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Art for Art's Sake

May 25, 2011 By:
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Of all the artists known as Abstract Expressionists -- those color field, action-painting revolutionaries who, with just a few bold splashes of paint in the 1950s, shifted the art capital of the world from Paris to Manhattan -- the least well-known of them has probably always been Philip Guston (that is, if you're not mentioning the sole original woman Hedda Sterne, who recently died at age 100). Several artists in this group were nominally Jewish -- born that way, but not all that interested in the fact or the reality of it -- including Guston and Sterne, as well as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

The non-Jewish members like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were instantly more famous than the others, garnering the bulk of media attention when the group first burst upon the scene and furrowed a few brows with their unorthodox approach to applying paint. Because their technique and varying styles seemed so new -- as well as fearsomely confrontational -- the ever-burgeoning media back in the '50s and '60s saw the need to step in and help explain the phenomenon.

Guston was always considered a lesser member of the group, undeservedly so, though he caught the attention of some critics early on and held it. But he soon grew weary of abstraction and transformed his style. He began painting in a bigger, darker, blockier way, and he did not shy away from the figurative, as so many others did (save for de Kooning and his occasional women). Guston's new efforts made him seem like a slightly mad, even squigglier and often wildly funny Fernand Léger.

His only brush with wider audience recognition came after he published a book in 1971 called Poor Richard, filled with caricatures of Nixon as he ran for president yet again. It appeared several years before Watergate, but many believed the artist had foreseen Tricky Dick's fall from grace in these oversized, prescient, damning drawings. Still, that flicker of popular fame was short-lived. (Some of these works were used to illustrate a later edition of Philip Roth's Our Gang, his satire of Nixon and his buddies in crime. Guston, a dedicated reader, became friends with Roth in the late '60s, as the painter was reshaping his style.)

Guston also gave the impression of being one of the quieter members of the group, staying out of the limelight, perhaps purposely so -- at first, making only tight-lipped remarks about his output.

Well, it appears I was misinformed on that score; Guston wasn't at all quiet. (Perhaps it was that the media didn't seek him out.) Thanks to a new book called Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by the poet Clark Coolidge, another friend, and published by University of California Press, you can now listen to a lot of what he had to say.

As Coolidge writes in his preface, "Philip Guston was a talker, often an elaborate one, words being crucial to him. From big dinnertime storytelling hilarities to early-hour red-eyed assaults on the barricades of just what could be said about art, he was always the last one out of the conversation. He would talk not only of the impossibility of art but of the impossibility of talking about art at all. So, naturally, that's just what we had to do, the talking leading us helplessly away and into a labyrinth of interesting complications/contradictions. But it all finally related to the pictures."

There are formal statements on art, which Guston provided for catalogs, often when his work was part of a group show, but there are also lots of interviews, where you hear his voice at its effusive best.

For example, in an interview from 1966, when he was beginning to alter his style, the interviewer Joseph Ablow asks, "You were talking about making this jump. You see yourself putting the paint on. Do you think it's harder to make that jump while working with the object?"

Guston answers: "No, not at all. I think this. Frequently when I see painters, or young painters, working what's called nonobjectively, whether it's colored stripes or brushstrokes or bull's-eyes, it doesn't matter, it's all the same. I think it's too limited. Not in making a picture -- but we're not talking about making pictures, we're talking about one's experience and one's enlargement of one's self. I mean, how can you continue to evolve? That's the point. And how to bite off a big-enough hunk of something so you can evolve. You don't always have to move horizontally. I feel now I'm going more vertically. At one point earlier, if you allow the analogy or metaphor, I felt I could do everything. And I painted all kinds of things. And I could move horizontally on the landscape, just conquering everything. And now I feel like I'm in a deep mine shaft, trying to penetrate, mining. But it feels inexhaustible to me."

Dore Ashton, who is known for chronicling the comings and goings of the New York School, as this group was also known, has contributed an introduction that provides a detailed portrait of Guston, which alone is worth the price of admission. She knew him and wrote about him when others weren't, and she has lots of good things to say, as always.

And if you should make your way to this book and get immersed in Guston's world, another indispensible work -- for a time the only one admirers had, along with Ashton's writings -- is Night Studio, written by Guston's daughter Musa Mayer. Tracking it down is worth the effort, though the portrait of Guston is not flattering. He was a distant father, obsessed with his art. Ah, well, not the first man to do so, though the result was something of a tragedy for his child. The memoir was originally published eight years after Guston's premature death in 1980 at age 67, and it seems as fresh and forceful now as it did back then.

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