Philip Guston (American, b.1913, d.1980), Signals, 1975, Cincinnati Art Museum, Bequest of Musa Guston
Philip Guston (American, b.1913, d.1980), Signals, 1975, Cincinnati Art Museum, Bequest of Musa Guston

“One morning, my wife, after the rain, pointed out a spider that was making a marvelous web, so I started doing a number of web pictures with my wife and myself, and a lot of paraphernalia caught in the web.  . . . It’s a terrible corny idea, but what can you do? It led to a whole series of paintings with both of us caught in the web. It felt good making a web eleven feet across. I didn’t study the web, I don’t know what a web looks like. I just invented a web”. [i]

– Philip Guston

Signals, 1975, in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum (gift of Musa Guston), is an enormous, messy, dirty pink and red painting. A figure, perhaps two figures, are caught at the edge of a spider’s web. The spider, in its web is innocuous as it goes about its business. One figure – mostly a giant eye – keeps watch on the spider. Another head below is obscured by a scroll with the initials “M. M. – P. – – G.” a state of waiting exits, as if there is all the time in the world before the inevitable. Its direct poignancy haunts and disturbs, but with a bit of a chuckle … a “just kidding” elbow to the ribs followed by “not kidding” kick to the head. Like the ending in Beckett’s The Unnamable, “ . . . you must go on, I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” You won’t go on. You are willingly trapped.  You begin to get the feeling that optimism has just left the building. It reverberates with hope and hopelessness as the spider waits.

Signals is an emblematic work of one of the twentieth century’s great masters. Painted at the height of Guston’s rebirth as a “figurative painter,” the painting presents a visual paradox of the artist’s inseparability of knowing/not knowing; the painting as result, sum, residue of action and real-time experience. Planning and execution become intertwined. Process and object become fused. It is a display of virtuosity and recklessness in the pursuit of truth. We become the explored and the explorer; simultaneously lost and found within the authentic.

I have little interest in what Signals means. That’s a bit like asking what Mozart’s Jupiter symphony means. However, I am interested in the sensations of experiencing its meanings. Perhaps I refer to a non-verbal set of signs in the face of language’s limitations – an efficient communicative dumbness. To name its parts begs us to see it anagrammatically, like a puzzle, where things have to add up. Naming infers an agreement, a right answer. Though Guston gives us things/names to see, there is no common denominator here; no secret cipher. No. This is the poetic state. This is the created gap of the nameable and the inexplicable where art ignites. The viewer is as essential in fulfilling the promise of the work as the artist was in creating it. The exchange requires one to be open, to be willingly bathed in dirty gray pink smears and blood red cadmium. We get caught up in the artist’s smoky late night ramblings – if we want to be. (I believe it was Ellsworth Kelly who remarked, “If you don’t want to see my paintings, you can’t.”). In Signals we take the pill, pass through the mirror, jump down the hole. It’s OK. Art “makes us less afraid of what we do not know.”.[ii]

Breton shouts, “Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be.”[iii] The artist gives sensation; he doesn’t represent it. Are we shocked by the mastery of ineptness in the drawing of the web and the unsavory taste of crudeness in the spider? Are the erasures over-exposed? Does our engagement take a hike when we think “cartoon?” Is this just some giant mistake? But how can the beautiful be anything but not quite expected? After all, the opposite of the beautiful is not the ugly, but the boring. Guston simply isn’t following along nicely.

Guston was convinced that the authentic was linked to the idea of the first word. Someone had to utter the first word, even if there wasn’t anyone to hear it. The new is often unrecognizable. The artist Robert Colescott once explained to me, “If you are working on something and it looks like art, it probably is; It just isn’t yours”  which is why many artists and viewers prefer “the comfort of habit; the numbness of conformity.”[iv] The new is risky. It courts failure at every turn. It thrives on uncertainty. It takes Necessity. It requires venturing into the wilderness alone. Sure, there is much to learn from copying the masters if you are capable of forgetting what you have learned. The art is not in the discipline of it. Dean Young, in his astonishing book. The Art of Recklessness, writes, “Discipline is only good for the dispensing of punishment. Art’s great obligation is to its own liberty, and by demonstration, the realization of ours. It is not an exercise any more than making love or dying can be practiced.”[v] Guston realized that Picasso was right when he said the only thing that cannot be taught is technique. Execution has to be unique to its necessity. Concept does not precede execution. Generalized strategies lead to death.

We go to museums to see the great works, that in their day, were reckless and challenged ideas of innovation and harmony. They didn’t follow the rules better than anyone else; “they created the work from which the rules followed.”[vi] Guston saw himself as a continuation of that great tradition. An astute student of Piero della Francesca, De Chirico, Picasso, Kafka, and Beckett, Guston was steeped in the history of art, learning experientially through viewing and reading, having been spared the academic discourses of college. He thought art was a miracle. Magic. His threshold for what made art worthy was its aliveness. It was either alive, or it was not. And getting there —  electrifying the monster’s heart — was his raison d’être. Speaking with Joseph Ablow in 1966, Guston discussed his process:

