on Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations, ed. by Clark Coolidge (University of California Press)

“Teaching is a way to lose interest in what you thought you were interested in,” said Philip Guston in a 1966 interview with Karl Fortess for a Smithsonian oral history project. “The more I tried to impart what I knew to the students at Iowa that excited me, it was as if the energy or concentration drained out of me into them … You can’t just believe something and teach it and continue believing it … I had a kind of breakdown and had to stop.”

GustonBook.jpgThis excerpt is typical, voluble Guston: candid, contrary, dialectical, urgent, unguarded. His remarkable volleys of assertion and story make him a most quotable figure. As a teacher, Guston didn’t lecture in the strict sense. Instead he described what it is like to make decisions about what to paint – until the crucial breakthrough and moment of completion. For Guston, it was nearly impossible to know what to paint anymore – and therefore, the making was tantamount to the kneading of conscience. His students were fascinated as he wore himself out.

GustonYoung.jpgPhilip Guston (1913-1980) was a lion of the New York School of painting, but he never completely embraced the notion of painting-as-surface. In 1955, he joined the Sidney Janis Gallery with his friends Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock (a friend since high school in LA from which they were both expelled). When asked about his influences, Guston would sometimes respond, “Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Kafka.” Clark Coolidge writes in his introduction to Philip Guston, “Everyone who spent any time with Guston soon discovered his familiarity with all the original sources of modernism, among them Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and T.S. Eliot. He could cite them unforgettably.” He liked to quote Francis Ponge’s mantra, “No reality but in things.” He never lost his narrative impulse. Although influenced by Picasso and Ernst, he felt a deeper kinship with Piero della Francesca, Goya and Rembrandt – and among the moderns, Chirico, Soutine, Beckmann, and the Mexican muralists. There was a greater affinity to the Surrealists than the Cubists.

GustonPainterIII60.jpgGuston disparaged the term “abstract expressionism,” since he simply didn’t believe that the non-objective exists in painting (“There is no such thing as non-objective art. Everything has an object, everything has a figure. The question is: What kind? Does it have illusions?”). Terror of the traps of illusion – this is the harrowing, omnipresent fright one hears through the decades of his commentary. You can hear it even in his comments on his New York School: “The original revolutionary impulse of the New York School was that nothing can really be decided. That painting will have to be, no matter what form it takes in our times, in modern life, a continuing plaguing, harassing argument about whether it should exist. Whether you can create, and under what conditions you can create.”

There has been a photocopy of Philip Guston’s brief essay “Faith, Hope and Impossibility” in one of my three-ring notebooks for over thirty years. He published it in 1966 in Art News Annual just as the critics responded coolly to his exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, after which he was unable to paint for two years. In the essay, he wrote:

“The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury, and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance: it is too primitive or hopeful, or mere notions, or simply startling, or just another means to make life bearable.”

I can’t think of a better, more inclusive critique of most of the poetry we write, of whatever persuasion or school. He continues:

“You cannot settle out of court. You are faced with what seems like an impossibility – fixing an image which you can tolerate … There is a burden here, and it is the weight of the familiar.”

GustonTheWallII75.gifDavid Kaufmann’s Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works, also published in 2010 by the University of California Press, illuminates Guston’s transition from works in the Jewish Museum show to the figurative works of the 1970s and 80s. He writes, “Just as Guston’s profile did not match that of the avant-garde of the late 1960s, it did not fit the definition of the vanguard in the early 1980s.” So, in addition to listening to an artist ward off the danger of falsity, the second pleasure of these texts is witnessing what a truly independent artist sounds like as he unpacks his own thoughts and desires. To do so will refresh any writer or artist wearied by the cant, cranking and careerism of one’s contemporaries (or of oneself).

More from Kaufmann: “Grand narratives about art did not interest Guston. He wanted to concentrate on the way that every painting justified itself. He felt that there were enough paintings in the world. Every painting … had to ’eliminate the air of the arbitrary as completely as possible.’ Every painting had to prove that its necessity lay in its relation to truth and to the objects of this world.” For this reason, Guston clashed with those critics who assumed some quasi-occult teleological wavelength was triggering the New York “movement.”

As for poets, one is more likely to hear us talk about the necessity of change (“I don’t want to repeat myself”) than about necessity itself. Do we even think of it? But in Guston’s talkiness, a reader may hear the obsessive, proud struggling of William Blake – as Los cries out in Jerusalem: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s; / I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.”

