Philip Guston

The New York School was composed of any number of fascinating artists. At the moment, I’m most interested in Guston. What’s fixed my attention on him is the recent publication of his lectures and interviews. These reveal sides of Guston that have been obscured. I’ve probably read every single book on Guston published, and there have been a number of them. But what’s revealed in these new lectures and interviews are to me entirely new. It also not only adds to my previous picture of what happened with the transfer of power to the Pop artists, minimalists, photo-realists, etc.

Guston is such a complex figure. Unlike the others of the New York School, his earlier work that contained clear political content that was abandoned during the heyday of abstract expressionism reappeared in force when he returned figuration. This earned him near total condemnation from the ideologues of Abstract painting. De Kooning was the one artist who got it, according to Guston. De Kooning said, with his inimitable dry wit, “What did they think we were? Members of a baseball team.” It’s all about freedom. The mandate of any artist is to speak from his inner vision. Guston’s painting weren’t directly political. But he was doing ink drawings that were. Those drawings could find no publisher at the time. They were caricatures of Agnew, Kissinger, and particularly Nixon. Political content was expressly forbidden in Abstract Expressionism. The Social Realists were largely shut down and expunged from memory. Any descriptions in paint of social conditions in America were deemed “illustration” and not art. By who? Clement Greenberg, largely. Greenberg’s power as a critic was almost totalitarian back then. Of course, it also went hand in hand with the McCarthyite 50s.

It’s interesting to note that photo-realists avoided entirely any depictions of social realities. They still largely do. No Ashcan school for them. Recall that photo-realism came out of the late 60s, early 70s. Looking at their work, one wouldn’t have the slightest awareness that a war in Vietnam was raging that would leave over 50,000 US soldiers dead. As well as some 3 million Vietnamese. The country was plunged into massive social chaos. Yet in photo realism the subject matter would be Richard McLean’s paintings of show horses. Salt and Goings diners and rusty cars. Bechtle’s middle class ennui. Estes cityscapes devoid of human beings. etc. A kind of narcotic American fantasy world.

Here’s Guston’s Nixon in Key Biscayne.

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12 Responses to Philip Guston

  1. MFJ666 says:

    hi Bart,
    I’ve coincidentally come upon another great article (this one by David Reed) in the CAA journal reflecting on Guston in a crit with him at the Studio School and the importance of Piero (hey there’s a great thread to pick up)
    I am enjoying your blog!

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, MFJ. Very interesting article and especially for me personally the mention of Resnick. Connections are always so odd. He also mentions Charles Cajori. I was figure painting a few months back and the model was Cajori’s daughter.

    I like the image of De Kooning and Guston bumping into each other with their shopping carts. They did the shopping? That’s a good one. I thought that Guston was up in Woodstock and De Kooning in the Hamptons. Hmmm.

    My favorite part is about Reed’s reaction to Guston’s crude surfaces in his return to figuration. Reed disliked the crudeness of the paint as opposed to the elegant “abstract impressionism”. I have just the opposite reaction to Guston’s paintings. I hardly like the abstract impressionist work at all. If he’d kept on doing those things, I wouldn’t like Guston at all. I think that’s what betrays Reed as a formalist. He’s intellectualizing everything. Even Resnick. Trying to puzzle out semantic meanings for soul and spirit. What difference does that make? That’s what happened to those NYC painters. All the intellectual formalizing of ideas. That’s where Reed’s paintings end up, too.

    He’s diametrically opposite Guston, at least in the Reed paintings I saw at Protech and around New York. Guston’s critique was of formalist painting–painting that’s derived from application of theory. The NY Studio School combining a dash of Hoffman and a dash of Cezanne.

    Reeds’ stuff is elegant and all that. I can see why he was disturbed from Guston finally coming out from the gut with work that had to emerge uncensored.

  3. johnk823 says:

    I liked the part about the soul beating or having someone else, a friend or an enemy doing it for you. It kind of make me laugh. Whether it is the soul or the inner spirit, art is from within and the minds eye is what sees it for what it is, and is the eye you use in conveying it on to the surface being used.

    Whether Guston or Reed, or whomever, as artist our thoughts are personal to oneself and are valid. We all think and feel differently and so we express our art differently. It is our God given right, as long as we aren’t doing it to hurt someone else.

    One thing is very clear today in the modern art world, and that is direction, there are many of them and it seems there are to many authorities on those directions, thinking they have the right course for all artist and which direction to take.

    There are those claiming to be artists, or that are projected by others as artists, that to me just realy can’t draw or paint at all. I don’t judge them for what they do, but I do pray for them. There are want to be artists, that just don’t have a natural God given gift for art,or even a talent for art, yet they continue to persue art, when maybe they are really suppose to be a dentist or a carpenter or something besides an artist.

    We are all born with God given talents and the key is finding out what that talents is and persuing those gifts we were born with. It should only make senseto find out what they are, and they have test for these kinds of things.

