Untitled, 1952 signed with initials and dated 'P.G. 52' (lower right) oil on canvas 40 1/4 x 35 3/4in (102.3 x 90.8cm)
EXHIBITED: Dublin, Ireland, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Vertical Thoughts, 31 March - 27 June, 2010
This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné currently being prepared by McKee Gallery.
Philip Guston, Abstract Expressionism, John Cage and Zen Buddhism
Philip Guston's primary inquiry was how to create art independent of the twentieth century opposition of abstraction to figuration. If abstraction was the overarching tendency in modern art, Guston strove to paint within that context, and at the same time, not be limited by it. In fact, one could say his great effort was to free his paintings from all the prevailing conflicts and categories, and to produce canvases that took in all the ideas and tendencies of modernism, yet moved beyond those into something uniquely their own. An impossible task to be sure, but nonetheless, it was Guston's ultimate concern.
Philip Guston was introduced to John Cage in 1951, while at the American Academy in Rome. These two men--together with a third composer Morton Feldman--embarked on a discussion and study of Zen Buddhism, which would heavily influence their work. It would be hard to imagine twentieth century music and painting without the immediate artistic effect that followed from the meeting and continued dialog among these men.
It was a critical time for Guston and Cage. They were wondering, like all the modernists, how to make relevant art that was not unnecessarily bound to anything else, primarily the past. The composer wondered how to make music outside the traditional Western compositional harmonies, while the painter wondered how to make abstraction seem completely fresh and liberated. Guston sometimes talked about what it would be like to be the last painter, to stand at the existential edge. They attended conferences on Zen Buddhism organized by the influential scholar D.T. Suzuki.
Through Zen, these men found ad hoc solutions to their most pressing questions, which when incorporated into their work, produced some of the most significant works of the modernist canon. Right at this critical juncture of the early 1950's Cage composed his hugely influential 4' 33", while Guston began his great experiment with pure abstraction, dubbed somewhat inappropriately by the wags of the time "Abstract Impressionism." Zen gave these men a way to embrace ambiguity in their work, to dissolve dialecticism within the then radical concepts of totality and equality.
These efforts are strongly related to what Guston's longtime friend Jackson Pollock had accomplished a few years earlier with "all-overness".
Guston once said:
"It might be argued that when a painting is 'finished,' it is a compromise. But the conditions under which the compromise is made are what matters. Decisions to settle anywhere are intolerable. But you feel as you go on working that unless painting proves its right to exist by being critical and self-judging, it has no reason to exist at allor is not even possible. The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury, and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance: it is too primitive or hopeful, or mere notations, or simply startling, or just another means to make life bearable."
Zen offered Guston a way to imagine--instead of a perfect canvas--a perfect compromise among all the conflicting elements that make up a painting. Rather than achieve a perfect end result, Guston could instead focus on how to make painting into a trial or a "practice"like Buddhismof maneuvering through the messiness of life and art with a sense of justice or equanimity. In this way, he tentatively managed to move elegantly through the pervading conflict of representation vs. abstraction, and later on, of art vs. politics.
The logical consequence of this kind of thinking, which is where Guston really established himself as a major touchstone for all art which succeeded him, was that nothing becomes off-limit or out of bounds in art, including, for example, politics and cartoons. The seeds of his later work were sewn at exactly this moment in the early 1950's. What was once misread as a great rupture in his careerhis turn in the last decade of his life toward decidedly "low-brow" imagery and politicswas rather the logical outcome of his turn toward abstraction in the early 1950's.
This acceptance of ambiguity led Guston in the summer of 1952 in Woodstockthe exact same time as and place of the debut of Cage's 4' 33"to produce 10 completely non-representational paintings, an incredible amount of work for an artist who famously made few paintings. Although his earlier social realistic style had become more abstract by the late 40's and early 50's, this group was the first to leave representation completely behind and to step unequivocally into the project of Abstract Expressionism. Over the course of the next several years, Guston would contribute to that project with his own particular talents and concerns, creating some of the most significant examples of the movement.
