Twilight’s Last Dreaming: Philip Guston 1960-1980

From “Philip Guston: Retrospectiva de Pintura”

I. Abstract, Representational and So Forth

Someone once said, speaking about the public, that if a violinist came on a concert stage and played his violin as if to imitate the sound of a train coming in the station, everyone would applaud. But if he played a sonata, only the initiated would applaud. What a miserable alternative. The implication is that in the first case the medium is used to imitate something else and in the latter, as they say, is pure and abstract. But isn’t it so that the sonata is above all an image? An image of what? We don’t know, which is why we continue to listen to it.
– Philip Guston, 1960

In this insight shared at the midpoint of his “abstract impressionist” phase, Philip Guston articulated his creative crisis, a conflict eloquently resolved in the works of his last decade.

For many of Guston’s peers of the 1950s and 1960s, engaged as they were in a kind of holy war against the literalness of representational art, abstract painting was a triumphant liberation from recognizable content. Pure form, it was earnestly believed and profoundly expressed, conveyed those moods and ideas that previously had no visual correlative.

An initially reluctant though passionate practitioner of pure abstraction, Guston was ever skeptical about those who observed it as orthodoxy. As early as 1958 he was grumbling, “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modem painting and poetry at its heart”.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Guston was among the first of his peers to publicly worry that abstraction had been apotheosized. From the evidence of his published writings and the perhaps more persuasive evidence of his paintings, he felt that a methodology – namely, abstraction – had been exalted into an ideology. Guston believed in painting, not in painting shibboleths.

A freethinker from the get-go, Guston was not about to let any orthodoxy dictate what went on in his studio.

Does the artist paint an image or the imagination? For Guston and most of his peers in the postwar era, these were the choices. It was either/or. Guston, however, bridled at this reduction of artistic possibilities to impure mimesis versus pure abstraction. Was painting a choice between these two “miserable alternatives”, the heresy of representation or the gospel of abstraction? Guston’s salvation was to assert that these miserable alternatives are not alternatives at all for the thinking painter. Guston would prove that they were inextricable.

To believe that representation and abstraction were somehow inimical was to drive a wedge between matter and spirit. In working to reconcile the two, Guston would insist that painting encompassed both/and. Both the matter AND the spirit. Both the image AND the imagination.

As such ideas were taking form in Guston’s mind, they began asserting physical form in late abstractions such as “The Year,” 1964, in which two black blockhead shapes emerge from a smoky sea of scumbled grey. Because of the violent brushwork surrounding these forms Guston smeared white pigment to “erase” black strokes – the blockheads have a primary, primal shape – as Robert Storr has observed, they are “a sculptural knot of pigment that attracts, then defies the viewer’s gaze like a dark, featureless face”.

“The Year” and other Guston paintings of its affinity can be read in purely abstract terms as works trying to reconcile violent gesture with subtle gradations of tone. Yet as the recognizable image begins to intrude – you might say, reappear – into Guston’s work, his paintings demand to be read literally and literarily as well. For what are those blockheads but solid mass emerging from the evanescent smoke? A determined idea – represented by the head, the source of all ideas – intrudes into the smoky indeterminacy.

In a 1964 interview, Guston recognized these obdurate forms massing like bloodclots. What were they? “A ‘thing’ is recognized only as it comes into existence”, he acknowledged.

With his fondness for painterly double-entendres and allusions, Guston would appreciate that the first representational form insinuating itself into his paintings was the blockhead. Perhaps it refers to the blockhead Guston painting in his studio, frustrated by the intangibility of pure abstraction and attracted to the substance and weight of things.

Consider the Blockhead, whose noggin in future paintings identifiably will be Guston’s own. His face is featureless not because he hasn’t eyes and a mouth, but because his countenance is averted from us. We can only see the back of his head. He is withdrawn in the mist of his own imagination. He is not ready to confront us.

Soon, he will turn and meet us eyeball to eyeball.

II. Props and Agitprop

I felt like a movie director. Like opening a Pandora’s box, and all those images came out.
– Philip Guston, 1976

Is it significant that among the Blockhead’s first representational paintings in two decades is that of…a blockhead? (“Head, 1968”).

