Magazine article Artforum International

Philip Guston

Magazine article Artforum International

Philip Guston

Article excerpt

Head and Bottle, 1975

In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.

I first saw Head and Bottle more than a decade ago, at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, in a show of paintings done by Philip Guston in the last years of his life, 1969 to 1980. It was work I was immediately at home with. By this time Guston had stripped his vocabulary down to a few sturdy basics - soles of boots, bodies of water, planks, pipes, and bulbous stubbled heads with one huge eye and no features. His themes were art, death, and the self. There's a strong sense of mortality throughout, an impatience at the end to be done with everything but plain talk about essentials.

This was 1983. It seemed likely then that the affable duffer Ronald Reagan would take the world blundering into a thermonuclear war, and mine was not the only imagination dominated by the pleasure of ruins. I was writing stories with titles like "The Erotic Potato," about a world inhabited entirely by insects, and "The Boot's Tale," in which an old boot in an empty landscape reflects ruefully on the passing of humanity. Black snow drifts down, and the few irradiated survivors cannibalize one another. Guston's late paintings were preoccupied with the same sort of entropy. They too seemed Beckettian efforts to knock together a few primal meanings out there in the wasteland. Nails recurred, big thick spiky ones that held together simple wooden structures or cobbled the sole of a boot to its uppers. Guston had been a distinguished abstractionist, and before that a figurative painter, before embarking on these bleak cartoons. Hilton Kramer called him a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum, but this was quite wrong: these paintings expressed a genuine and timely refusal to tolerate rhetoric. They were frank rejections of manners and embellishment and decoration and masks. Art, boots, and wine - that's all there is, they seemed to say. If Guston was a mandarin, he was one who had done the equivalent of giving away his money and settling into a fleapit rooming house to drink Thunderbird and think about the sea.

I was living on the Bowery in those years, a block from the men's shelter, and I reflected on this old man and his angry preoccupation with last things, and found something Lear-on-the-heath about it, something cranky and irrational and romantic. I was impressed at how much he was able to say in these deceptively crude paintings. His titles alone conjured a richly derelict world: Box and Shadow, Edge of Town, Night, The Desert, The Floor. …

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