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Published  01/02/1965
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Philip Guston: The painter as metaphysician

Philip Guston
The painter as metaphysician

Studio International, February, 1965, Volume 169, Number 862

by Dore Ashton

The painter cannot remove himself from the currents of time, nor can he pretend that time, ‘that fluid mass, that moving, mysterious, grand and powerful ocean’ (Eugene Minkowski) does not pull him irresistibly forward.

The radical aesthetic assumptions of the 20th century leave no modern painter untouched. The chief assumption - that painting is an interpretation of experience on all levels, psychological and spiritual as well - has opened the way for another language in painting, the language of metaphysics.

It is the simple literal meaning of metaphysics that concerns the painter, mete beyond, physics external nature. The vital painter in our century cannot subsist merely describing the surfaces of visible things. He must move beyond external nature.

When Miro observed that ‘in the work of Leonardo I think of the esprit and in the work of Paolo Uccello, it is the plasticity and structure which interest me,’ he could have been describing the two main directions in modern painting. The difference, though, between the painters of the past and the modern painter is that the modern painter has been able to go beyond external nature, has found other subjects, while both the spiritual and plastic painters of the past were compelled to allude to the apparent facts of nature.

These two directions are often pursued together, but ultimately the artist gravitates to one pole or the other. He chooses his assumptions. Philip Guston’s paintings - his most recent paintings particularly - are strongly on the side of esprit. His paintings indicate that for him, painting is a mode of inquiry and a mode of stating an intuition concerning the meaning of existence.

Such a statement, abstract and perhaps a little grandiloquent, cannot stand alone. An experiment: Supposing we could list, as on a bill of lading, all the components in a painting by Philip Guston. It might read:

Item: Traditional oil paint from tubes (rose, ochre, blue, grey, black).

Item: Stretched canvas, normally no higher or wider than the reach of a tall man.

Item: Strokes (long, loping; short, stacatto).

Item: Textures (opaque, dense: transparent, thin).

General Descriptions: Greyish strokes weaving in and out with occasional flickers of silvered highlights, forming a resilient webbing, or a thickish atmosphere, which supports, surrounds, forms and corrodes two or three major shapes. Shapes are composed of strokes, usually closely articulated, more densely painted. Suspended in the ‘medium’ they move inward or outward. Roughly rectangular or arc-like in design. Largely tonal but sparse indications of non-naturalistic colour, rose, blue, ochre.

This is a lifeless series of words, yet it is a fair verbal transcription of the visible facts of a recent canvas by Guston. A catalogue of his characteristics, his reflexive gestures, says nothing of the moving efficacy of the paintings, or of the vital questions they pose.

Guston’s paintings are more then a collection of visible facts. They are intentionally endowed with meaning, for as the Zen master says, as soon as the questioner poses the question, he already has an intuition of the answer.

The questions posed in Guston’s new paintings emerge from a long life of painting and from the different questions he has asked at different epochs in his painting life.<\p>

When, for instance, he first began to study the ‘structural’ painters such as Uccello and Piero della Francesea, he worked in their aloof mode willingly, putting distance between his emotion and his execution, seeking an equilibrium of clear volumes in space.

After a time he came to question the Renaissance world in which everything was assigned its eternal place. He then began to think about ‘the total picture plane.’ His compositions - allegories of urban life for the most part - became intricate plays of forms in strangely imagined spaces. Certain painterly ambiguities already began to take possession, undermining the static Renaissance harmonies.

As Guston’s thought turned to the symbol, or at least to the abbreviated form which bespeaks a wider radius of meaning, his vocabulary changed. More and more the atmosphere within which the figure moved (his early paintings were always about the human situation) became his subject. Finally, he was constrained to ask himself whether his subject was in fact a readable allegory. In answer, he swept aside the conventional human figure and all recognisable aspects of his environment.

At this point, moving beyond external nature, Guston began to paint the pale, calligraphic abstractions which were then compared with Mondrian’s plus-and-minus paintings and with late Monet. Although neither of these comparisons is accurate (the measured rhythms of Mondrian were never Guston’s, and Monet’s late paintings were still attached to their physical motifs) they indicate a specific question posed by all of these artists: Is not a painting about the known but not visible forces of nature, as well as about other things?

By eliminating classical perspective, then linear composition, then colour as local agent, and finally, even the cues to external phenomena, Guston arrived at the new questions which characterise his metaphysics of painting.

To begin with, the dim, palpable atmosphere of his new paintings is no place known to the eye. But it is known to the imagination. Hints of sea-washed air, of distant silvered lights, of buoyancy, of inhalation and exhalation, stir the imagination. From sense experiences, layered in the mind, the imagination construes its own universe, a universe that is illusion.

Illusion: a word almost lost to us through obfuscation. Illudere, L. to play against: It is the play against the immediate quality of ‘real’ experience which is the artist’s strength. To form a many-dimensioned experience on a limited, two-dimensional surface is the pride of the painter. By the initial paradox he plays himself against the commonplace and establishes his domain - the domain of the imagination, or the metaphysical domain. Not necessarily in the tragic mode of Nietzsche who spoke exaltedly of illusion and claimed that art was metaphysical solace. No, more in the mode of the modern philosopher Gaston Bachelard who in insisting on the reality, the entity of the imagination, held that the function of the unreal was just as vital in the human psyche as the function of the real.

Within the damp, throbbing environment the forms take on various functions. At times, they come near to being merely accents, slightly varied rhythms within the whole. At times they are like creatures, burrowing into safe recesses or pressing aggressively forward. Mythical overtones are in the nesting suggestions, and the birth struggles. A form can ride like a forlorn raft on the high seas, or it can struggle violently in the claustrophobic twilight.

Not known to the eye, but familiar and stirring to the imagination, these forms gather up the forces of the whole. They are not based on direct observation - not in the colour, which is largely neutral, not in the outlines which are generally equivocal. They are the quintessence, rather, of the artist's imaginative experience as he works.

The drawing is not based on any classical function of drawing. Lines jerk or glide, interrupt themselves or wind themselves into tangled skeins. They are significant movements and arrive at that point, described once by the artist, at which 'the hand and the mind know each other.'

In these last paintings, Guston’s soliloquy is not muffled. The strokes which before were somewhat wayward now lie serene. Some have coalesced into firm bodies suggesting heads, masks, iron objects. These rest, although still nervously active like the human organism, with a final assurance of their equilibrium in a chaotic universe.

Guston has gone through the capital experience of the century, that irreversible thrust into the sources of creation in which the instrument is reduction. (Delacroix had predicted it. He spoke incessantly of the need for sacrifices in painting.) He aims not at formal simplicity, but at the true shape of his question: what, after all, is a painting?

If it is not representation, his hand and mind speculate, then perhaps it is presentation. Presentation of what? Of the summaries of reductions, of an overwhelming intuition of the nature of existence.

Guston’s insight, properly expressed solely in painting, concerns a view of the cosmos. Without conscious comparison, he arrives at a position close to that of philosophically inclined contemporary scientists.

The unique quality in all the recent paintings is this: that out of the unequal but rhythmic stroking a physical analogue of the sense of space-time is drawn. The beings within this space-time are nothing other than a dynamic concentration of that which surrounds them. They are composed of the very same matter. They are rhythms, but rhythms that are accented and accelerated -intense concentrations of energy. When the strokes coalesce, suggesting solids that displace space, it is compelling illusion. They partake of that ‘medium’ within which they transpire. In seeking what he has called ‘an experience more remote than what I know.’ Guston has found a view of the universe, a view of form as shaped by total energy. His forms, like the forms of many major 20th century artists, live by virtue of their contexts. Their very existence depends on what passes through and around them.