While at first his face is averted, he accumulates the props for what will be a daring movie projected daily in the Guston Theater of Comix Cruelty. He assembles the props; he hires the actors; he sets the stage.

First, there is the book – “First Book,” 1967 – which alludes both to an artist about to make his life, as the expression goes, an open book and the man preparing for the return to narrative painting. Then there is the “Lightbulb,” 1969, which in comic strip iconography means only one thing: the flash of a new idea. In the Blockhead’s private iconography, the lightbulb also represents the comfort of the closet to which he retreated as a child, a naked bulb providing his safety from darkness. A naked bulb with an unusually erotic nipple, we might note.

Equally evocative, there is the humble shoe (see “Boot,” 1968, and “Untitled (Sole),” 1968), which has a multiplicity of meanings in the allegories that would shortly be performed in the Blockhead’s theater where he will be actor, propmaster, and director. While the laced-up footwear might be symbolic of giving pure abstraction “the boot,” the shoe-bottom as Mark Rosenthal has astutely observed, is punning reference to the “soul”. Both prominently feature in the Blockhead’s visual puns and transformations.

The boot with its architectural solidity also might symbolize the mobility of the nomad who makes tracks, navigates space. The sole – or soul – with its hobnails mimics the proportion of a painter’s palette. The nails in those soles look suspiciously like globs of pigment.

There is the frame. Given the double and triple-entendres of Guston icons, the frame represents the picture plane, the painting canvas, and, to extend the metaphor as the Blockhead surely would want us to, the movie frame.

Then there is the brick. The brick, that impenetrable rectangle, is the atomic unit and building block. Remember that bricks – as in brick walls – are familiar symbols in the Blockhead’s painting’s from the ’30s and ’40s. It is a brick wall thai civilians are hurled against in “Bombardment,” 1937-38; it is a brick wall that circumscribes and imprisons the children in Guston’s allegory “Martial Memory,” 1941. In the Blockhead’s last decade, he literally and figuratively
throws a brick at that wall circumscribing his imagination, shattering and ultimately surmounting this obstacle motif in his painting.

Then, of course, there is the Hood. Perhaps not so much a prop as a costume, this cowl shrouds the face of the Blockhead who wants to look out from the canvas but isn’t ready to meet our gaze.

Are we to see the Hood in a theatrical sense, as the costume of a commedia dell’arte buffoon who is just clowning around? Are we to read the Hood figuratively as the Blockhead’s confession of guilt at betraying the faith of abstraction? (See “Untitled,” 1968, in which the Hood, not unlike a monk, penitently engages in self-flagellation, trying to absolve himself of heinous acts.) Are we to understand the hood literally as a Klansman, a figure from Guston’s 1930s canvases excoriating the humiliator of the Scottsboro Boys, enemies whom the Blockhead now recognizes as himself? Are we to see those stitches on the hood, appearing as they do around the brain, as the surgical residue of a lobotomy? In the Blockhead’s allusive prop-cabinet, all these interpretations obtain.

Given that the hoods re-surface in the Blockhead’s paintings at a historical moment five years after the Ku Klux Klan’s notorious attempts to suppress the Civil Rights movement and coincident with the authoritarian events of 1968, it is also possible that the Blockhead, that propmaster, found a costume which had a multiplicity of meanings, contemporary-political, historic and art-historic. The hoods were the penitential dominoes of the holy figures in the Blockhead’s beloved Piero della Francesca or the mysterious, featureless figures may allude to the mysterious stitched mannequins of Giorgio de Chirico.

But these props have the urgency of political agitprop – a propaganda provoking viewers to think of contemporary acts of repression while thinking of Piero and de Chirico. The profane and the sacred.

What all the Blockhead’s props shale is that they are things cobbled by hand. You see the visible stitches in the hoods, the nails driven into the boot-soles and painting-sides. Hitting the nail on the head. (The Blockhead, an insatiable reader, loved the work of Isaac Babel who wrote, “There’s no iron that can enter the heart like a period in the right place”. Or a nail in the right place.)

The Blockhead’s fetish for the obviously hand-made is further emphasized by an agitated brushwork, not so much a holdover from the Blockhead’s abstract-impressionist period as it is a way of celebrating the funky, rough-hewn object in an age of antigestural art that conceivably might have been made by a machine and not a man.

