Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Four Questions for Musa Mayer

 Following on from his review of ‘Philip Guston’, Musa Mayer’s book about her artist father, Michael Ajerman was invited to ask Mayer some questions. This is how their interchange went…



Michael Ajerman: I wanted to ask you how you felt about returning to the subject of your father. 'The Night Studio' (Mayer’s first book about her father) and 'Philip Guston' have such a different tone and feel. Was this a conscious decision?

Musa Mayer: It was very much a conscious decision. Over 30 years and close to half a lifetime separates the two books, and my purpose and state of mind in writing them was very different. While Night Studio is in part biography, it is told in the context of a daughter’s quest to know a largely absent father, and to come to terms with his influence in her life. First and foremost, it is a memoir, told in first person, in my own voice. By contrast, Philip Guston was commissioned by Laurence King as a profusely illustrated but inexpensive introduction to the artist, with a brief text that I hope tells his story in a concise way. It is written in the third person. I’d said what I needed to say about my own feelings about my father long ago, and now felt I could approach this recent text in a more objective way, as part of the legacy work I’ve been doing since my retirement six years ago. I’ve worked with The Guston Foundation staff on our website to bring forth a catalogue raisonné, for which I wrote an illustrated chronology. This new small Guston book is in line with those efforts and is also meant to serve as a complement to the large format major monograph also from Laurence King, with extensive text by Robert Storr, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting.

While his New York peers seemed to vacate after the infamous Marlborough Gallery exhibition, De Kooning remained a constant friend and ally in painting. I know both artists where on their own individual paths in the 1970s, artistically and personally. Did either ever visit each other’s studio that decade (Guston in Woodstock / De Kooning in East Hampton)? Was there any one-to-one conversations of opinions about each other’s solo exhibitions of the 1970s?

Unfortunately, no.

I wanted to ask you about Guston’s very late work. The acrylics on the paper; round bulbous orbs, tea pots, and cherries dominate. There are also drawings of full heads of men done in pencil. They seem to be a cross between lost hippies and wandering shaman. Little is known or discussed about this second group of work of drawings. Could you please address them or do you recall any conversations you had with your father about these?

These heads drawn in pencil, from 1980 are distant echoes or tributes to some of his earliest drawings from half a century earlier, in 1930 that were copies of heads from Masaccio frescoes. My father taught himself to draw by copying old masters reproduced in library art book. You can see these at the beginning and end of our slide show of selected drawings on the works page of our website. 

There is the incredible Guston painting of the joys of food, entitled 'Eating', 1977. The pasta that your father made was a meal to gather friends and family around the table for conversation and connection. I wanted to know if you could share the recipe or tell us what was in the famous concoction?


I love that painting, too. My father was a wonderful cook and did love to cook for his friends. He specialized in Italian dishes, but I don’t recall a specific pasta dish like this. But how about this quote from a talk he gave to New York Studio School students in January 1969? He seems to prefigure this painting, almost as if he conceived of it then, but only dared to paint it eight years later. That day in 1969, he was discussing abstraction and ‘essence’ painting and his passion for the image in his work. It’s on page 109 of the book Clark Coolidge edited, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (University of California Press, 2010): 


Image making, I mean painting what's around you, what's there. Paint your hand. The other day I was up for two nights, and I painted... What do you paint? I don't want to paint Art, you know? All I know is that I had spaghetti that night, and so for three days, I was involved with painting a plate of spaghetti. But I don't want to paint a plate of spaghetti because I just ate it. Things get transformed. The mound got higher, like I wanted to make it bigger. I'm not advertising a spaghetti restaurant, so the mound gets higher and higher. Pretty soon it becomes like a Gustave Doré illustration. Millions of people in this big mass. It becomes a big, bloody carnage. You know, image making is the most fascinating--it's the only thing. The rest is just a lot of shit. Making colors and selling yourself a bill of goods.


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