I'll never forget my 19th Century European Art teacher telling us the first day of class, "We won't look at any art in this class." Wha?? we wondered, the oddness of his remark cutting through our affected irony. "We're going to look at reproductions of art." Oh, I get; and it stuck. You'll have to go into D.C. to look at actual art, he said—which I started to do, in head-lifting pleasure. (I recall a favorite trip in here.) I remember my contemporary art class fondly, and a particular favorite who cut through the reproductions to really enter me, among Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, and de Kooning, was Philip Guston, whose mid-1950s paintings staggered me. My introduction to abstract expressionism, Guston's work affected me so deeply in all of the cliched ways: it felt like a foreign language, and so was a little frightening; it re-presented the world to me; it was utterly baffling and at the same time familiar. His paintings created a parallel universe wherein I understood texture and design as natively as I understood hunger and grief, and graphically introduced to me a new way of seeing things; abstraction, essence, nonfigurative, inside-out, otherworldly: all of the mean descriptors miss the point. His paintings were both the thing and the definition, somehow both pre- and post-language. I can say with certainty and with a thrill, still, that my life was never quite the same after experiencing Guston's colors, impasto, and monumentality. Nor was the world I looked at.
|The Mirror, 1957|
|'for m.', 1955|
A few remarks from Guston:
When I see people making "abstract" painting, I think it's just a dialogue and a dialogue isn't enough. That is to say, there is you painting and this canvas. I think there has to be a third thing; it has to be a trialogue.
The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so that what you see is not what you see.
Painting seems like some kind of peculiar miracle that I need to have again and again.
To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing.