… the brush is drawn hither and back like a sleeper’s breath.
This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Fritz Glarner and Philip Guston at the Modern’ first published in 1956. He begins with a fairly lengthy criticism of Glarner which I’m going to skip except for its concluding, dismissive lines; then on to Guston :
… What I find in Glarner’s painting is a high-styled formalization of the urban rhythm. It is idealized and even beautiful. But I find no place in it to which my eye will cling; no line in it so moves that it and I could swing along together. The picture, like a sterile beauty, is everyman’s exile.
A Philip Guston is Glarner’s opposite in every sense. While Glarner’s public elegance is quick and efficient, a Guston is pondered and slowed and hauled up from unspeakable depths of privacy. A Glarner picture is all exteriority, display; Guston’s abstractions are exposures of nerve-threaded flesh. It is as if the hollow of man’s body — scarred and stained with sin and hunger, pain and nicotine — were flattened like an unrolled cylinder and clothes-pinned to the sky.
You remember those early lines of Eliot which used to be so disturbing in their brain-straining leap:
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table …
Guston’s new image is that recondite.
He has journeyed a long way in search of his center.
… His earliest work in the present Museum [MoMA] show is an untitled abstract Painting, dated 1952. In general disposition it faintly echoes the firm structure of his figurative work. But everything here is hushed and softened; the tender strokes of the brush are barely afloat; color is weightless, like odor; the picture is the after-image of a flower garden fading on the inside of closed lids.
… the What is given by the color and the slow motion of its track. A narrow range of shades of red heaves back and forth between pale rose and scarlet. Color of blood; not of blood spilled or smeared but still investing the live tissue, lying bare here like a universe expanded from a surgeon’s cut. And then — in confrontation with glut reds and membrane pinks — the streaks of gray, color of ashes, of fasting, of senectitude and privation.
The red-gray forms the central interlock. Within it, and all around, almost unnoticeable, are vagrant dabs of orange, azure, celadon, giving the paint surface an unpredictable depth and vibration. Then an ebbing away towards the edges where the cold, nacreous surface is haunted by a graying purple, still strangely organic, like the color of chilled human skin.
The other theme is that of localizing what is going on. Yes, the red proclaims itself clearly enough, but the gray drifts and swims in the tissue, and you seek it — or rather its precise relation to the more organic hues — like a doctor tapping, trying to locate a pain. At the same time, it is the grays which function as defining elements, give a more measured statement to the space, and, by setting off the reds, bestow on them a sort of self-realization. The blind, red, windowless organic interiority gains self-awareness by virtue of the foreign body, the intruding gray. The gray pain, the gray hunger, twining with red-roaring guts, becomes the agent of awareness — I am in pain, therefore I am.
But I would not give the impression that these paintings are cries of pathological distress. Far from it. For their last effect — when the initial shudder over these thick smears has passed — is a remote and radiant joy, the very quality which tempts one to locate these worlds of entrails in the sky. In their slow, tempered breathing there is no shred of conflict, and no violence. The intrusive grays are linked and latched to the organic fiber, the two sustain each other like a warp and weft; the grays, for all their otherness, become a necessary and a welcome presence, and the picture smiles with ashes in the mouth.
A feature which sets Guston off most clearly from other New York abstractionists is the slow pace of his pictures. We are accustomed to paintings whose elements move at the speed of more than human performance. But in a Guston the brush is drawn hither and back like a sleeper’s breath.
Its effect on the observer is to slow down his own visual operations — not in fact, not in the way assembly lines determine a piece-worker’s speed — but in imagination, turning us momentarily into contemplatives and thereby giving us a fleeting consciousness of a disused capacity in ourselves.
Neither of the two Guston paintings shown below seem to me to match Steinberg’s description (the book has no illustration), but both are from the same year as the one he describes (1952).