Philip Guston, “Stranger”, 1964
“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.