“ . . .this dialogue of myself with this, was that I make some marks. It speaks to me. I speak to it. We have terrible arguments going all night for weeks and weeks. “Do I really believe that?” I make a mark, a few strokes, and I argue with myself. Not ’Do I like this or not?’ but ‘Is it true or not?’ and ‘Is that what I mean? Is that what I want?’ But there comes a point when something catches on the canvas, something grips on the canvas. I don’t know what it is. I mean, when you put paint on a surface, most of the time it looks like paint. Who the hell wants paint on a surface? You take it off. You put it on, it goes over here, it moves over a foot. As you go closer, it starts moving in inches not feet, then half-inches. There comes a point when the paint doesn’t feel like paint. I don’t know why. Some mysterious thing happens. . . . .But then there comes a time, if you persevere long enough, when the paint seems alive. It’s actually living, and there is some kind of release. That’s all I can tell you. . . . I think a lot of artists who paint have that experience, in one degree or another, of this release where their thinking doesn’t precede their doing.”[vii]

The power of Signals doesn’t come about as a preconceived notion. The source can never be the content, and subject is only a beginning. Signals is not an illustration of something. It is the something, and therefore cannot be separated from its origins. Its nature was grown out of necessity. It is uninterested in conformity and eschews convention. Its only sense of convention, one could argue, is that it is paint on canvas, a rectangle. That it asks us to suspend our disbelief in its ability to be window and wall simultaneously should not prevent us from entering or being slammed up against it. Signals shows us all of its devices but it never devolves into craft or information. Its exposition remains transformational not transactional. We don’t “read” the painting as much as we are enveloped by it. If there is a story, it is not mediated by time and sequence. We are getting it all at once – over time. The painting is not encumbered by its own intellect but in touch with something more immediately volcanic. It is an ill-timed dangerous explosion willing to reek undesirable consequences to get what it needs, maybe giving us what we need at the expense of what we want. It becomes something out of nothing because the artist was in touch with the forces of creation at that exact moment and understood that they are unknowable. Call it faith through recklessness. As John Ashbery writes in the Invisible Avant-Garde, (1968) “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.” But this is not an attempt to pull the curtain back on Guston’s lever pulling. There is no curtain and there is no Kansas. Guston is pulling back your curtain.

Guston learned to trust his instincts. He believed in the possibilities of paint. If the painting was to soar he had to engage the unknown through his imagination. If it was to come alive it had to have a heartbeat. Dean Young exclaims “WE ARE MAKING BIRDS NOT BIRD CAGES[viii]. . .  overthinking is the ruin of imagination, it kills off the volition of the spark. The emphasis on craft, on a series of procedures and techniques, is too much like the creation of perfectly safe nuclear reactors without acknowledging the necessity of radioactive matter for the core.”[ix] Guston had an uncanny way of keeping the work focused toward – never looking back; he knew what to put in, what to leave out. It never seems to overreach or contain contradictory concepts. David Kaufman, in his book Telling Stories[x] argues that Guston was after the allegorical but his work lacked required common references. I disagree. Guston”s work always emanated from some personal and private discovery through the use of banal objects twisted and molded to his desires. Universality is entered through the back door. His constant adjustments and resulting erasures give us a glimpse of this constant search and focus on simple themes and complex thoughts.

Guston felt strongly that the only essential technique an artist requires is the ability to change and grow. For artists, his remarkable evolution demonstrates that art resides in a place no one has ever been before. And to get there you have to leave the comforts of what you know and venture into the unknown. You must accept uncertainty as your companion and trust your intuition. This reckless situation spawns mistakes, errors, blunders, and boo-boos. But perhaps that is where the humanity in art takes refuge. Signals challenges us to accept the notion that the best we can do is to search for the questions. As Dean Young puts it, “There are no mistakes, there are only failures of recognition. . .. .Life, my friends, is a mess. Mistakes aren’t contaminants any more than conception is an infection. Fucked up before I got here, fucked up while I hung around, fucked up when I’m gone. Good news!”[xi]

Kim Krause, E.M. #1, 2011, oil and spray paint on canvas, 36" x 32"
Kim Krause, E.M. #1, 2011, oil and spray paint on canvas, 36" x 32"

Kim Krause is an artist and Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at The Art Academy of Cincinnati.

[i] From a talk recorded at the conference “The Big Question: Art/Not Art?” University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, February 27, 1978. Transcribed by Renee McKee. Previously published in Philip Guston, Paintings, 1969-1980, exh. cat. (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982. , included in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011.

[ii] Ann Lauterbach, The Night Sky, Viking, New York, pg.157

[iii] Breton, André. Mad Love. (LíAmour fou, 1937) Trans. by MaryAnn Caws. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987

[iv] Ann Lauterbach, The Night Sky, Viking, New York, pg.157

[v] Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2010, pg.36

[vi] Bayless and Orland, Art & Fear, Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1993

[vii] Philip Guston, 1975-1980: Private and Public Battles, Boston University Art Gallery and University of Washington Press, 1994, included in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011.

[viii] Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2010. Pg.47

[ix] Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2010,pg.153

[x] David Kaufman, Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works, University of California Press, 2010.

[xi] Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2010, pg.154

4 Responses

  1. I have read a lot of writing about Philip Guston’s work especially Morton Feldman and Musa Guston’s book “Night Studio.” With or without your permission is am bookmarking this great article so that I can read it over and over again. Thanks for your thoughts and for time spent writing this piece.
    Lawrence Philp

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *