Guston In Time; Remembering Philip Guston By Ross Feld was featured in the New York Review Book of the Month, May 2022. Published by The New York Review of Books.
One of the more memorable comments about a book comes from acclaimed writer and philosopher Susan Sontag: “These two high-octane minds in dialogue, in deep, respectful friendship, resound in their letters like a piano sonata for four hands that’s part Schubert, part Busoni. And then there is the enclosing arch of Feld’s visionary evocation of Guston’s quest and Guston’s vulnerability…this is a beautiful, mysterious generous book.”
Arranging the book by painting titled chapters as Web, Source, Blue Light, and Talking, and including letters between Feld and Guston imbues life into the works. After Guston’s death, his daughter Musa Mayer discovered their letters on his desk, and fortunately for posterity, they are included in the appendix edited by Josh Rubins. The absence of any reference to Musa Mayer in Guston’s work seems mysterious, while his wife is mentioned frequently in letters and appears as the subject of many of his artworks.
Ross Feld met Guston, writing a review of his latest exhibition. While it was poorly received, Feld had praised it and was clearly cognizant of Guston’s new direction. You see, Guston had created an uproar when, in the 1970 Marlborough Gallery show, he displayed his evolution from an abstract expressionist style to a cartoonish mode. Akin to Picasso, this evolution fit a natural inclination of the genius artists to evolve from previous grand master forms to new modes of expression. “Except for maybe Picasso, no other painter of our time so provided a whole, populated-with-surprise world as did Guston of this decade or so of later output – and he did so with a consistent edge of philosophical humor and self-mockery that even Picasso himself did not equal,” writes Feld.
Feld’s writing is insightful, rich, and colorful. From his unique knowledge and relationship with the artist, we gain an insider’s glimpse into the inner workings of this painter who has profoundly influenced contemporary artists. “I tended to be more conversationally correct, spending more time tugging Guston back to earth a little when his kite seemed headed for a tree,” writes Feld, referring to Guston’s limitless appetite for talk.
“Guston’s personal heedlessness and excesses – he was like a large Zero Mostel, a supernova of personality – easily swamped me. Somehow though, at the same time, this also seemed to hold us fast, like a Chinese finger-cylinder that tightened as we instinctively pulled in the opposite direction,” exemplifies Feld’s metaphor-rich writing style.
Feld tells the story of Guston reading an essay by Charles Rosen that appeared in The New York Review of Books about Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book, The Origins of German Tragic Drama (which is not available in The New York Review of Books archive online). It discussed the idea of art as a ruin, and Guston had taken flight, as Feld states, “seemed to have enveloped Guston in a blaze of sparks.”
Of Guston’s Cherries (1976), drawn after his wife poured a bag out for them to eat, Feld comments, “The cherries here are a delirious congregation of imperfection. Abundance is not the point of this spill of fruit. Unbalanced asymmetry is.”
Feld attended the 1970 Marlborough show with Archie Rand, a visual artist; he describes themselves as “Both of us were from Brooklyn, as well as from that lower-middle-class Jewish post-war urban cohort that instinctively looked upon intelligence as a competitive event.” Guston was Jewish as well. His family shortened their name after leaving Odessa to better assimilate into Western culture.
Of the show, Feld writes, “Guston’s hulking beautiful/miserable abstractions of the early sixties had made way for a threatening carnival: thugs in hoods smoking cigars and holding nailed clubs.” This is the controversy. Showing these pictures without triggering people’s sensibilities in 2022 is a challenge to today’s museums.
The mutual adulation these two shared through their correspondence is evident in how Feld writes about his longtime friend, “He had an unusually democratic, uncondescending social skills, tending to most people as though they too were artists or at the very least holders of individualized knowledge it was a waste not to try to elicit from them.” What a marvelous sentiment we could all embrace.
Every artist and art dilettante can glean lessons from this book that enrich their perspective on creatively and evolving through one’s creative journey. Such an evolution can be attained through honoring artistic integrity and avoiding the mob mentality of blanket judgment and censorship. As we peer into the artist’s motivations, demons, and life circumstances, one better understands the themes Guston wrestled with and expressed. He chose to share it with anyone who desires to experience it. There are no HIPAA laws for art.
A retrospective of Guston’s work, “Philip Guston Now,” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from May 1 to September 11, 2022; at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from February 26 to August 27, 2023; and at the Tate Modern, London, from October 3, 2023, to February 4, 2024.
The retrospective showcases a movie of the artist that brings him to life, talking to students and fellow artists. Also available on the Museum of Fine Arts Boston site is the curators’ discussion of how this retrospective came to be, and why the museum chose to proceed with it through the controversy. It is an open, honest dialogue filled with surprises. A technical surprise is the discovery of triangles in one of Guston’s works that he had painted over.
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