On Friday I went down to the National Gallery of Art and, man, I came home in a funk. Usually, I come back super charged up and wildly inspired and just ready to get back into the studio, but Friday was not one of those days. I went down to have lunch with my friend Michelle and after lunch we walked through the Philip Guston show that just opened. I had never heard of Guston before and seeing his work was a very dramatic experience. So much so that after Michelle had leave to get back to work, I ended up going through the show again and taking a little more time on some of the pieces that really resonated with me the first time through. Before you enter the actual show, there’s a short video playing on a loop that gives a little background on Guston’s life—specifically his childhood as a Jewish immigrant in California, where the persecution of Jews and Blacks by the KKK caused massive trauma that would stay with him for the rest of his life and feature heavily in his art. On top of that, three days after his tenth birthday, his father hanged himself in the shed outside their house and Guston was the one who discovered the body. As a means of processing his childhood trauma, he taught himself to draw and at 14, he started to paint.
As I was going through the show, and even on the train ride home, a couple things really struck me about the work. One was how different his various bodies of work are. He began as a figurative mural painter, then moved into surrealism, then abstract expressionism, and finally back to a more cartoonish representative style—and he was largely self-taught, though he was friends with Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning which I’m sure didn’t hurt. The other thing that struck me was how his strongly his personal story came through in his work, regardless of the style he was painting in, which is completely understandable given what he experienced.
If I’m being honest—and I know this is going to come off a little strange—I found myself feeling a little envious, not of his talent, although yes, but it was more about his story. Actually, maybe it’s not even his story, but any story that could be at once so intensely personal and also such a driving force in making art.
I don’t have that and I never have. To be fair, some of my work does have a story—at least I think it does—but it’s not my story. The stories are fictions that I’ve created based around my preoccupation with Cold War propaganda. Are they interesting? Sure, maybe. But they aren’t personal and so in my head, they aren’t important. And I know that not all art needs a deeply personal story to make it important or compelling. The type of work I make probably doesn’t need a deeply personal story, but I came away from that show feeling a loss at the lack of one.
When I got home and went down into the studio to look at some of my recent work, I definitely didn’t see any sort of narrative. Truth be told, I was probably in the wrong headspace to be anywhere near my own work because all I saw was boring, derivative shit, devoid of anything you would call personal. I saw all of the influence but none of the originality, except for two pieces that I actually do like and, even in that moment, I think I was able to see why. More than maybe anything else I’ve done recently, I think those two pieces are going somewhere. I don’t quite know where yet, but if there is anything personal about my work in terms of story or narrative, I think it might be starting to reveal itself in them.
I think the strangest thing about all of this—and it’s something I talked about at length with Adrianne—is that most of Guston’s work, especially the later work that affected me so much, isn’t even the kind of work I typically find interesting. I respect it and acknowledge its importance, but I’m much more interested in abstract expressionists like Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning who, as I mentioned, were all friends with Guston and I would imagine inspired at least some of the abstract paintings he did in the late 40s. One of the things that hit me so hard about Guston’s later work was the way that the colors and the simplicity of the draftsmanship that you first see belie the darker themes and the trauma that pervades the work. And to be clear, the simplicity was a choice, not a limitation of Guston’s ability as a painter. His early murals and his surrealism show incredible skill and technique, but it’s almost as if he had to put that aside to make his trauma more accessible to the viewer. Maybe. Obviously I’m just speculating, but regardless it’s an incredibly powerful body of work that for whatever reason really got under my skin for a bit.
I have no idea where my own work is going and I can’t decide whether that’s okay or not. Do I need to consciously guide where it goes and what, if anything, it has to say? Or, is my part simply to let go and let it go where it needs to? I don’t know. Years ago, my friend Doug gave me a book by Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet. Inside the book was a ribbon bookmarking a quote that I have come back to again and again and more often than not, that quote has proven itself to be right.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
National Gallery of Art
Philip Guston Now
Philip Guston - Wikipedia
The Guston Foundation
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This one hits with me too. I think it also goes to the mythology of the suffering artist that you've talked about in podcasts before. We almost seem to tell young artists/musicians that they should go out and get hooked on drugs, have their heart broken, and do something stupid but adventurous just so they have some "fuel" for their art. Nothing about wanting to tell a story that comes from your imagination, or joy, or the positive parts of our lives. It's a damaging and pervasive mythology, and one that I see repeated in articles from people at art schools and editors and writers of art magazines. If the artist doesn't have a tragic backstory, how can their art be any good?
This episode resonates very much with me. I have similar struggles from time to time. Thank you for sharing yours! Also! I really enjoy the voiceover. I really appreciate the extra effort.