Fear and Trembling of the Image
If we were to dwell constantly on the horrors that occur everyday in the world we might become insane. To ignore these realities, however, is to risk the insanity of living a meaningless life. The late paintings of Philip Guston, thoughtfully presented in the touring Guston retrospective curated by Michael Auping, place such a dilemma front and center in art. Painting, Guston suggests, can play a role in insuring that the reality we live with, however uncomfortable at times, does not become a casualty of our impulse to ignore and forget, or for that matter, make art. We often tend to see only what reinforces our desire to believeas Candide's Dr. Pangloss said-"this is the best of all possible worlds." Perhaps it is the work of the artist, in the face of systems of belief and ideology-in art, religion, philosophy or critique-to deflate idols and offer in their place a felt response to specific experience.
How to approach a late painting by Philip Guston? In The Studio, 1969, a hooded Klansman paints a self portrait. The image is direct, but hardly simple. The painting serves as a brave and painful admission of self-doubt regarding not only painting itself, but how we see ourselves. "What if I'm evil?," the painter asks, as if complicit in a sin from which art is traditionally shielded. But what has he done? What have we, the viewers, been made complicit in when we look at the painting? The ghost of Kafka looms large. In a letter to Ross Feld, Guston writes: "...it is shame-shame to be an artist-shame to create...God says, don't fuck around with my stuff boys-You just love, adore, cherish what I have made.' But, the next hour, in fact, right now, my mind, my desires have changed. I WANT TO MAKE. Somehow...I think I've always felt that creating is an evil thing-Satan's work-Maybe therein lies the shame."
How can one continue to make images in a world where people are lynched? Is there a connection between the act of objectification and evil? Guston's identification of the painter and the visual process with an evil symbol creates a hamster wheel of dizzying connections which make simple conclusions impossible.
The Second Commandment in Judaic law prohibits the making of graven images. This may lie behind unspoken, and undiscussed, conflicts inherent in the New York School painters' attempt to create a secular art that could still embody universal religious feelings. Barnett Newman, a leading New York School painter, had talked about his "zip" paintings of single vertical lines on a canvas as dividing the void, courting identification of the artist with God and God's creation. In Guston's The Line, 1978, such creation is troubled: a huge arm with bulging veins holding a stick of charcoal emerges from a cloud in the sky and draws a single line on the ground. The painting reflects a kind of aftershock and summation, pulling together the issues Guston felt as a painter.
Eight years before, in 1970, at the Marlborough gallery in New York, Guston had shown around thirty works, many including Klan figures. It has been often recounted how Guston received damning reviews, the New York art world turning on him. In fact, Guston had turned his back on New York and the canonical position of the abstract painter. Working in seclusion, away from the city, made possible a radical transformation, enabling him to reintroduce the very thing he and his peers in the New York School had spent twenty years banishing-narrative content. Guston was rejecting Newman's claim to art's metaphysical status, as if drawing a line in the sand and saying, here's what it looks like. It is not straight, perfect, or pure, but human and flawed. Guston, once a practitioner of a painting associated with oceanic feelings of spirituality, seems to be asking, what if religious feelings and meaning in art are more complicated than we thought?
Auping's retrospective view is divided into three sections and allows the viewer to see Guston's extraordinary development unfold. The show begins with the painter's earliest representational paintings and drawings, where the influence of social realism, and social subject matter, can be seen, roughly 1930 - 1945. The show then transitions to the abstract paintings of 1947 - 1965; here, allover compositions dominate, then give way to distinct abstract forms and eventually stark and reductive ink-on-paper drawings, 1965 - 1968. The rest, well over half show, is dedicated to the final, figurative phase of work, 1968 - 1980.
In the late work Guston creates a pictorial universe where the heel of a shoe might become an arm, a cigarette, a clock, or a head. The shifts in scale and context keep the viewer off balance and things that are common and familiar suddenly become new and unfamiliar. The invention of new forms to convey the solid and sculptural objectness of things invites the viewer to see and make sense of these things on their own terms - in the same way viewers saw and made sense of things during the period of his heroes Giotto, Piero, Masaccio, Tiepolo, and more recently Cezanne and De Chirico. It is the striking tangability and thingness of these ripe, swollen forms that feels so real. Guston allowed himself the freedom to move from form to form with great fluidity; the excitement he himself must have felt while making these paintings and not knowing where he would end up is palpable. Painting without a master plan, allowing each painting to generate its own forms and scale, and his trust (however conflicted it might have been) in formal invention was well served by his fifteen year sojourn in abstract painting. Abstract painting had taught him to manifest the internal sensation of objects; the rejection of mere rendering gives the image a life that is unique and presents us with forms which we've never seen but which we will eventually come to recognize. Guston reveals this as a logical progression for abstract painting; it turns out not to be a repudiation of abstraction, but a continuation.
The self-portrait in The Studio, from the late period, reveals this. The difference between the social realist-inspired work of the 30's and 40's and the late figurative work is that the painter has now implicated himself in the critique of the social. To even talk about art's spiritual power requires addressing the creation and understanding of images in a new way. The painter feels he has committed some "sin," possibly even participation in a murderous ritual. But who is the victim? What does the sin, and murder, refer to? Did Guston feel he had betrayed his career, his friends, even himself, by introducing image into the abstract project? Or was participation in the abstract work of the Cold War 50's and 60's itself the betrayal. In a second letter to Feld, Guston writes: "Your sense that the 50's work and early 60's-was forced to look abstract was the largest part of the comic-absurd subject. I knew it at the time but couldn't tell anyone."
