Magazine article Artforum International

Like Clockwork Harry Cooper on Philip Guston

Magazine article Artforum International

Like Clockwork Harry Cooper on Philip Guston

Article excerpt

PHILIP GUSTON'S CAREER swung like a dangling light-bulb--from figuration (starting in 1930) to abstraction (around 1948) and back to figuration (from 1968 until his death in 1980). Yet he often insisted on the continuity of his work. In 1958, when asked about the "change in approach" in the late '40s, he remarked, "I really don't believe in change." In 1979, a year of outlandish paintings such as Moon, which shows the artist at work in a barren, spider-infested landscape, Guston looked back to White Painting #1, 1951, a languid amalgam of abstract strokes that he had painted without stepping back to appraise it: "I feel as if I am the same painter I was then."

If you find the artist's protestations of continuity hard to believe, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations should put those doubts to rest, or at least assuage them, for the surprise contained within is just how little his enthusiasms, his favored images, and even his verbal formulations changed from the statements and interviews of the '50s--alas, there is little before that--to the marathon talks and fragmentary notes of the '70s. The poet Clark Coolidge, who lovingly compiled this collection, says as much in the preface, even admitting that he spared us some word-for-word repetitions. Guston was always the same thinker--almost.

"Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world," Guston wrote in 1958 in It Is, one of the little magazines of the New York School. In the '70s, in an unpublished fragment titled "Where I Paint," he wrote: "I look out to see the end of the street, the edge of town." The later dictum revisits the earlier one, but in a plainer, more vernacular mode. The shift is telling, for Guston made some very vernacular paintings in the interim, such as Edge of Town, 1969, which depicts two cigar-puffing Klansmen driving their flivver into a white wall. (It was but one of the shockers of the notorious 1970 show at Marlborough Gallery in New York in which Guston unveiled his new cartoonish mode.)

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In short, the edge (of street/town/world) was a meme for Guston, a repeated yet altering unit in his artistic evolution. The clock was another. In 1958, he described the process of bringing a painting to completion as a "clocklike path of recognition" and even titled one abstract painting, of 1956-57, The Clock. Then, starting in 1969 with a pencil drawing, the clock itself burst on the scene--an ungainly hero, gesticulating and ticking. As Dore Ashton, his friend and biographer, notes in a valuable introduction, the clock "became an ominous avatar, as it had been metaphorically long before." Thus Guston's diction of the '50s, which solicited existential depths that his quivering abstractions could never quite secure, became his visuality of the '70s. It was as if he woke up one day to realize that the metaphors he had attached to his abstract work would make some great images, if he only dared literalize them.

Reading the collected writings with Guston's paintings in mind, one learns just how programmatic this daring was. In the mid-'60s, in a conversation with the poet and critic Bill Berkson as well as in a short essay in Art News, Guston compared the canvas to a courtroom where the artist was both prosecutor and defendant, judge and jury. In painting, he insisted, there were no shortcuts, no out-of-court settlements. Then came Courtroom, 1970, one of the stars of the Marlborough show, with its paint-spattered Klansman, its debris of frames and stretcher bars, its victim in the trash, and its long arm of the law with a Mickey Mouse glove. The work exploded the painting-as-courtroom metaphor, illustrating it without exemplifying it. (Guston painted the Marlborough canvases easily: They almost poured out of him.)

Or take Guston's fascination with the golem, that Frankenstein's monster of Jewish lore, a man of mud who was created by the rabbis to serve and protect but who often ran amok. …

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