As the Blockhead introduces us to his inventory of attributes, consider how he weds those low-art, cartoony lines with a high-art brushwork. Krazy Kat, meet de Chirico. The Blockhead is not a “Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum,” as he is libelled in a notorious review; rather he is a reconciler of contradictions.

In resolving the false contradiction of abstract versus representational, the Blockhead also transcends the false hierarchy of low-versus-high art by assuming it is an imperative to be both a connoisseur of popular art and a maven of high culture. His reasoning? Sometimes we have to stoop low to teach high.

III. Actors and Their Roles

I always thought, “I’m a very spiritual man, I’m not interested in paint”, and now I discover myself to be very physical, and very involved with matter, I want to be involved with how heavy things are, a balloon, how light things are; things levitating, pushing forms make me feel as if my hand is pushing in a head, bulges out here and pushes there.
– Philip Guston, 1972

Perhaps props are not enough for the Blockhead because props are not animate and the Blockhead’s mission is to re-animate painting, a vocation he despairs has grown mummified.

Consequently, the Blockhead employs an usually frisky, when not downright crawly, cast of caricatures to vivify the painted movies of his last decade.

Like many directors who work on a shoestring, the Blockhead stars himself. And he plays a double role: Hood and Head. The Hood is masked in that penitential domino. The Head, first unmasked in “Painting, Smoking, Eating,” 1973 is an Olympian involved in a comic triathlon, which is to say, the speedy ingestion of vast quantities of frescoes, fags, and fries.

Consider the physiognomy of the Head. That lima-bean configuration is the shape of a stylized palette, but in place of the mound of pigment there is a bulging eye. An angry peeper? Yes, all the better to conduct a “Confrontation,” 1974 with his alter (altar?) ego the Hood, in which the cigarette-puffing Head faces off the cigar-chomping Hood across a Dystopian landscape of lost soles.

It is worth mentioning that in these first paintings in which the Head emerges, he is dominated by props. (See “Studio Landscape,” 1975. Soon, he will dominate his props, chewing the scenery in a most comic kind of hammery. See him eyeball that puny fifth of “Scotch in Head and Bottle,” 1975.

The Head’s most frequent human co-star is his beloved wife, Musa, whose visage is that of an orange sun rising (see “Source,” 1976) or setting (see “Night,” 1972) on the horizon of his heroic landscapes. Seen frontally, her wispy bangs radiating light, Musa is a heavenly body describing a celestial arc. Unlike the Head, seen in profile and indirect, she engages the audience.

It is telling that the Blockhead animates his paintings with other dramatis personae who are disembodied, yet mobile – like caterpillars which continue darting even after they’ve been cut in half. There are the Kafkaesque cockroaches that populate the painter’s apocalyptic Deluge series. And then there are those flamingo-like human legs which, however amputated, have lost none of their locomotive powers even though they have nowhere to run (as in “Green Rug,” 1976), and can only fold back on themselves, like intestines or surrealist plumbing. And then there are those limbs that don’t have a leg to stand on (see “Room,” 1976), whipped into submission by a flagellating arm.

In these canvases that bring new meaning to the expression “motion-picture frames”, legs are both ambulatory limbs and also ambulatory paintbrushes, snugly attached to the palette-proportioned soles.
For some poets and painters, eyes are the windows to the soul. For this poet, who imagined the artist’s dilemma in “Allegory,” 1976, where the creator’s options ranged from carpenter, painter, sculptor to poet, soles are an eyesore. Only when leg and sole can be joined – symbolic of the paintbrush and palette in harmony – does a kind of peace prevail.

Another kind of leg is a key feature in a most unusual Guston painting. “San Clemente,” 1975, in which a phlebitis-ridden Richard Nixon straddles the landscape, his engorged limb recalling the Surrealist stride in Salvador Dali’s “Soft Construction With Boiled Beans: Premonition 01 the Civil War of 1936”.

“San Clemente,” named for the Southern California beach community where then-President Nixon established the Western White House, is the Blockhead’s recollection of an uncivil war, namely the Watergate fiasco, waged by a man who, though he does have a leg to stand on, finds that it cannot support him. Though Guston executed a series of pen-and-ink political caricatures of Nixon during the late sixties, “San Clemente” is a rare canvas in that Guston, who typically satirized himself, allegorical painter and Blockhead, looked at another individual.