    • Steve says:


      This is a very intriguing concept: that some artists should be doing something else besides art, something that they were inherently inclined to do. I wonder. My own experience was that I didn’t become a painter in school but only afterwards when I was alone and exiled in Europe. Suffering taught me to be an artist. I didn’t, and still don’t have a gift to create; it’s more like an urge. I struggle mightily with whatever medium I’m using. Nowadays that medium is mainly oil paint, which makes its own demands , and taxes my skills to the limit and beyond. I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life, gardener, grave digger, dish washer, j stock boy, janitor, print-shop flunky, delivery boy, farm hand, ranch hand, postal worker,, …whatever would pay the bills. Art has never paid the bills. Sometimes I wonder if I should be a painter. Maybe I’m kidding myself. It’s a lot of headache and heartache. If I was ever asked why I painted, my answer would be: for my own amazement ( not amusement ). Life amazes me, in a good way and in a bad way. Does that mean I should paint it? I don’t honestly know. But I do paint it, whether I should or not.

  4. johnk823 says:

    Steve, You sound alot like me, in many ways. My point however, was not meant in that sense though. Remember the guy who pissed on the paper and called it art, gets praised and paid by those around his and so he is called a creative artist. I would call him a miss guided piece of work and an abomination. But that is only an opinion, because after all, for the present time even he has a place in Gods plan. The thing that I also consider, when judging for myself, there is an after plan and a promise, yet to come.

    And think of it, there is a difference in -judging for yourself and that of judging others for who you think they are or should be. When judging for your self your looking at a situation of one kind or another and making a judgment if you want to be a partaker of that situation. You know the other, so I won’t explain.

  5. trueoutsider says:

    Amen to that.

    Soul beating. Yes, indeed. I sometimes come out of the studio feeling like I’ve been thrashed soundly. How I ever make it back in there the next day I don’t know. But there’s something in there that’s far more exciting than any drug or any other kind of experience.

    I can’t forget the Franz Kline riposte when he was told that it must be really exciting to have all that liberating experience while painting. He said, “Yes. It’s about as exciting as getting up every morning and going to the 40th floor of a building and jumping out the window.”

    I often feel like Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. I just put the shoulder to the boulder. Some sessions put me up there on top of the world. It’s an exhilarating view. I’m in the clouds seeing it all…. then the next morning I awake from the dream and there is the same boulder waiting to be pushed but this time it’s even bigger having somehow acquired the added weight of my just crushed illusions.

    But now I have it tricked, or so I think. I expect to see the same boulder in the morning. So I’m a happy man. Just as Camus called Sisyphus. I have my appointed task. And what would happen if the boulder stayed on top of the mountain? Then what would I have to do with myself?

    Here’s a painting of Franz Kline painted by Max Beckmann:

    Recall also Resnick’s description of the good artist. That he has his ups and downs and then one day he’s going to go… down. And then it’s just panic. He’ll grab at anything not to go to the bottom. And what he grabs onto is his technique…. and after that he goes nowhere. He’s finished….

    It’s being in that chaos that’s both exhilarating but maddening because you never know if it’s finished or if you’ve gotten it. It’s Cezanne’s anxiety. Which is the story of Frenhofer! Who knows about the great Frenhofer? The greatest genius of his day! Cezanne, pointing to himself, said “Fenhofer, c’est moi.” Picasso did a series of etchings of Frenhofer.

    • Steve says:

      An exciting painting by Max Beckmann, an artist that I’ve been meaning to look more deeply into for years, but can’t seem to find a good book about him and his painting. It is so good to see how he solved the vertical format with the falling ( diving? ) figure . I have found extreme verticals and elongated horizontal pictures very difficult and try to stay away from them. Some day I may see a landscape that would make a good excuse subject for a panorama painting, but I won’t be searching for it. There are a lot of vertical paintings around my neck of the woods because it’s redwoods country and many artists just can’t resist painting tall pictures of these trees, (Maybe the same can be said about skyscraper paintings by artists living in New York city ). But I’m not going to do it, mainly because it’s impossible to do the trees convincingly like that. They always look like fantastic lost- in-the-clouds illustrations straight out of a Hobbit land book. But to get back to the Beckmann, I love the powerful design and the thick black outlines which magnifies and freezes the incident, catching the figure in mid-fall and making the horror permanent, as if the tragic figure will always be falling and never hit the pavement. It’s also one of those paintings that make me want to paint in a stark expressionistic way. One of my earliest enchantments when I first began studying art history was German expressionism which followed fast on the heels of the Blau Reiter movement which had the painter Jawrorsky (sp?),…I loved his portraits and landscapes. But I didn’t care for how the Expressionist movement became increasingly poster oriented with primarily political messages. I like prints, but not posters or marquee type illustrations. Lautrec did some great Moulin Rouge advertisements, but they are not my favorite of his works by a long shot. I sense that our new dark age is bringing that kind of bold painting into my mind’s eye , and that I might be seeing ordinary situations in that stark unforgiving way. I shall be on the alert for that, to see if it’s true.