One of the paintings created that summer was this lovely Untitled painting measuring 40 x 35 inches. It contains all of the most prescient ideas that the artist was engaged with at that time: materiality of paint, pure abstraction, a striving toward freedom, and raw freshness. It is also certainly an homage to music and musicians.
The canvas's fleshy pink and green composition marked out over a waxy background of creamy whites is a spectacular synthesis of the many tendencies in Guston's art at the time. It foreshadows subsequent great paintings, most clearly MoMA's awesome 1954 Untitled canvas (the one given by Philip Johnson), arguably Guston's most important Abstract Expressionist work. As well, with its pink and red palette, it goes even further and points directly to his powerful raw later work.
At the lower left center is a powerful green mark, clearly inspired by musical notation and eastern language characters, likely Japanese, which seems to float in a hazy green tinted foreground, like mist, just above the middle field of cross-hatched deeply hued pinks. The mark is created from several masterfully applied brushstrokesfew artists have that sort of painterly confidence and courage. The mark is a perfect balance of color, form and effort. Like calligraphy, the dark forest green strokes are applied with Spartan efficiency and without hesitation. The figure they create is complete; in fact, it is the key to the entire canvas. Its verdant color relates to cool mountain monasticism, while its form relates to language, musical notation and semantic openness.
Much has been said about how Guston looked to Mondrian. Another influence is the cubist use of "scaffolding" to order visually abstract compositions.
Like the cubists, Guston was intensely interested in the brush stoke. Each mark, like the movements in music, is deliberate. They teem with an energy and density that is always fleshy and earthy, real and substantive. The materiality of the paint is stressed equally along with the careful "action" of their application. Guston had an incredible knowledge and awareness of art history. His work deliberately engages, often in incredibly subtle ways, a pantheon of influences. To take one example, the pink brushstrokes in this Untitled painting point simultaneously to Rubens, Delacroix and Ensor.
The canvas has three grounds or levels below the hieroglyphic symbol at the middle lower left. On top of the buttery-textured gauze colored background is the pulpy pink middle ground or field, which becomes a deep plum maroon at the edges, sensually evoking flesh. Floating above the middle field is a misty slightly mint green tinted wash, on which the "character" rests, as on a pillow. These three fields vibrate with and relate to one another, not unlike a Rothko.
The overall feel of the canvas is meditative. Each stroke of rich pigment, one on top of the other, creates a harmoniously intertwined network of pigments. They relate to one another intimately. The whole sense of the canvas is one of deep reflection on painting, the manifold deliberations an artist must consider when taking a brush to a canvas.
Buddhism opened the door for many artists of the twentieth century to leap into intuitive solutions, which made particular sense within the modernist dialectics of strife and conflict. In the same way a Zen koan short circuits rational thinking as a means to open the mind up to intuitive solutions, this Untitled painting leaves representation behind, yet takes us somewhere, even if that somewhere is not fixed. The idea is that the "somewhere" throttles and never rests. This was how Guston gave his canvases their acute "aliveness". They are palpably fresh and exciting because while they leave some things unresolved, they are decisively and masterfully executed.
In response to a comment by Cage that Guston's abstractions were about "nothingness", Morton Feldman countered that they were, rather, about "everything." If everything cannot be expressed on a canvas, the artist seems to say, maybe it is possible to organize all of the elements so that they at least reverberate with everything else. In short, maybe it is possible to make a picture that has resonance (reverberations) in the world. It is like the Buddhist parable of the Diamond Web of Indra, where each gem within the net reflects all the others. In other words, art has the possibility of being as messyand at the same time as "alive"as everyday life.
It is in that striving toward reverberation and movement that logically brought composers and artists together during those heady days of Abstract Expressionism. This painting is exemplary of that incredibly fruitful time. As well, like the early cubist pictures of Braque and Picasso, it is testimony to a unique friendship and common cause, without which twentieth century art would be unimaginably different.