In “San Clemente,” Nixon’s flaccid face suggests a deflated scrotum, his nose a limp phallus. His inflamed limb – quite the opposite of the flamingo legs that typically populate a Guston canvas – is the locus of a sublimated manhood, bulging with varicose veins.

To be sure, “San Clemente” satirizes Nixon, but isn’t it also an allegory of the body impolitic? That phalangist leg with its swollen toes – phalangist in both the political and anatomical senses – stages a revolt against the governing body. With one actor who happens to have Richard Nixon’s face, the Blockhead conjures up associations with the Spanish Civil War, with the timely Watergate crisis, and with that timeless bodily revolt that comes with aging.

IV. The Stage

The Canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance; it is primitive or hopeful, or mere notions, or simply startling, or just another means of making life bearable.
You cannot settle out of court.

– Philip Guston, 1965

Yes, for the Blockhead the canvas is a “Courtroom,” 1970 in which a crimson paw points accusatorily at the Hood, whose cowl is splattered red. With paint? With blood? This picture asserts that pigment is the canvas’ lifeblood.

Apart from being a convenient and dramatic place to stage Aesthetic Judgment Day, the painting is for the Blockhead a set where he, as director, experiments with the canvas as metaphor of point-of-view.

His canvas is also a proscenium, where characters are viewed frontally, seen in quotes, as from the audience. Consider “The Studio,” 1969 in which the Hood is literally caught “red-handed” in the act of painting a self-portrait. In “The Studio,” the upper corners of the canvas are crimson-draped, suggesting a theatre curtain. Like “The Courtroom” where the Hood is tried for imagined artcrimes, “The Studio” is a stage where the Hood, an actor, is criticized while he criticizes his own performance.

Another kind of performance – sexual – is judged in “Couple in Bed,” 1977, a nakedly autobiographical painting in which the Blockhead is in the sack with his beloved wife, Musa, clutching the things dearest to him: spouse and brushes. As expressed in this profoundly romantic work, the Blockhead’s eros is the desire to make art and make love, which here are as indistinguishable as matter and spirit. And rendered hopeless by his apparent impotence, her apparent lifelessness. (It should be noted that “Couple in Bed” was executed during the period Musa was hospitalized for a stroke.)

Here, the conflation of penis and paintbrush is matter-of-fact, never snickering. Likewise the equivalence of bedsheet with canvas. Though one could argue that the bedsheet under which the Blockhead snores is kin to the Klansman’s sheet under which the Hood hid, in this painting the sheet conceals only a primal intimacy that is the source of everything likely to be painted on its surface.

On the sheet over Musa’s shoulder there is a nailed canvas joint, perhaps a pun on “nail” in both its sexual and crucifixion senses. In this tragicomic clinch, Musa is a martyr to the Blockhead’s art – even in bed. The perspective of their connubial mattress is upended, as though the bed is leaning against a wall like a painting in the studio. This is not unlike the point-of-view in Andrea Mantegna’s “Dead Christ,” a deposition of the body that reinforces the sense of death and martyrdom. Yet in the idea that the picture plane is metaphorical of the bedsheet – or vice-versa – is the belief in both places as the sites of sleep, dreams, sex… and renewal.

The canvas as courtroom, as stage, as bed, that most intimate place of confession. The Blockhead’s canvas is also a “Pit,” 1976, the ultimate negative space congested with pestilence and dead soles. “Pit” and other canvases from the Blockhead’s “Deluge” series are painted from a gravedigger’s point-of-view. These pits and ravines betray a pessimism that life is a graveyard of buried hopes, that the only things likely to survive the holocaust are live cockroaches and dead shoes.

The anxious manner in which he sets his stage and deploys its space is the Blockhead’s most dramatic device, more emotional even than the blood-reds and liver-pinks that make his late work pulse like living organisms, more suspenseful than the conflicts waged between actors such as the Hood and the Head. It is in his stagings that the Blockhead reveals – literally and figuratively -his slant on life.

