… Guston, always out on his own limb, followed himself constantly, doing what followers do best: find the impetus in existent work and follow up, take what’s implied and add some unexpected steps.
… Where anything comes from — in the way of making an artistic culture for oneself — is often more complex and serendipitous than any sort of single-channel history would admit. Confusion is the state we are in. Art history needs to stop straightening these things out and take a long look at how events actually happen. Wake up and smell the randomness, the chaos, the inherent splendors therein.
Accordingly, therefore, my subtitle — “Guston, Piero, and Their Followers” — is a joke. Neither Piero nor Guston has any real followers; or else, we are his followers, the ones who travel, following the Piero or Guston trails — their leavings — making whatever sense we can of what they show us.
For an artist, what is normally considered the orderly timeline of history often works in reverse, sideways, any way but straight down through the years. Guston’s primary artistic education worked something like this: “Cubism was Renaissance painting for me” — all upside down and sideways, and perfectly efficient as the art required. American artists of Guston’s generation, most of them educated outside the classroom, found modern art first.
[line break added] (It must have looked familiar from the funnies, which really came first and were just as modern, anyway; plus, the moderns arrived in America mostly in reproduction, same size as comic strips.) Largely due to the then-new Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but also to the increased holdings of Old Masters in American museums, they then acculturated themselves by learning in reverse what Picasso or Mondrian — or, before them, Cézanne or Manet — had absorbed.
[ … ]
… In painting, touch, which may be akin to what is felt in poetry as tone, isn’t really physically there on paper or canvas, but the evidence of it is crucial as an anterior force you can tell is driving the work. Among his Abstract Expressionist peers, Guston was acknowledged as being possessed of the most refined touch. By the mid-1950s the typical Guston brushstroke — a smooth, amply ridged index finger’s length and width of fat pink, black, or green pigment — was seized upon as an adaptable stylistic device by younger artists as distinct from one another as Joan Mitchell and Jasper Johns.
… By 1968, when his late manner took off, Guston had his touch, his palette — all that meat and air, the bloodiness of both — his forms, and a flexible enough space to accommodate the tangible, sometimes brutal things he felt it necessary to depict. Certainly Guston, always out on his own limb, followed himself constantly, doing what followers do best: find the impetus in existent work and follow up, take what’s implied and add some unexpected steps. Praise them as we will, the late paintings — unmasking imagery and attendant meanings consequently more legible in the earlier — should not be forced, I think, out of that matrix.
… About Piero, Guston might have spoken much as Cézanne did of Poussin: “Whenever I come away from seeing him, I know better who I am.” What Guston in fact did remark upon … was how he was “superficially less influenced … but actually more influenced” by Piero’s painting (then adding cannily, “if you know what I mean“).
My previous post from this book is here.