Day 82: Philip Guston

“In my experience a painting is not made with colours and paint at all. I don’t know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere, a trifle, some detail observed, wondered about and, naturally from the previous painting. The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see.” Philip Guston

This was Philip Guston’s opposite point of view to the cliche that a painting is the paint on canvas and what you see on it. I think both are true.

I used to be obsessed with Robert Ryman, a painter who was constantly fielding questions about meaning and spirituality in his very white light paintings on regular and weird surfaces. He said there was nothing in them, that they were just what they were, paint on canvas, sometimes on aluminum screwed into the wall a certain way. He was playing with surfaces and how you put the painitng on the wall. I went to his retrospective at the MoMA – Sep 26, 1993–Jan 4, 1994. Wow! I thought it was later than that. I was just starting out as a painter and had become very enchanted by his marks and materials and ways to put a painting on a wall, also many are not huge. I sat and looked at a really huge one I had never seen. It had hardly any color but white and grey tones. I don’t usually sit a long time with a painting; it felt like a moment on LSD, my mind entered some weird door of perception and I had some kind of bizarre experience in the Twilight Zone. I’ve never had it since though I”ve had weird reactions to paintings.

I was also inspired by Ryman’s story connected to my own accidental collision with art making. Ryman started out trying to make it as a jazz musician and worked at MoMA as a security guard. Talk about dramatic irony. He saw the paintings and bought som art supplies and started painting on a whim and didin’t stop.

Does the painter really know what they are painting when they think they know? I would say no. I have made so many images that just came out or just resulted from a random drawing and continuing the theme. I’ve even arrived at what they are “about” when I’ve had to write the dreaded artist’s statement, which I always hated. I started painting to get away from making sense and using words to explain anything.

Anyway, one joy of making things is seeing what I made by hearing someone else tell me what they see. Even a few years ago, with this very large Flower Painting in my house, mostly there as it’s too heavy to carry to the studio between moves. I was talking about some work I was making and saying it’s 9/11 again, how weird. He said, “Of course. All of them are. That painting up there is about 9/11.” It was the huge flower one. Not such a stretch as I had been fascinated with the life of the flower, especially as it is sort of half dead by the time it’s in your vase and then you can see it slowly die. It’s even an image in the opening of Six Feet Under towards the end of the opening credits, a fast forward of white flowers dying in a vase.

Anyway, other people see things in my work and what they see is really there. Even if I start with a real actual concept like this Burial Mound idea, I’m not sure what people might say if they were up in my studio or a show somewhere or even when I post them. Maybe they don’t see Burial Mounds or see beyond them some other meaning buried in them.

The other day I was putting house shapes in the Burial Mounds, another way to tie in my experience with the front line workers who handle Covid corpses, not to connect to them by experience; in fact it emphasizes how I’m home and safe while they risk their lives every day and are at the nuclear core of the pandemic.

Then the next thing, I put some of my buildings from many of my past and recent series in the burial mound in a drawing and thought, here comes 9/11. Even the house shape in the other ones, it’s my 9/11 apartment an airplane engine’s distance from the towers. There actually was an engine on the corner of Murray and Church streets a few feet East of my place on the same northern side of Murray St.

I was thinking about Philip Guston who used to be a huge painter for me, whom I revered, especially his courage in the heart of abstract expressionism to say, “I’m not making those pretty paintings to make statements about America or the meaning of art or whatever. I’m going to be honest and make paintings of shoes, nails, paint, faces, buildings, piles of legs, sleeping and smoking, cigarettes, drawings of Richard Nixon, including his phlebitis.” (My words)

What other artist of that time made as part of their work so many caricatures of Richard Nixon? The great thing is that they aren’t in caricature style; they are Guston’s drawings, with his kind of line and roughness.

The reason I started this whole post was that I was thinking of Guston’s disturbing paintings of people in KKK hoods. Apparently at one of his shows, someone from the KKK actually destroyed one of the paintings. However, his answers don’t totally tell the story. He said he wanted to experience how it feels to be purely evil and look in the mirror. He was Jewish and was referring to their anti-semitism as a person growing up with post war looming on him, but I couldn’t find a discussion on racism and they didn’t seem to think of asking a black person what they thought of his paintings. You can find a lot of articles about why he did the paintings but they are strangely void of real discussion of racism and lynching.

Now that we are quite aware of the constant lynchings of black people carried out by the police and others, there is no way to not be part of the picture.

What Guston didn’t say and maybe didn’t see because maybe it’s true that you paint the painting from a personal question or need, but it has its own life and refuses to be just what you and even others of the time say it is. He was admitting that even as a Jewish person, part of the Klan’s vicitims for sure, he was still white and could still be invisibly Jewish.

In 2019, those paintings bring home the fact that if you’re white, you’re priveleged and protected and always part of the problem in some way, some in smaller ways than others; you can still do something about it, contributing to Black Lives Matter, working in your community, electing the people who can effect change, especially people of color who are running for office all the time. Participating in the protest is one way, especilaly if you avoid the violence because once you get violent you mess up the movement, as the violence will always be blamed on black people. Listening to people’s stories and their art too.

If you google and look at those paintings now, they are very powerful and very true in a way that images can convey much louder and more directly than words. It was still an act of courage to paint them and say I dare you to see yourself I. This painting and to hang it on your wall…

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