Consider his late paintings in which the canvas background is a shimmering horizon, the ultimate backdrop before which his actors’ gestures (and his gestural brushwork) take on cosmic significance. This is an open-ended stage where recognizable characters like Musa, the Blockhead and the flamingo legs flirt at the edge of infinity.

In the Blockhead’s lexicon of space the horizon is rosy (as in “Source”), voidlike (as in “Night”) or anxious (as in “Wharf,” 1976) where a black sea meets the end of the world). With the most abstract and evocative brushwork of his career, the Blockhead suggests an image of the infinite – of the future – that lies just beyond the edge of visibility.

V. Philip Guston: The Home Movie

“I don’t think you can begin with what you should end up with.”
Philip Guston, 1980

Partisans are unanimous in parsing the grammar of anguish in the Blockhead’s paintings during his last decade. His unusually perceptive biographer Dore Ashton writes with authority about the lugubrious passages in his temperament and in his paintings in which black ground begins to dominate the colorful and unruly figures of legs and shoes.

It may be to misread the Blockhead to understand the mood of his final decade as black-as-in-saturnine. For what are these late works but an expression of another kind of darkness, that is to say, black-as-in-gallows-humor?

Of the many reconciliations that take place in the Blockhead’s work during his final years – think of his reconciliation of the image with imagination, his reconciliation of cartoony, low art with gestural, high-art brushwork-perhaps none is quite as satisfying as his skillful manner in reconciling the comic with the tragic. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw, the Blockhead believes that if you want to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.

Those humiliating Hoods, those disembodied Heads and those dismembered Legs are nightmarish, pertinent images for a culture where humiliation and disembodiment have been casualized, but aren’t they also impertinently pulpy in their gaudy color and comic-strip execution?

Is it the isolation or just the ignorance of much art criticism that when considering a painter, critics typically compare him with other painters but not to other cultural figures who may share his warp of mind? For just as surely as the Blockhead was concerned with the emotional expressionism that impelled Jackson Pollock and the atmospheric use of paint that propelled Mark Rothko, he was just as surely motivated by that cranky humor common to first – and second -generation assimilated Jews who have a unique talent for finding humor in pathos, for finding some degree of pleasure in their displeasure.

In the Blockhead’s paintings we see the direct quotations from Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico, but these are quotations expressed with the deadpan of a Woody Allen, a Groucho Marx, a Philip Roth (who in fact is a Blockhead intimate), a Billy Wilder. Jewish ironists who view the world through a cocked eye, like the Blockhead, they are capable of reconciling conflict only by laughing that the situation is hopeless, but that it is not serious. Like these figures the Blockhead believes that to address hopelessness seriously would be as redundant as writing a boring poem about boredom. Just as boredom must be pounced on with enthusiasm, so serious subjects require the leavening of levity.

Not for Guston the elegant linearity of a career that progressed one-way along one course, the painter ever refining and simplifying what has gone before. Guston may be the first American painter of his generation to reject the idea of modernism as an evolutionary process and progression. Guston demands that we speak of his career as a complex cycle. The Hoods of the 1970s have their ancestors in the Conspirators of the 1930s. “Web” of 1975 has as its kin the cobwebby brushstrokes in the earlier abstractions.

Admittedly, there is something thrilling about the retrospectives of certain modernists whose work clearly proceeds from solidity to evanescence or from a prismatic palette to monastic black-and-white. But while Guston’s cycle does not afford the manifest-destiny drama of an art ever forging ahead in the solemn belief that it knows where it’s going, there is a narrative shapeliness to the Blockhead’s cycle. During the 1930s he made public art inspired by public themes. During the 1950s he made private art on the most private of themes. During the 1970s he made public these most private of themes.

Because he was constantly reinventing his art, the Blockhead begs the question, which other 2Oth-century figure enjoyed a greater twilight career? Only the likes of Luis Buñuel, John Huston, Paul Klee and Fernand Léger – artists who dramatically and vividly recreated themselves in their final years.

Like the Blockhead, these artists are orthodox only in their challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy. Unlike these artists, a large measure of Philip Guston’s heroism derives from the fact that he is the butt of the joke he tells.

The Blockhead intimately and ultimately knows that, as Horace Walpole consoled, “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”. Let it be the Blockhead’s epitaph that he was a thinker and a feeler, a cobbler of epic tragicomedies.

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