… ‘the only thing one can really learn, the only technique to learn, is the capacity to be able to change … ‘
This is from Philip Guston: The Studio, by Craig Burnett (2014):
… What are we to make of this fat-fingered bozo? He paints, he smokes, he takes a break from murder and bigotry. Surely he’s not worthy of our attention.
Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969
… Before the critics had sharpened their hatchets, Guston knew that The Studio was a good painting, a turning point for him — and, as it turned out, for the history of American painting.
… The Studio is an ecstatic unleashing of everything Guston venerated, all bound together by a passage of supreme poetry: the totemic puff of smoke and the meathead’s black-eyed apprehension of it at the center of the picture. The work has grown in significance over the years because it might just be the best picture Guston painted in his life.
Few noticed at the time.
… If Guston was once regarded as naïve and wrongheaded, he has since risen to critical acclaim as a wise and weary documenter of human conflict and a model painter. Peter Schjeldahl, who ‘hated’ the 1970 show’s paintings [at the Marlborough, where The Studio was first shown], has since called him ‘a prophet and pioneer,’ while in 2003 Michael Kimmelman wrote that ‘it is an exaggeration, but not a big one, to say that [the late paintings] have had a cultish influence almost akin to that Cézanne had on young painters a century ago.’ Arthur Danto has crowned Guston ‘the true hero of the post-historical artist.’
… he was resistant to any kind of manifesto, any last word about what painting is or might become. Indeed, it was in response to Ad Reinhardt’s tendentious list of ‘thou shalts’ for artists that prompted one of his more wonderful off-the-cuff quips: ‘the artist should not want to be right.’ Yet Guston knew all too acutely that the artist should want to be very, very good. The question of his achievement haunted him. It is the very anguish of last-gasp becoming — of working out who he is and what he can do without wanting to be ‘right’ — that we see dramatised in The Studio.
… He took up the hoods not only as an American and personal historical reference, but as an art-historical in-joke, a way to insert himself into and reimagine the grand tradition of figurative painting by his favorite artists, from Rembrandt to Goya, Ensor and Beckmann, who all played with masks and the ravages of selfhood.
Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969
… Failure, for Guston, was productive. Opening a lecture at the Yale Summer School in 1972, Guston proposed that ‘the only thing one can really learn, the only technique to learn, is the capacity to be able to change … What I mean is that this serious play, which we call art, can’t be stamped. I mean you have to keep learning how to play in new ways all the time.’ Despair and anxiety allowed him to change the rules, motivating that desire to play in a comically serious way — an antidote to the quasi-religious rhetoric of the era [by, for example, Rothko and Newman]. By creating an idiom of brusque, cartoonish figuration, he donned a hood and readied himself to play Mickey Mouse, a bigot, a dandy, a flagellant, a dunce.
Just as the troll in the fairy story disappears through a crevice that no one can see, so it is with despair: the more spiritual it is, the more urgent it is to dwell in an externality behind which no one would ordinarily think of looking for it. This secrecy is itself something spiritual and is one of the safeguards to ensure having, as it were, an in-closure behind actuality, a world ex-clusively for itself, a world where the self in despair is restless and tormentedly engaged in willing to be itself.
In the above passage from The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard could be explicating, with the same mix of monomania and absurd humor, the action in The Studio. Beneath the hood is the last place one would expect to find existential crisis, an artist ‘restless and tormentedly engaged in willing to be itself.’
To be continued.