Friday, 12 March 2021

Dawn in the Studio

Musa Mayer's new book about her father, Philip Guston, ticks all of Guston fanatic, Michael Ajerman's, boxes. 

There is no specific flavour that captivates and also repels people to and from Philip Guston’s work. The range of styles and approach creates a mix of allegiances, usually the abstract works or the late works. The early works not so much, sadly. One autumn in Woodstock, New York I crossed paths with a painter who happened to revere Guston's plus and minus paintings and thought everything after was a crime. These feelings, these beliefs are real. 

Everyone sees the nexus of the late work and its importance on their own terms. Maybe it was the late 1960s rejection of Guston’s peers and the banishment of the New York School. Making a personal artistic bunker in Woodstock where he would cook up a new secret world, then coming out almost a decade later and 'right.'

It is hard to convince anyone. If you see it - no let me rephrase that - more importantly, you feel it. It is there. 

The directness of the approach, some people say that Guston removed his sense of painterly skill. But I don't see it that way. You truly see the thing, the forms, being wrestled and being made in order to become a non-predicted mass. The sensation of it being made before you, leads to assumptions, which convince that you could do it. Maybe if one had the nerve. But deep down, you do not know how it is made. The opposite would be de Kooning's paintings from the same time period, the 1970s. You look at the painterly language bloom before you. But it is all a fog, almost impossible to retrace that Dutchman's steps.

Eight years after Philip Guston’s death, his daughter Musa Mayer published Night Studio. An account of trying to make sense of him (the man, the painter, the husband, the father) much as it is Mayer trying to make sense of herself. It is an important text in the Guston cannon but an uncomfortable read. Passages that are so filled with family unease that one truly wants to look the other way or skip a few pages.  

It is now over 30 years later. Musa Mayer is now older than when her father passed away at the age of 65 and has now published Philip Guston. Placing Night Studio and Philip Guston as siblings seems logical but it is a clumsy attempt. Mayer now presents a text on her father that goes - and goes fast. Her aim is straight and clear. Lean. There is no fat on any of these bones.  

Reading it reminds me of being on the A Train in Manhattan. Warp speed from 42nd Street to 125th Street. You are getting to your destination, glimpsing all the non-essential stations wizzing by, amazed at the speed, but wishing you could go a little slower to see the sites.

Precise answers to all the Guston whys are given along with anecdotes and scenarios. Mayer feels the ‘Leg Paintings’ of the 1970s DO reference the documented photographs of Holocaust Concentration Camps. Her presentation of The Door, 1976, is an eye opener. The clustered mountain high, form of shoes, seem to bash through the door like a tsunami. The forms as an intruder from the outside world that have a total disregard for the doorbell. A foreign hell invading a domestic soil. The number 660 inscribed in the painting, is the Guston family house number. 

Mayer is the most qualified to write this book, she now heads the Guston Foundation (the website is truly incredible). For anyone new to, or wanting a revision of the Guston saga, this is a short and solid entry to the life and the oeuvre. The book can even fit in your coat pocket. Would she want to write Night Studio Part II? And how could she as it is 30 years later, and does the world really need it. Would she?

Philip Guston feels like a truly successful one day painting. The roads are clear. The vision without much distraction, detours, or diversions. Writing like this never comes easy. It is harder than it looks, editing is key. Reproductions are truly phenomenal, especially Clockface, 1968 where you can see and feel the previous attempts below dancing with the final layer of paint. Kept alive.

Michael Ajerman

'Philip Guston' by Musa Mayer is published by Laurence King

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