In my video interviews with Art, he keeps dropping references to Gustin, so I’ve been meaning to get to this. AC and I went to the huge retrospective at the Met a few years ago and it was well worth the trip – quite a bit more, actually. It’s tremendous work, but he also did a very interesting thing, turning away from his success as an Ab-Ex savant because he wanted [the work to] tell stories. There’s a good Hughes review from way back in Time but it’s behind a paywall. There’s the Dore Ashton book, “Yes, but…” if you can find it. And I came across this, from the Forward:
Guston’s escape from metaphorical imprisonment into art was not a solo effort; he depended heavily on allies and confidants. In a 1967 talk at the New York Studio School, Guston confided, “I need Feldman to tell me I’m not insane.” Together, Guston and Feldman were both critical of other creative personalities, as well as themselves. (In the same 1968 public discussion in which Treblinka is evoked, both Feldman and Guston concur that the music of the popular American Jewish composer David Amram is mere “kitsch.” These kinds of relentless standards and judgments may have made Guston’s ultimate stylistic transformation especially shocking for such hidebound art critics as The New York Times’s Kramer, who headlined an article about Guston’s last style: “A Mandarin Pretending To Be a Stumblebum.” What emerges from “Collected Writings,” as well as from such imaginative art historical studies as “Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works” by David Kaufmann (The University of California Press, 2010), is the extent to which art critics and even some artists become sclerotic when faced with the prospect of genuine change in art. A devoted reader of Kafka since the 1940s, Guston naturally retained implicit faith in the power of metamorphosis.
Such ever-evolving artists may frustrate observers who wish to typify and pigeonhole creative talents. In “Philip Guston’s Self-Doubt,” an essay posted on artnet.com, Donald Kuspit, professor of art history and philosophy at Stony Brook University, charges that Guston’s “loss of faith in fine art… symbolizes his loss of faith in himself,” caused by “unconscious guilt at repudiating his Jewish identity by changing his family name from ‘Goldstein’ to ‘Guston.’” This accusatory psychoanalyzing ignores some essential elements of Guston’s life. “Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston” explains how in 1924, at the age of 10 or 11, Guston discovered the body of his father, a failed junk dealer who had committed suicide by hanging. This brutal abandonment — by Guston father, not son — was infinitely more violent than any mere change of name or style.
Whether or not accompanied by (understandable) rejection of his father, Guston’s abiding obsession with Italian Renaissance figurative art is visible throughout his varying styles. Just as the Renaissance artists Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca investigated forms, so did Guston, with an ever-present awareness of the work of these predecessors. This formal inquiry is evident, despite the surprising drawing approach that deceived some critics, although not the most perceptive ones, into considering his works mere emulations of cartoons. “Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston,” written by the unjustly forgotten Brooklyn-born author Ross Feld and published in 2003 by Counterpoint Press, notes of Guston’s late figurative work: “Sometimes they’re rendered with a stillness that’s tragic, other times with an hilarious crudity — but even the most upsetting or disquieting imagery in late Guston has a shaggy, even goofy friendliness.” Feld further aptly praises Guston’s “consistent edge of philosophical humor and self-mockery…. Like a Marrano, a converso, one of the underground Jews of the Spanish Inquisition, he’d been a secret image maker all along, coerced into abstraction but never grounded there, outwardly observing but also inwardly undermining its rituals.”
Image: Curtain. 1977. Oil on canvas. The Estate of Philip Gustin.