To Philip Guston
It is astonishing how much being here, in Rome, makes me think of Guston, and how much Italy and Rome, in particular, gave Guston so much to work with. One of the first things that I saw when I got to Rome is the Metaphysica show at the Quirinale Museum here, and it made me think of how much Guston deepened his work through his relationship with the Italians from all periods. The Metaphysica show is full of de Chirico’s that one doesn’t normally see in shows in the States and also many Morandi’s that are rare. Also you can see the influence of Sironi, who’s work has rarely been shown in America. The figure of the hooded/ anonymous/klansman/artist in the studio is so touchingly close to the faceless mannequins in de Chirico, right down to the stitching on the bodies and the pile of junk and stretchers in the studios/rooms. Also, when I look at Guston I think that I have seen that touch somewhere before and I think of Morandi, and then I see how the horizon line in Guston works like the tabletop in Morandi, placing the subject at eye-level, hence the forms became monumental. I suppose I have always felt that Guston is the most important American artist, as he was an epic artist and made work that touched on everything from genocide to self-loathing/self-doubt and anxiety to the love of his wife as subjects. I always appreciated and needed to see how much he didn’t flinch from saying that he was the very thing that he feared, that he and the Klansman were the same.
My first academic job was at the University of Memphis, where I taught with an older Southern painter who told me this story. In the 1970s, wandering around a remote corner of a small provincial museum, he discovered a late Klansman painting by Guston. Larry had never seen one, and it hit him like a bolt of lightning. He knew that he had to have that picture. Realizing that no one was watching, he carefully freed the painting from the wall, tucked it under his arm, and began running desperately around the museum, trying to get out. Every time he found a door it was locked: the only exit was the front door, watched over by the museum’s one guard. Tears streaming down his face, Larry rehung the painting and walked out. I’ve always liked Guston, but listening to my friend talk about that painting, I thought this must be the reaction that artists hope for.
The day after Philip Guston died in 1980, I started a painting. The image that emerged came from a detail of Titian’s "Sacred and Profane Love" of 1514. In a garden an antique roman sarcophagus has been remade as a fountain: the water of renewal, life, and possibility flows over the edge of the coffin.
More than any artist of our time, Philip Guston stands as a luminous reference point against which generations of younger artists measure themselves. His work and career demonstrate stunning levels of persistence, seriousness, courage, and a profound love of painting. However, there is a more elusive quality in Guston’s work which strikes me more and more as the years pass. In his late masterpieces, Guston avoids the easy narrative structure of "them and us." Guston himself and in turn, his audience, is implicated in his portrayals of hope, evil and mortality. Yes, it took courage for him to so radically alter his work in the 1960s but that courage pales in the face of the courage it took to so deeply imbed in the paint his own (and our) doubt and failure.
Over the years Guston’s paintings have spoken to me in many different ways, but I never stop marveling at how simply the paint is applied. Each time he loads his brush with roughly the same amount of paint and puts it on the canvas with more or less the same, slightly tremulous pressure. If he didn’t like what he did, he scraped and painted over. His paintings are quite free of "cookery" associated with rules of thick over thin, or glazing medium, dryer and so forth. By keeping the painting part simple, his work comes close to plain speech. And I gather he liked to speak as much as paint. I read somewhere that he preferred to paint a canvas in one session, and I recall a video of him working, words flowing as freely as paint. Speaking simply is also the honest broker of complex ideas. If Guston set up a relationship between paint and speech, each in their way to be presented as simply and directly as possible, he also loved the weight of paint and ideas. In his work, no form, either abstract or figurative, is weightless. His forms are like ideas turned around and pulled apart just enough to begin assuming a distinct density. Over a stretch of time both ideas and forms would pile up, get tangled, possibly partially scraped, and reconfigured. As a metaphor for this relationship, it’s not his beloved fries that come to mind, but a plate of cooked pasta— stuff that’s impossible to disentangle, heavy and funny. And in the midst of all this big awkward painting, paradoxically, is purity.