Philip Guston’s paintings from 1968 to 1980 were a substantial influence on my art education as a painting student at the University of Southern Maine. Like most art students at that time, paintings from history prior to the late 1800s were boring to me. (How foolish I was as a student.) Guston’s work seemed more relevant to our time, more immediate and understandable. This impression was certainly butressed by the fact that when I looked at Guston’s cartoon like paintings, I thought “I too could paint at least as good as that.” With Guston’s work, it conveyed to me that I could create art and that “great painting” (as defined by what was being exhibited in New York at that time) was possible for me, an unschooled outsider with no previous experience in art as a child. While the New York art scene concerned themselves with explorations of “high art” and “low art” and post-modernist painting, Guston’s work was a big permission slip for me to try many things in painting as a student, and to accept my own way of painting, whatever that might turn out to be at that time.
What I didn’t realize or see at first in Guston’s late works was what had been worked out by Guston in his previous phases of work as a muralist, and later as an abstract expressionist. Guston’s late works were, and are, deceptively simple. Yet they contain years of painting experience and decisions that he made during his previous two phases of work which he carried into his cartoon-like painting phase. His color palette: the reds, pinks, whites and dirty grays all came from his abstract expressionist painting. The short, staccato brushstrokes that he used to crudely define form in his cartoon paintings, were first used obsessively in his abstract works. The composing of his iconography, those klansmen, the clocks, rugs, shoes, cyclopic heads, etc.; the way he composed all those things in his paintings was first worked out in his prior mural works.
But then there were also new elements to his late work: the repetition of forms, piles and piles of disembodied, folded legs, rugs, shoes; all obsessively used again and again in painting after painting. Shoes were cocked at an angle so that the viewer could see the soles of the shoes, and the nails that attached the soles to the rest of the shoe were visible. Small rugs were often removed from the floor by a hand, or a series of hands, crudely clutching the rugs, trying to place the rugs under the shoes of the disembodied legs and set the world right again. Spider webs were spun all over the painted objects. The light bulbs with strings to turn them on and off hung in the painting without reference to where the bulbs came from. (Interestingly, the use of the light bulb by Guston was an icon of his actual experiences drawing and painting under dim light in his closet as a child, wherein he would hide his creative side from his family.) Everything was removed from its indigenous context, and cocked or turned slightly in a manner to give the viewer an unusal vantage point of the objects, as if the secret to the essence of the object could be found if you just viewed the thing in this way or that. This was probably the biggest aspect of Guston’s painting that I took from when exploring my own painting as a student. It gave me theoretical permission to take objects at will and place them in a self-composed environment, often without any conscious reason for pairing them together, if only to see what might happen in the painting.
Guston’s work was fun! Yet the amusement a viewer could experience with the look of the work and the creamy pinks and reds of his paints came with a serious element of doom or disturbance upon further inspection of the imagery. There was isolation in his works, the artist’s isolation, alone in his studio with only his imagination as subject and source of the work. While some of Guston’s work depicted an outside world, neighborhoods or street corners within some fictional urban environment, many of the late works are interior pieces, cluttered by his iconography that surrounded a disembodied one-eyed head (the eyes had eyelashes!) lying on the floors of his paintings, nervously looking out at the interior world it existed in. There is a seriously unsettling feeling to the works, despite the cartoonish style of the paintings. The things in this fictitious world had no intrinsic value. A clock had the same weight and value, as a spider, or a trash can, or a rug. It was all a collection of stuff, often a collection of garbage, that had been collected by the artist but now served only to clutter the living space of the artist, and haunt. The objects were often visually cute, (I could never resist the charm of how the soles of the shoes were painted, revealing the handiwork of the shoemaker), but also communicated a sense of hopelessness as well. To me, this is Guston’s nightmare of Pop Art, as if Pop had been tried and found wanting by Guston, and as the artists and advertisers and illustrators left to find some new aesthetic movement, they left behind reems and reems of garbage which had no worth whatsoever. (Guston refused to have his work exhibited in a gallery he previously exhibited in once the gallery began exhibiting Pop Art works.) Guston’s was a dark, caustic environment that, tellingly enough, I used as source material in my own painted environments, such as “Bitter Fruit” below.
Influence comes in many forms. In my case, It wasn’t exactly Guston’s style of painting (e.g. his cartoonish quality), but more in terms of the tone of his paintings, and the way he simplified forms and how he manipulated the perspective or vantage point from which to view his objects. On occassion I would steal an icon from him: In one of my paintings I painted a structure that resembled a Roman aqueduct with arched openings that divided the foreground and background. In the foreground space I painted garbage cans. The cans were “stolen” from Guston. Guston’s iconography was a treasure trove for art students like me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting how much of an influence his work has had on my development as a painter.