Philip Guston, ed. Clark Coolidge
Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations
(University of California Press, December 2010)
“Would you be as interested in seeing men fly, unattached and free, as you would be in seeing a man with, I don’t know, two hundred pounds of cement strapped onto him and let’s see him get two inches off the ground?” Philip Guston asks this of art historian David Sylvester in a 1960 BBC interview, adding: “I think creation is something like that.”
Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations is a compendium of Guston’s thought as it advanced over several decades, captured mostly through lengthy interviews and lecture transcriptions. Throughout Guston’s reflections is a theme of anxiety. This anxiety was contemplative and productive, a feeling that provoked thought and awareness, especially during “those few lucid moments” in the last stages of finishing a painting. For Guston, it was the sensation of knowing and not knowing in the same moment, yet remaining receptive to “fascinating detours” in the process.
Anxiety encouraged him to embrace uncertainty and to “divest myself continuously of what I already know.” It was also a search for freedom in his act of painting, but a freedom of a limited variety: He found interior thought to be problematic precisely because it was too free, with nothing grounding it to the physical world and thereby separating it from an external interaction. He needed something tangible to engage with, to push ideas against, in an effort to eliminate the distance between thinking and doing. Painting provided Guston a resistance of matter (the physical composition of pigment and binder), which he believed narrowed his choices and movements with the material. But within limitations, Guston felt “more free in some mysterious metaphysical way.”
This openness to explore and reconsider, to see multiple viewpoints at once, may have been related to Guston’s tendency to speak in contradictory statements, to be comfortable with disjunctions in the style or subject matter of his work, to claim to be unable to speak about painting and then to not want to stop talking about it. (He once said, “The only real thing worth talking about in art is impossible to talk about.”) During a conversation with Louis Finkelstein, Guston recalled how Wittgenstein did not have a regular teaching schedule, but rather set up chairs in a hallway and had students come by and start talking. He described Wittgenstein’s informal teaching method as “thinking out loud”; speaking in contradictions was Guston’s way of engaging in a similar method of thought. He concluded, “You can only talk about where you are, yourself, and your own thinking about these things you think about every day.”
Guston professed that Franz Kafka was his greatest influence. He once stated, “I think the greatest thing about Kafka was an achievement of a consciousness where he could hover over his own involvement.” While this suggests a degree of detachment from the moment, for Guston this was “superconsciousness,” and he believed it was experienced by artists at different moments. An audience member of his New York Studio School talk in 1974 described this as “the eye watching the eye watching,” with which Guston agreed. Not only does this image suggest a late Guston painting, it also points to a modern self-awareness of unconscious structures in the human mind and its creative processes. This is certainly a familiarity Kafka shared in writing intensely psychological and emotionally conflicted stories with ambiguous and enigmatic narrative frameworks.
“A certain anxiety persists in the paintings of Piero della Francesca,” Guston wrote in an article for Art News in 1965. “What we see is a wonder of what it is that is being seen. Perhaps it is a certain anxiety of painting itself.” In Piero, Guston found a sense of both cosmic otherworldliness and humanity, of both the impossibility (in its suspended, precarious order) and possibility (in the potential this suspension can bring) of painting. He also saw Piero’s work as undeniably modern in structure: When Guston spoke about the Arezzo frescoes, he saw them as carrying the same narrative structure as comic books.
In their otherworldliness, the fresco figures’ expressions in Piero’s Arrezo frescoes transcended their actions. Guston argued, for example, that in the mural, a man’s placid expression while stabbing another man in the neck suggested that Piero depicted “an eternal man stabbing another…a timeless stabbing.” Guston explained: “The greatness of it is, it always gives me the feeling that man will always do that.” Piero was an abstract artist in that he achieved a reduction in form of an “optimum order,” according to Guston. It was the tension in Piero between the reductive iconography of objects and human forms and their far-reaching, psychologically charged (or disconnected) allegories that Guston brought to his own painting.
“What shall I paint but the enigma?” said Guston, misquoting an inscription on Giorgio de Chirico’s 1911 self-portrait. That it was a misquote doesn’t seem to matter because Guston internalized de Chirico’s idea of the mystery, the spooky, of what is concealed and hidden. This is embodied in Guston’s discussion of his anxiety of and active search for identity, which was mirrored by working with ambiguous objects and characters in his paintings. Guston suggested, after all, that we are all metaphorically wearing hoods, confessing that his paintings of hooded figures could also be reflections of himself rather than depictions of Klansmen. Guston distinguishes enigma from fantasy (which does not transcend but rather replicates the narrative structures of an external world), redefining it as a deeper ambiguity, often involving simple objects. Enigma is having a mysterious vision of the world and an embrace of its rich ambiguity.
In the book’s interviews, Philip Guston is feeling and thinking his way through painting, and he uses simple language to explain his active searching. With this prose, he was able to articulate poignant contradictions of freedom and the specificity of painterly language: “It’s the kind of freedom that’s weighed down with a lot of baggage, but it’s a necessary kind of freedom because it must be achieved.” Guston’s ultimate goal as painter may have been to be free, but even this definition of freedom changed as Guston acquiesced to what he called the “third hand,” responsible for what he felt he wasn’t completely in control of. It was then the muscle memory of his painting style that guided him.
Ultimately, what does this mindful anxiety produce? I have thought about this a great deal: Reading (and writing about) this collection requires the same kind of intense concentration exhibited by its subjects. Guston articulates what those who actively engage in this specific view of painting may already feel they know. Painting is an engrossing exploration, not a serial production or an a priori conceptualization. It is not an execution and variation of a few stylistic moves or ideas, but a growth. Sometimes, paradoxically, this growth is so foreign to the artist that he or she is unaware of its presence. A professor in grad school told me that, at a certain point, a painting will suggest resolutions, directions, or detours to the painter. You have to be open and willing to listen, or these opportunities will be lost to the stale repetition of what you already know, have readily accepted and feel comfortable in doing. Guston makes you want to believe in what you don’t already know.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.