“Why am I like this?” Oblomov asked himself almost with tears, hiding his head under the blanket again. “Why?”
After seeking in vain for the hostile source that prevented him from living as he should, as the ‘others’ lived, he sighed, closed his eyes, and a few minutes later drowsiness began once again to benumb his senses… He was passing from agitation to his normal state of calm and apathy… So he never arrived at the cause, after all; his tongue and lips stopped in the middle of the sentence and remained half open. Instead of a word, another sigh was heard, followed by the sound of the even snoring of a man who was peacefully asleep.
From Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, first published 1859.
When David McKee gallery closed its doors in 2015, representation of Philip Guston’s estate was passed over to Hauser & Wirth, who celebrated this coup with an exhibition of his abstract work from 1957-67 at their gallery in New York, which is where I saw it in June this year. I want to make it very clear that this is not a review. The moment has passed and I have no particular desire to pick apart this grouping of works, which was mainly comprised of greyscales, floating ‘heads’ and the pure drawings he made in Florida while having some sort of an artistic crisis. The whole exhibition seemed to be accompanied by something of a concession that this is not really Guston’s best work, and that it is simply interesting to see the hints and suggestions at what would come later, what we are all yearning for, the return to figuration. This is really problematic on so many levels, not least the assumption that the late figurative works are any good, but that it also seems that the only way an artist’s voice can be ‘heard’ is by having something to ‘say’, and that the only way to ‘speak’ in art is to deal in recognisable imagery. But as fascinating as Hieroglyphics are, they are not paintings, and I question the extent to which any painting reveals itself through the conventions of language. Sure, it is subject to certain rules and conventions, but it is we who use language to understand what those conventions and meanings are. We interpret, but the painting imparts nothing directly. This is what Guston seems to struggle with in his later work, however open-ended the narrative connotations of his imagery may be. His frustration with abstract painting is well documented, “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, then going into a frustrated fury about everything, and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid… Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.” [i] I have some sympathy for this frustration, and yet many a painter before Guston has lived through equally tumultuous times, and yet still managed to remain committed to achieving their aims most appropriate to the chosen discipline.
While in New York, I went to see the Matisse room at MoMA several times. On each occasion, but particularly the first, I was struck by the sense of relief his paintings gave me. This is in no small part due to the swathes of tedious early twentieth century art you feel obliged to wade through before getting to Matisse. I’m referring here to the ill-conceived and cringe-worthy theatricality of the Italian Futurists, the first year art school project standard banality of Duchamp’s Reseaux de Stoppages (1914), not to mention some truly awful Gustav Klimts and Marc Chagalls. You begin to feel stifled, as if everything after Le Demoiselles d’Avignon, including the whole Cubist project, had led art down some very spurious paths, either the reactionary and kitsch, or the ‘progressive’ and intellectual games of the Futurists and Duchamp, games both physical and linguistic in nature. Picasso and Braque’s interests and intentions aside, Cubism, when viewed as the widely practiced stylistic phenomenon that it was, begins to look very much like a game. So to step into a room that hosts The Dance (1910), Goldfish and Palette (1914), Red Studio (1911), The Piano Lesson (1916), The Moroccans (1916) and several smaller works and sculptures, is to feel cleansed, because in the midst of all these art games, and painters pursuing the developments of Cubism on no more than a superficial stylistic level, was a painter entirely committed to development within and particular to painting, heeding and accepting the consequences of Cubism, but reimagining them so as to extend painting’s possibilities and relevance and feel comfortable in the knowledge he was expressing himself and not mimicking others. But these paintings are uplifting not only because of the formal innovations, but also because they relay nothing of the deeply troubling events taking place in Europe at that time. They place us in exotic and idealised settings, Homeric utopias of festivity and desire, or by contrast, the sanctuary of the home, where the studio is, where there is art, music and family, rather than the aggressive posturing of politicians and soldiers. To me, these works feel more substantial and politically mature than any overtly anti-war expressionist picture (Guernica for instance), because they offer alternatives to conflict, all in ravishing colour and sensitive touch. Matisse makes real his felt experiences of his immediate environment by means that would maintain the painting’s relevance as an art-object. He accepts certain developments that restrict the possibilities of what he can achieve spatially at that time, and then embraces the challenge of how he can extract different form and space out of the ‘new paradigm’, meanwhile imbuing his work with its own potential to send a strong political message simply by virtue of being determinedly individual and true to his own experiences. The inevitable and involuntary politics of the idle, as portrayed by Ivan Goncharov in his tragicomic hero Oblomov, is by it’s very nature subversive, because it also undermines the efforts and activities of the political radicals who lay claim to subversion and circulate the maxim that evil only occurs when good people do nothing, forgetting that evil also occurs when people with the best of intentions fail to foresee the consequences of their actions.
