Dear Philip Guston,
So many years have passed since your new paintings at the Marlborough Gallery caught your friends and supporters off-guard. Among your embattled partisan crowd, Bill de Kooning was almost alone in supporting your change of direction; after all, like you, he did what he wanted to do, when he needed to do it. He was used to the fickle nature of an art audience when it came to a sea change. You should have seen Bill’s recent MoMA retrospective. Everyone in the art world seems to have caught up; he can’t put a posthumous foot wrong. The Catholic Church couldn’t have done a better job of canonization.
As we all know, without your wife, Musa, the courageous steps you (both) took would not have been possible. Without her critical feedback and opinion, your figuring out where your painting was going would have been impossible.
As it turned out, it was impossible for artists to follow you, though you inspired many. It was your desire for greater complexity—for an impassive painting able to accommodate and transform a philistine view—that drove you on, rather than a concern with the false figurative/abstractionist caesura. Not a questioning of aesthetic choices. That’s a difficult act to follow.
It has been impossible to make Gustonesque paintings that are any good. You are just too damn particular. There is no daylight between art history (Piero, for example) and the now of your later paintings. Yet one artist who studied with you, Stanley Whitney, has an unostentatious way with paint handling, just as direct as yours. He succeeds in making paintings that are complex, immediate, and eventful. And, I hope you are sitting down, Philip: Stanley is making abstract paintings. Yes, your lessons have been absorbed in an unexpected and enriching way. The only way to follow you, it seems, is to head in the opposite direction until the roads cross again.
Audiences are no more likely now to be tolerant of an artist who appears to have abandoned whichever style they have agreed to hold in great esteem. People often choose to feel betrayed and fooled instead of challenged. You said that an artist “has to be prepared to assassinate himself.” That sounds very dramatic these days, when the idea of an isolated, misunderstood artist is regarded as too romantic—it’s just not good professional practice. Then, there is the uncertainty that this unleashes on the market. A signature style is seen as suspect these days, rather than as safe. It is better to shift ground in preparation for a surprise, or to work in different styles as a matter of course, often pseudo-exploring rather than taking a risk. Do artists really need to be à la mode? No. But there is, as you knew better than most, a price to pay.