There is more, yet, to be read in the long, loose, silvered strokes that come into being like slow surf, or that weave deep behind the picture-plane, touching earth and depths. For the statement is not only of an intuition of the construct of the universe. It is also a direct expression of self, or of a particular imagination. The many shifts in distance, in direction, in pace, in emotional climate sensed on the canvas, and the various roles of the figures, now assertive, now volatile, are not merely ambiguous. They are multiplicity itself, a direct projection of the working imagination. The painter is saying, ‘if painting is this, it is that also.’ Swept by forces and energies, the forms in Guston’s paintings, like his human organism, resist. Their resistance, their stubborn defiance of conflicting forces, assures their dynamic equilibrium.

Where is the citadel of human resistance? In the imagination, that power that moves beyond the range of brute forces, beyond the range of matter and anti-matter, that moves forward in the grand ocean of time. For only the imagination can realise the onward flow, the elan vital which is what Guston’s paintings are about.

Many are the priests. Few are the theologians. Many are the painters who make pictures unquestioningly, working on established assumptions but never reflecting. Few are the painters who, like the theologian, search for the meanings behind the rituals.

I said in the beginning that for Guston, painting is a mode of philosophical inquiry. But, the logical positivists would counter, a painting is still a solid, material object that stands or falls by its physical properties. (Yes, it is that too.) They would probably object that the artist’s intention doesn’t count. (No, not if it isn’t realised in matter.)

But it does count, and very much. Guston’s experience, read in the paintings, is a continuous juggling-act of difficult terms. He extends the most serious aspect of the romantic tradition, for his view of the organic imagination remains orthodox: It is through the conjunction of imagination and hand that ideas gain body. Process against product. Ideas become dense, pulsating, readable ‘things’ as the artist’s imagination labours.

Style, said Schopenhauer, is the physiognomy of the mind. It is this physiognomy, rendered with mirror-like fidelity, that is portrayed in Guston’s paintings. Physiognomies change, and thousands of nuances pass over them like clouds on a windy day, and Guston, like Rembrandt starts again and again to trace the true physiognomy. ‘I think often of Whitehead’s definition of philosophy,’ he has said, ‘philosophy is the long way around. Painting begins in one place and in a way, winds up in the same place.’

The events in the painting occur without warning, even to Guston, who awaits them like a seasoned trapper. ‘Sometimes I think of the Zen koan. I know very little about Zen, but I think somehow I am undergoing the koan.’ (The koan, says D.T. Suzuki, is a non-logical exercise given to Zen initiates. ‘Tu Hui was never tired of impressing on his disciples the importance of having satori which goes beyond language and reasoning and which bursts out in one’s consciousness by overstepping the limits of consciousness ... As your concentration goes on you will find the koan altogether devoid of taste, that is, without an intellectual clue whereby to fathom its content. ... When all of a sudden something flashes out in your mind, its light will illumine the entire universe.’)

With the events come the question. No painting is unreasoned, unchallenged. Each is a clarification of the last. The metamorphoses implicit in abstract painting are of central importance. We might say that in his oeuvre, Guston has gone from form to metaform. A vital discovery is the similarity of spaces and forms. The continuity of matter, though, is not the final statement, for Guston believes in evolution and envisions, with Teilhard de Chardin, a great apotheosis of a mind. A painter of esprit, yes, and also a painter of intuition, ‘overstepping the limits of consciousness.’

A modern painter who cannot (even if he tries, which he sometimes does), reverse the procedure of and avoid its consequences ... A modern painter who has inquired incessantly: what can be done without in painting? Or, what is essential? ... A modern painter who acknowledges the double-need for fantasy, where space is not an envelope but a medium, a one-ness such as Poe envisioned, and intuitional speculation ... A modern painter who have only the modern experience (the ‘real’ experience of Werther gazing for hours at a mountainous prospect cannot be his) ... A modern painter for whom painting is authentically a way of life, a way to life.

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