If Goncharov had simply told us a story of an apathetic, idle man who is rude to his servants and incapable of action, squandering any opportunity he might have had at happiness, well, we may have been tempted to join in the chorus with so many of Oblomov’s detractors in the novel, who chastise him for his poor qualities and lack of ambition. But instead, Goncharov accrues the most painstaking and thoroughly monotonous collection of details, whereby every possible moment that could be extracted from Oblomov’s thought process is conveyed, and this allows us to experience a whole host of feelings towards Oblomov, shifting all the time between empathy and frustration, bringing him to life and continuing to animate him to this day. Similarly, had Matisse just naturalistically represented an image of middle class French living in the early twentieth century, we would be hopelessly bored, as if strolling through some Rococo wing of a museum, and condemn the work as ‘out of touch’. When an artist can show you a world that is on the whole conservative or comfortable but in a way that is anything but, then something truly special and confronting is occurring that forces us to readjust preconceptions or prejudices. The best word for this phenomenon is Realism.
Where are we? In what blessed little corner of the earth has Oblomov’s dream transferred us? What a lovely spot! It is true, there is no sea there, no high mountains, cliffs or precipices, no virgin forests – nothing grand, gloomy, and wild. But what is the good of the grand and the wild?
Does this opening passage to the chapter “Oblomov’s Dream” not also describe something of what Matisse is expressing in so many of his pictures, particularly his interiors. Not only the humility of the scene, but also the means by which it is achieved. There is nothing flashy about Matisse’s handling of paint, nothing grand, upsetting, romantic. It is interesting too, to think of this in relation to the following quote from Matisse, where he states “I don’t believe mountain landscapes can be of much profit for painters. The difference in scale prevents any intimate contact. A few weeks in the mountains are excellent, but as a complete rest from work.” [ii] It can be helpful to consider what Matisse chose to exclude from his work as much as what he put in, and I do not mean this in a reductive sense. Rather that he was prepared to recognise a certain level of exhaustion within particular avenues available to painting, and this may have simultaneously widened the possibilities by enhancing the focus on those that still remained ajar. Matisse was extremely discerning, prepared to exclude where necessary. This is very different to what motivated Guston in his late figurative works, often expressing a desire to be “more inclusive”, not in the sense of making the pictures more visually busy, but by refusing to accept that the figurative image’s capacity to generate meaning and function as art had come to be considered obsolete.
To be fair to Guston and his inclinations toward narrative and subject, Matisse was a figurative painter of a generation never expected to carry on the push to “pure abstraction”, and so his imagery is always going to have that advantage of being cooperative when it comes to establishing a sense of social purpose. My point however is not only that Matisse did not enforce this upon his paintings (I’m unsure as to how much of a concern of his it was at all), but also that we only recognise his work today and are in a position to unpack its possible meanings because of Matisse’s determination to engage with the realities of what painting could still achieve in a visual sense, and to not simply paint it any old way. “The artist’s essential core is itself a product of the civilisation that precedes us. We are born with the sensibility of a given period of civilisation and for that reason one can’t do just anything.” [iii] The pressures I would refer to in this case are of course the reality of the raised, parallel space established by Cubism, a possibility suggested but never literally enacted by Cézanne, whose figure perhaps cast the longest shadow as far as Matisse was concerned. Perhaps Matisse was stirred to correct the failings of the Cubist excursion in regard to just how much it extended and reacted to the spatial possibilities posed by Cézanne rather than lack of. Matisse did not retreat from the most pressing issues in painting that so desperately needed a mature head to guide us through. The pressures of Guston’s time were such that to paint a figurative space or image had become untenable. This is not to be confused with a kind of ‘peer pressure’ to simply pursue what was in vogue. I refer to the real and urgent pressure to make art that understood and attempted to meet the challenges of the time. And Guston did understand these pressures, having been a part of trying to meet the challenges the historical moment threw at him and his contemporaries. In conversation with Harold Rosenberg in 1965 he said, “To preconceive an image, or even to dwell on an image, and then to go ahead and paint it is an impossibility for me. I have often wondered why I find an image that is so easily recognisable to be so intolerable in a painting. My answer is that it’s intolerable – and also irrelevant – because it’s too abstract.” I find this quote to be very interesting, not only because it confirms Guston’s belief in the relevance of the kind of object based abstract art he was pursuing, but also puts his perspective on what is abstract in something of a reverse position to what is generally considered to be the aims of some of his contemporaries.
Guston in his abstract work is often reverting to a heavily reduced kind of figuration, as he also does in his figurative work. He doesn’t at any stage embrace strategies that would have made his work more ‘abstract’ for that time, such as those pursued by Rothko and Pollock, enacting their ideas to their most extreme and logical ends in their most renowned works. I will note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In America, I often found myself unconvinced by Rothko’s colour fields and Pollock’s drip paintings. I found Pollock’s Number #1 (1949) at MoCA in Los Angeles and One; Number 31 (1950) at MoMA to be particularly underwhelming not to mention mechanical, putting them in contradiction to his desire to “be nature”. However, other paintings by Pollock that I saw, particularly Male and Female (1942) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were fascinating if still figurative. The Rothkos from the same period were extremely of their time in their stylised Surrealist manner and overreliance on drawing. They were horribly dated and made me think that despite my preference for Rothko’s colour fields over Pollock’s drips, Pollock was surely the more naturally gifted artist.
As for Guston, his most conventionally ‘abstract’ works are ones such as Zone (1954) or To B.W.T. (1952), where thick and predominantly red licks of oil paint cluster in the middle, criss-crossing vertically and horizontally before spreading outward, losing their intensity, fading to pinks and ultimately creamy whites and greys. None of these were at Hauser & Wirth, whose focus for this show was the troubled transitory period, where shapes made of black or dull contaminated colour float against generally grey backdrops, still tending to cluster towards the middle, quite strangely and literally assisted by the fact that the actual paint activity completely stops at least a good foot short of the canvas edge. Sure, he painted un-stretched which would have contributed to this, but to keep letting it happen so repetitively? I was quite baffled as to what he must have thought he was doing, given his preference for illusionistic space over literal declarations of the painting’s object-hood. A last attempt to remain attached to some semblance of a vanguard perhaps? At times I wonder whether in some way he thought himself a kind of Geppetto of painters, and that he was making the content of his work more real by refusing to acknowledge the limitations of the picture frame, and attempting to spare his painting the inevitable fate of remaining a mere work of art. Farfetched I know, but he spoke often of the Golems in Jewish folklore, these animated statues, and that he wanted to be like Rembrandt, because his portraits were alive, that they were Golems. “It’s as if he (Rembrandt) eliminates the painting plane, the plane of art, and gives us a real man, yet it isn’t a real man… I should like the image in my painting to be as puzzling and mysterious to me as if a figure walked into this room and we stopped talking and wondered: Who is he? What is this appearance?” Guston would also describe the sense of satisfaction he got when he left his studio and thought of his paintings as a whole bunch of people he’d left in a room back there. “The strongest feeling I have, and it’s confirmed the next day or the following week, is that when I leave the studio I have left there a ‘person’, or something that is a thing, an organic thing that can lead its own life, that doesn’t need me anymore, doesn’t even need my thoughts about it.”
We could do a lot worse than to hold this kind of ambition, and yet I am inclined to take issue with it, because I think a painting, in order to simply survive, has to strive to be a work of art and not just reality, and this proves to be a much more complex and intricate task of binding opposing forces together, than what is suggested by the notion of merely convincing us that something is there involves. I say suggested, because Guston clearly appreciated the level of artistry required of Rembrandt to elicit that response in him. But I think it could be misleading, because you could equally argue that Rembrandt, given the way he painted, is also making us aware of a kind of plane in art, as evidenced by the physical and sensuous passages of paint, and not just the effect of the image overall. Is this mysteriousness we experience when we encounter a Rembrandt portrait a result of his shattering of the picture plane? Or is it just his perfect reconciliation of material with illusion, illusion with art, as opposed to trompe l’oeil, which is all illusion, no art. When you encounter a piece of trompe l’oeil trickery, there is the initial sensation that the object depicted is real, and then you realise it is two-dimensional and subsequently lose all interest. When we look at Rembrandt, we know we are looking at a work of art, and that is why it holds us for so long. I don’t believe art has to ‘acknowledge’ certain conventions of the form such as material or the plane in order to be art. I don’t think any good art actually does ‘acknowledge’ anything, as the implications of this word are far too deferential and customary to be descriptive of something that ought to be a challenge to our preconceptions of art and life. It would be wrong to say that Rembrandt ‘acknowledges’ the material of paint. In converse effect, Anselm Kiefer ‘acknowledges’ his various materials to literal and lumpen effect, and to the eternal detriment of his work. Let’s just say that in Rembrandt and other examples of great art that have stood the test of time, there is a collision and synthesis between what is real; the paint, the canvas, and what is somehow more real; the imaginary reality made visible to us.
Perhaps Guston believed in the same thing, and perhaps he had a better way of describing it, a way that is more charming and imaginative. But in his idea, and his subsequent stated claims of ambition, he does reveal things that could have contributed to some of the deficiencies in his work. The equating of his paintings with “an image” for instance, goes someway to explaining the clustering toward the middle of the canvas in his work, ironically destroying the illusion and putting the work in danger of only being recognised in years to come as period pieces, as I think has happened to Cubism. It is a difficult yet necessary requirement of a painting to generate crucial and engaging activity across the support in all its extremities, even if that activity is of a subdued nature. To repetitively fail to enliven all those ‘areas’ or supposed negative spaces, not only creates dead zones, but also breaks up the coherence by establishing a hierarchy within the picture, resulting in parts that are more important than others, in Guston’s case manifesting in an implied figuration that does not live up to anything like what the best figurative art achieves in its equal distribution of attention to all parts of the painting. I am certainly not suggesting that Guston was unaware of the need for the work to function as art. He has said many words to the effect that he did recognise this necessity. In the same conversation with Harold Rosenberg he recounts, “Paul Valéry once said that a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning. In a painting in which this is a room, this is a chair, this is a head, the imagery does not exist – it vanishes into recognition”. And in conversation with David Sylvester in 1960, “In other words, without this resistance you would just vanish into meaning or clarity, and who wants to vanish into clarity or meaning?” Here Guston demonstrates an understanding that a certain level of resistance is required on the part of the material in the task of maintaining the plane of art. But I do wonder to what extent he entertained the idea that he did not want his work to operate as an object in any sense (sounds odd I know, given the way he applied his paint). I say it because I believe that the thoughts that artists entertain have all sorts of ways of revealing themselves in the work and that if Guston’s work gets lost at times, it could be due to a failure on his part to recognise the importance of its identity as an art-object, and it would be naïve to assume that vigorous application of thick paint automatically guarantees our recognition of that physical dimension.
In the return to figuration, there seems to be another assumption made by Guston, and that seems to be that pictorial space is dependent upon having objects occupy areas of the painting. The assumption is also present in the abstract work, but perhaps more pronounced later, when those objects become explicitly referential. He believed his work to be spatial, as did critics such as David Sylvester, who appeared to identify Guston as having married Renaissance depth with Modernist planarity. I understand this conclusion, but I don’t really see it. I see the space in Guston’s figurative work as a kind of cognitive space, where the viewer establishes distances between things based on the object depicted and where we think it ought to exist in the picture. There is something interesting about that, but it relies on too many assumptions for my liking and in any case fails to demonstrate actual spatiality of an inventive or complex nature between passages. Flat figurative painting is probably worse than flat abstract painting.
So Guston perhaps did not rise to the occasion, and through his shunning of the abstract project, so full of potential but largely undeveloped through the 50s and 60s, he somewhat inadvertently helped to usher in a whole new occasion, that occasion being a mood for a type of autobiographical painting that he probably would have been utterly dismayed by. So too the casual approach by later generations of artists who flip flop between abstract and figurative, seeing the two as mere resources, full of associations and useful tools and tricks to deploy in order to make ironic jabs or appear ‘open minded’, or just simply think that we have moved on from abstract/figurative, and wouldn’t want to categorise themselves so. There is also still, perhaps more than ever, a desire to say something important, or personal (important and personal being synonymous nowadays). There are all sorts of contributing cultural reasons for this, such as social media or the rise of identity politics at the expense of debate around collective issues. But at the core of it all, at least where visual art is concerned, Postmodernism emerges when Figurative art starts to exhaust its objective capacity to reinvent itself. It directed its attention inward, not only resulting in a cessation of promising developments in regard to the visual, but also at the expense of any continuation of an established level of finesse and quality in the handling of the chosen material, because the focus had shifted towards the personal story, the outside issues, the political statement, the philosophical significance. It had started long before Guston, or the 1970s. It starts with 20th Century Modernism itself, with the rise of the academic as artist, the infiltration of Post-Structuralist discourse (directed at literature for heavens sake) into thought on Art, and obviously Cubism’s dissolution of the figurative image, thence to Constructivism, with its grand utopian ideals, all this time having entertained Futurist claims, Duchampian games and eventually if not already in figuration, the relegation of paint activity in favour of ideas as pursued by Surrealists like Magritte, Dali and De Chirico, painting in as dead a manner as could be envisioned so as to philosophise with their brushes. The look of the thing is completely secondary to the discussion. And the discussion it seems has moved on from somewhat timeless questions of faith and morality, such easy things to ridicule, but is now focused on the transitory issues based politics of the day.
