March 23, 2009

Guston: Laugh out loud?

On Spring Break this week, I've been invited down to DC for a day or two where, besides staying in a swanky Jetson-style hotel, I'm looking forward to visiting a few galleries at Logan Circle and stopping by the National Gallery of Art to see the permanent Mel Bochner installation and the Philip Guston show. In the Washington Post Paul Richard takes four excruciating pages to explain why Guston's paintings are important to the history of art. "Usually the National Gallery presents 20th-century New York paintings unlike Guston's, paintings that are monuments of dignity. Barnett Newman's solemn 'Stations of the Cross,' Mark Rothko's clouds, Jackson Pollock's mists are visions as august, decorous and stately as the National Gallery itself. No grinning allowed. Guston's paintings of hairy knees and cigarette butts are another kettle of fish....

"'There is nothing to do now but paint my life,' Guston wrote in 1972. 'My dreams, surroundings, predicament, desperation . . .' Not much of a life. One of Guston's oils is called 'Painting, Smoking, Eating' (1973), which pretty much sums it up. In 'Midnight Pass Road' (1975) he seems to be stuck at his studio table. What does he see? Not much: the green lampshade, a coffee cup, a sagging flower, a stretched canvas (waiting to be painted), a ghostly thought of his wife (distressed, of course, her hand over her eyes), a triangle, a ruler, his watch. Time passes. Nothing happens.

"'The sense of being thrust into a scurfy internalized world is almost unbearable,' wrote scholar Robert Hughes. 'Guston may have been the first painter to paint that frame of mind so well known to artists and writers: slothful regression. You pee in the sink. You put out your cigarette in the coffee cup.' Guston may have been the first artist to depict the place, but Herman Melville had been there, and so had W.B. Yeats. In 1939, at the end of his life, he had also lost what had worked so well before. He couldn't go up and out. Guston couldn't, either.

"Guston, who smoked three packs a day, died of a heart attack at 66. You might expect his pictures, the late ones in the tower, would turn out to be downers. They're not, of course, they're lifters. That's why they're art. Courage shines out of them. Light shines out of them. And, right from the core of all that sad, dim wreckage, so does a saving nutty glee. 'If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting,' he wrote, 'that is exactly what I want.'" Read more.

"In the Tower: Philip Guston," National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Through Sept. 13.

1 comments:

The thing about Late Gustons is their amazing surfaces. All the earlier interests in color and gesture are still there. The drawing to the figures only shows what happens when you go BACK to figuration - how really weird all the traditional concerns with tone and volume, proportion and depth look once you're locked into a certain kind of facture.

I actually find most of them supremely comic.