GustonStudio.jpgWhen Guston showed his figurative paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970, several critics simply didn’t know how to respond. A number of them were aghast. He let them have it in a 1972 interview at The New School:

“Well, I’ve been struck, because of certain developments of my thinking and painting which have occurred over recent years and the reception of this work, with how bigoted, which maybe isn’t the right word, or how doctrinaire the so-called modern movement is. Like there are certain shibboleths which are not at all provable, nor are they necessarily true … Like: ‘Painting is flat.’ We could make a whole list of these things. Like: ‘You don’t use subject matter.’ I mean, who says? As if these things had been handed down from Mount Sinai.”

Process and discovery were everything for him. “I find an image that is easily recognizable to be so intolerable in a painting,” he said, “and also irrelevant – because it’s too abstract. By that I mean that it’s simply and only recognizable. The artist had a thought and then proceeded to paint the thought.” Increasingly, I find myself disinterested in poetries that “paint the thought” rather than embody its formation and/or dissolution (personal matters of conscience and technique for each artist) – and hard-pressed to make poetry that meets Guston’s standard. “I’m concerned with what I can accept,” he went on. “What you don’t want is either too much of yourself, that is to say, too immediate a recognition, or not enough like yourself. In short, you’re caught between two known things, which you don’t want.”

Images were hard things to make for Guston, unlike the triumphal avant-gardist who considered himself more pure and principled – and angled for popularity. But Guston lauded the artist who admitted to “trouble and contradictions” and expressed the “pathos” of the difficulties of the contemporary. Purity for Guston was a lethal illusion. His kind of art-making was “a terrible state for man to get down to. But then, modern life is like that.”

GustonOlder.jpgIn 1958, even as his own paintings participated in the triumph of abstract expressionism, he voiced opinions that underscored his idiosyncrasies and his roots: “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.” In 1966, he added to this view: “When I see people making ‘abstract paintings,’ I think it’s just a dialogue. And a dialogue isn’t enough. That is to say, there’s you painting and this canvas, but I think there has to be a third thing. There has to be a trialogue. And whatever that third thing must be, to reverberate and make trouble, you have to have trouble and contradictions.” Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations in fact reads like a single lifelong self-driven Q&A. His new ideas were piled on a foundation of old ones, just like art itself.

Guston the teacher believed (as did Picasso) that technique is the one thing that can’t be taught – the reverse of the usual workshop cliché. Perhaps his talks suggest that what can be taught or at least examined is a teacher’s temperament.

He said, “I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.”

These are the words I’m taking with me into 2011.

[Published December 15, 2010. 344 pages, with 33 black & white photographs. $65.00/29.95.]

Guston on teaching

Ron, thanks for posting this review. I saw a reference to it and the introductory quote about teaching at Leonard Kress's FB page. There was a good discussion about Guston there.

On Trouble & Contradictions

“I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.”

These are brave words.

And that these shots-across-the-bow would come from Guston, a painter-theorist, is interesting; but it's also interesting that they now come to us to contemplate once again now, some 30-40 years later.

He wrote: "I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom."

I don't see why either, but "in our time" has a long half-life. Like painting one's thoughts in an empty room. Diminishing returns indeed.

Thanks very much for the reinvigoration. Here's to making more trouble in 2011.

your reviews

I think your reviews are especially valuable because you seem to be working out something for yourself with each one. It seems in this new one that Guston has something important to say to you. The quotations also attract me greatly. I can see why such a collection of writings would inspire a writer. Good thing this press published a paperback version! I will order a copy. May I suggest a title for you to consider? Actually two. Beckian Fritz Goldberg's Reliquary Fever, a new and selected volume of poems. Also Kristin kelly's Cargo (poetry) from Elixir Press.

Philp Guston review

Ron, this is just a brilliant review. There's a whole discussion prompted by a comment by Alfred Corn about the lack of critical criticism in poetry today. The comments you single out about contradiction, about
“When I see people making ‘abstract paintings,’ I think it’s just a dialogue. And a dialogue isn’t enough. That is to say, there’s you painting and this canvas, but I think there has to be a third thing. There has to be a trialogue." and your final quote,
, “I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.” is what we look for in poetry, we hope. Thank you for sharing this.
veronica golos