  6. trueoutsider says:

    I did a youtube search for a guston interview and got this:

    I have nothing against David Shrigley. More power to him. More power to Kenny Scharf and Fun Art. And Keith Haring and Basquiat. What interests me is that so many artist eat this stuff up. The contemporary art world is purposely selecting about the most puerile and inane work it can manage to locate. And instead of artists rebelling and denouncing it, guess what? They think it brilliant. What does one make of an art world that celebrates this as fine art. Shrigley’s work has been shown throughout the Museum world. We’re talking solo shows, mind you. In Cologne, NYC, Barcelona, Britain, Sweden, Copenhagen.

    Artists spending their lives in toil and isolation look around and see “hey, I’m a moron” comic humor being celebrated. Does this make anyone mad? Not me. I could care less. Why would any serious artist want to have anything to do with a museum world that elevates work like this to visibility. The current museum world and most of the gallery world have complete contempt for artists. Shrigley isn’t an artist except by the most elastic definition possible. If Shrigley is an artist every high school kid with an offbeat sense of humor doodling in his sketchbook is a world class artist.

    This is obvious. The Emperor has no clothes. And who says anything?

    Why, the three musketeers of True Outsider will saddle up our steeds and call this one as we see it! We’ve already got Don Quixote and Sancho Panza beaten by one in striking force!

    I read on Wikipedia that Shrigley’s work has two of the characteristics encountered in outsider art, one being a “deliberately limited technique.”

    Here’s Shrigley with a deliberately limited technique:

    Here’s an outsider artist with his deliberately limited technique:

    • trueoutsider says:

      Incidentally, I decided to check out the op ed pages of the Times. Bob Herbert has been the only writer that I’m aware of describing what’s happening to the working people of America. I notice the word “contempt” which echoed what I had just written about the attitude of major galleries and museums toward artists. The contempt Herbert describes is toward working people by guess who? “The predators at the top, billionaires and millionaires,… pitting ordinary workers against one another. So we’re left with the bizarre situation of unionized workers with a pension being resented by nonunion workers without one. The swells are in the background, having a good laugh.”

      Now, we have to ask ourselves who exactly is putting David Shrigley into the upper echelons Museums exactly. Wouldn’t that be “the predators at the top, billionaires and millionaires”. Of course it is. The Rockefellers funded the Museum of Modern Art. Nowadays it’s the chief financial titans that decide what art is. They’re the ones that establish the values of every single top artist. Buying, trading, rigging auctions, you name it. And then charge people hefty fees to go see David Shrigley. Or Tim Burton at the MoMA. Warhol’s pop has devolved to another level.

      Why have a Museum of Modern Art at all. I can see Tim Burton at my local cineplex. I can buy books of his drawings and rent all his dvds.

      So that’s Modern Art now. Hey, folks, I’m just trying to keep up with it. I started out here looking for a Phil Guston interview. None in sight. Who’d want to listen to a Phil Guston interview? Who’s Piero della Francesca? Any relation to Leonardo di Caprio? Isn’t that the guy who painted the Mona Lisa? But if you want to see David Shrigley, there were 24 videos on the first page alone.

      Here’s Bob Herbert, the only guy in the mainstream media who’s ever seen an unemployed worker in America:

  7. johnk823 says:

    Bart, That is the story for sure, but it isn’t just America, it is global and it is large and will not only rock America to the bottom, but the entire world. The big money people created all this fraud on a global scale and what is so sad about it all is not a single one of the fraudulant bankers and financers are in jail. They cried bankrupcy, took our money, but they really weren’t bankrupt, inverted the money to make big returns on the downside of inversting, got back the billions they got from Obamas great plan and paid it back and walked away with billions of interest dollars. Gee, thanks for the bail out loan, then they gave themselves millions of dollars in year end bonuses.

    Now, millions have no home to go to, no job to work to get a home or to buy food, so many are taking to robbing the very banks that robbed them of their life savings, wouldn’t work with them to save their home and you get the big picture.One thing for sure, it is not just America, this is global and will deffinetly have a global effect on the world.

    Soon, the the only artists that will be selling anything at all will be totally be controlled by exactly what you have been talking about, and the spiritual art will be a think of the past, because the only thing selling will be the sickening and discusting.

    Just like God let Jerusalm get ahead and prosper when they glorified and praised Him and obeyed His commandments, same for the United States of America, we prospered all these years putting faith in God. Now, the politicians, judges, senate, house and all are taking God out of country, and the same with many other nations. See what those results are getting us today. Everything I just told you is clearly in the bible and man isn’t listening to Gods word, man is listening to the words of men that don’t know God, because if they knew Him they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing.

    We have choices, even as a nation, the choices are two – right or wrong, these two choice are suppose to make everything very clear and concise. It’s like saying prosper as a nation or don’t prosper as a nation, stand tall or fall on your face, it’s all the same, no matter how many ways you put it, the greed of men will kill us all.

  8. trueoutsider says:

    Just a small factual correction. The bailout wasn’t Obama’s plan. It was Bush, his treasury secretary Paulsen (of Goldman Sachs), and Fed chairman Bernanke’s plan. The Democratic congress went along with it because they had a shotgun to their head. If they hadn’t the whole financial system in the country would have collapsed. Obama has certainly done nothing to amend it, nor has he made the slightest move to prosecute the criminals that perpetrated it. An Academy Award was won last night for best documentary that details it all, Inside Job:

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