I wonder to what extent abstract art has had a hand in all this, and whether or not it can or needs to be part of the antidote. Some elements of Postmodernism seem very much to be the realisations of what Clement Greenberg would have called the “Rear-Guard”. In this instance, those reactionaries who, unable to see the bigger picture, either hated abstract art, thinking it had robbed painting and sculpture of its meaning, or those with the best intentions who felt determined to pursue figurative art despite the lack of any promising way forward, falling into the “looking back’ project of appropriation and reference, or who just saw abstract art and Minimalism as the obvious full stop at the end of art history, marking the rise of performance and conceptualism. After all, abstract art proved a step too far for Guston, and he was actually trying to do it. What did I say earlier about the evils committed by those best intentioned individuals who fail to foresee all the consequences of their actions, or who simply can’t see past the immediate gain? He has turned out to be something of an inadvertent father of Postmodernist painting, with the “loose” narratives and intentionally clumsy handling. Think of his Pantheon from 1973, where the painting is literally inscribed with the names of his favourite painters, all hovering around a very stylised and dorky image of an easel with canvas, not to mention the unfortunate self-congratulatory connotations. Need I say more? But what interests me is that to whatever degree abstract art was one of the contributing causes to this current state of affairs, it could equally be continuing to act in direct opposition to it, threatening the academic approach to art by undermining the authority of those who require linguistic cues in order to explain it. It has the capacity to evoke a level of frustration in the extroverted and politically motivated that is equal to that of a Matisse painting or Goncharov’s Oblomov. These are of course not the reasons to get into abstract art, nor are they the ones that keep you in it necessarily, but it all adds up to something. The politics is noble because it is involuntary.
Matisse responded to the challenges facing painting, which was to restore a spatiality within and concerning a set of irreversible developments that threatened to flatten painting, whilst remaining uniquely individual and true to his interests. Because he did this, we are familiar with his work today, and have an opportunity to think about the meanings and implications of the work, which includes what he depicted in it, that depiction being a life enriched by family, friends and culture, which is a powerful visual/political statement that continues to trouble ultra-leftists, conservatives and followers of postmodernist doctrine alike, who reveal much about their own insecurities by thinking the paintings bourgeois.
So why is it so different in Guston? Why can Matisse paint what is around him and it become universal and subversive, and for Guston to do the same and it be autobiographical and regressive? Guston was not one to paint pictures with overt political messages. Like Matisse, he made many works about idleness, or lying in bed, or procrastination. His daughter Musa Mayer in her book Night Studio, makes her own connection, although somewhat superficially, between her father’s East Coker – T.S. Elliot (1979) and Oblomov. All well and good, but this will not lift it to the level of Matisse, and unfortunately art cannot be justified by its subject matter, otherwise we’d still be painting crucifixions. I can’t help but think that had Matisse been in Guston’s position, he would have continued to pursue an objective and expressive abstract art with every fibre of his being, and that is probably the difference. That and many other reasons already covered, not least Matisse’s openness of touch as opposed to Guston’s hard opacity, the multi-directional spatial architectures in Matisse to Guston’s flattened horizontals and verticals, Matisse’s range of colour with inventive juxtapositions in contrast to Guston’s severely limited palette and tonalism, and of course the objectivity of Matisse’s observed reality translated into paint as opposed to the expressive but highly subjective outpourings of Guston’s very stylised visual imagination. Perhaps someone could argue that this was indeed Guston responding to the pressures of the historical moment. It won’t be me.
- All quotes from Guston are sourced from Clark Coolidges’s Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, 2011, 1st edn, University of California Press, CA, except where specified below.
[i] Guston P, ibid, quoted in Storr R 1986, Guston, “A New Figuration”, p.53, 1st edn, Abbeville Press, NY.
[ii] Matisse H, quoted in Cronan T 2013, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism, “The Influence of Others”, p.134, 1st edn, University of Minnesota Press, MN.
[iii] Matisse H, quoted in Cronan T 2013, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism, “The Influence of Others”, p.160, 1st edn, University of Minnesota Press, MN.