetics of materials. What remains is for a museum to revisit his “High Renaissance” and set it in the context of the contemporary artists we’ve mentioned. I’d welcome that opportunity to reconvene our discussion!
Participants — in their own words:
Hearne Pardee [moderator]
I first encountered Guston as a student at the Studio School in 1970, when he gave a slide talk on his Ku Klux Klan paintings, just before setting off for a year in Rome. I subsequently worked with him in a seminar in 1972–73, when he inspired me to undertake large, semi-abstract paintings, setting up a back-and-forth struggle which continues today. For that reason I’m particularly interested in this current show, with its focus on a period when Guston seemed to hold conflicting tendencies in suspension.
Guston revealed himself to me slowly; at first through pictures and then at David McKee gallery. I was living in Maine in the ’70s and traveled to New York to see the shows at McKee. To my eye they looked full blown and masterful. I wanted what he had: a fluid, paint-filled stroke; personal imagery and secret underpainting showing through. My own paintings at that time were small and beige with no personal imagery and no sense of mystery or light.
I encountered the mythology around Guston first and then his paintings of Klansmen, and so I’ve carried the idea of him as a “painter’s painter” (endurance) and social artist (stickiness of subject matter to context) with me to all of the work. I’ve always liked the way the work slips from routine into indulgence, whether in brushwork or cigarettes or existential probing. Guston’s focus on habits good, bad, and ugly over taste reminds me to stay accountable to the day in and day out. I aspire to his generous — and self-implicating — sense of humor.
The first Gustons I saw were the “Monet” abstractions of the ‘50s. Later, I ran across the catalog for the 1970 Marlborough show. I hated the paintings! So crude and goofy and slapstick — ugh! I hated them so much I went back to look at the catalog again the next day — and the next and the one after that, until I’d decided these were the only contemporary paintings I was really interested in. the only paintings that seemed to seize the moment by the throat. I sought him at the Studio School; he was by far the most influential painting teacher I ever had.
In 1974–75 I was a sophomore at MICA. Late Picasso and Max Beckmann emerged as guides to the psychologically charged pictorial imaginary I was eager to inhabit. One day, while trolling the library stacks, I stumbled on catalogs of Guston shows at Marlborough and McKee. I was stunned by work that seemed to be calling from my future. But he was making this now! I spent my junior year at the New York Studio School hoping he would visit, but happy to catch the smell of barely-dry work straight from his Woodstock studio at McKee’s space in the Barbizon Hotel.
I first saw a substantial group of Guston paintings at the Hayward gallery, London in an exhibition called “New Paintings—New York”; it was 1979. His room of paintings was instantaneously compelling. And the effect of these works increased, I had the thought, “How could anyone have a painting like one of these on their wall at home?” They were so powerful. Both in the imagery, and the way they were painted. I hadn’t seen anything quite like them before. They were nothing like the paintings I was making, and this didn’t matter.
I saw Guston’s work for the first time when I was a student in France, deeply invested in art history and drawing from classical figures, literally. So Guston’s work of that time reminded me a little of Monet — but without images or his color yet — all atmosphere. Later, people started saying they saw Guston and Picasso influences in my blocky, thickly painted shapes. I didn’t think my spirit was in the same place at all, but I was excited, puzzled and unnerved by Guston’s figures, shapes, brutal use of paint and pared down palette.