Looking back, we can see similar conflicts traversing his entire development. Guston spent his formative years in Los Angeles, attending Manual Arts High School. There, he befriended Jackson Pollock, with whom he shared interests in Italian Renaissance painting, Mexican mural painting, and Hindu mysticism. He worked as an extra in films, playing an artist in one, developed a love for Fellini, and was exposed to the paintings of De Chirico and the Krazy Kat cartoons of George Herriman. All of this would surface in Guston's final approach to the image.
Guston came to liken painting to the work of a film director, positioning a devised lexicon of images as "actors" on a canvas in allegorical form. Ironically, as the paintings become larger, more and more like movies, they become more intimate. Guston's engagement with allegory and narrative grew out of the process of ruthless self-examination. His vision of this life is dark and anxious. In Untitled (Hillside), Guston includes an image of his own tombstone hidden under a pile of junk on a hill. In The Studio, the painter is hiding under a Klan sheet. In another work, Guston's eyes poke up fearfully from behind a wall; in another, a blanket is pulled up over the artist's body and face, leaving only eyelash, ear, and hair. Guston's fear that he might have used abstract painting to "hide" has expanded into a much larger, more contradictory and, ironically, revealing critique.
Guston's response to mounting troubles in America, on college campuses, in race-relations, in Vietnam, even in the White House transcends any historical moment and especially reportage. In his painting Dawn, 1970, Klansmen ride around in hoods after a night of murdering. In Flatlands, 1970, the landscape is littered with disembodied legs and the debris from an orgy of murder, gluttony and waste. Courtroom, 1970, shows a Klan figure standing accused by a huge pointing finger, caught with the evidence of legs sticking out of a trash can behind him. In Street, 1977, a dog licks human remains inside a garbage can. In the background, bony legs walk by, mindless to the carnage, carrying on in oblivion, like so many detached body parts. This is not an art, in subject or treatment, to be looked at and appreciated safely from a distance or assimilated into discourse. It is to be felt and thought about in disturbing immediacy. It was almost as if Guston had embarked on a murderous rampage in the studio. Guston felt "a frustrated fury about everything," and was determined not to turn this emotion into Art, what he later called being "a painting monkey."
The late work deflects the viewer's tendency to see art solely in relationship to the social or as an outpouring of an interior state. It is only partially understood when critics refer to "sumptuous paint" or "cartoon forms." If Guston's late work is cartoonish, the "cartoons" upset most comic expectations, as if invoking Beckett's line that "nothing is funnier than unhappiness." With the possible exception of De Kooning, whose support for Guston has been acknowledged, no other painters from the New York School allowed such a degree of conflict, turmoil, and representation into their work and their vision of themselves.
Veronese said, "we painters take the same liberties as poets and madmen." And it was poets and writers-Clark Coolidge, Bill Berkson, William Corbett, Ross Feld, Stanley Kunitz, Phillip Roth, and Musa McKim, his wife-who were Guston's biggest supporters of the late work and openly appreciated it at a time when few of his artist friends could. It is also important to note Harold Rosenberg, who wrote favorably about the late work when it was first shown, and especially David Mckee, who exhibited the late work when it was out of fashion to do so.
In fifteen years of abstract painting, Guston explored the properties of paint and found his own relationship to color, line, texture, light, and form. There is enough sensuous paint-handling and beautiful composition in these abstract works to provide the aesthetic pleasure we've come to expect from painting. But the aesthetic approach to beauty, and the viewer's appreciation of beauty, can also come, as Guston suggests, at the expense of content. By the late work, Guston sees himself as fully engaged in a contest (his word) between paint and image. Guston places himself face to face with his deepest fear-that of image-making, so problematic the Bible puts its sin before even murder. Non-representational art was no longer a way out; images must be made. They must encompass the shock of human suffering and the conflicts of being and seeing. If the image is to come, it must come after the struggles of experience in the world.
For the last twelve years of his life, these tensions were kept vigilantly in play, as Guston engaged deeply, refusing to settle, always seeking a balance. Ultimately, it was Guston's willingness as a painter to implicate, if not condemn, himself and image-making and still tell a narrative, that sets him so vividly apart. When I left the exhibition, one regret came to mind: how unfortunate no major Guston show has yet made it to Los Angeles, the town where the painter received so many of his influences and a place where reality and image could surely use such a rigorous self-examination.
Philip Guston Retrospective-Tour schedule: Museum of Modern Art of Fort Worth, March 30-June 8, 2003; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 28-September 27, 2003; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 27, 2003 - January 4, 2004; Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 24-April 12, 2004
For further exploration of the late work, see:
Philip Guston Retrospective, Michael Auping [Thames and Hudson; 2003]
Guston in Time. Remembering Philip Guston. Ross Feld. [Counterpoint; 2003]
Philip Guston's Poem Pictures [University of Washington Press; 1994]
Philip Guston's Late Work: A Memoir, William Corbett [Zoland Books; 1994]
Night Studio, Musa Mayer [Alfred A. Knopf; 1988]
Yes, but... , Dore Ashton [Viking Press; 1976]
Philip Guston: A Life Lived, Film by Michael Blackwood [Michael Blackwood Productions; 1980]
Guston, Robert Storr, Abbeville Press, 1986
Appeared in Beyond Baroque Magazine, Vol. 26. No. 2 For more information see: beyondbaroque.org