Philip Guston and the The Poets, Gallerie Dell’Accademia di Venezia, Venice, 10 May 2017 – 3 September 2017
Among the mad, the bad and the occasionally wonderful work that makes up this year’s Venice biennale, one exhibition stands out for its intelligence, depth and visual alchemy: Philip Guston & The Poets at the Gallerie della’Accademia. Philip Guston, born Philip Goldstein in 1913, is celebrated in the United States, where he is well represented in major museums but is less known, outside the art world, in Italy and the UK. That Guston loved Italy and revered its pantheon of great painters makes his presence in Venice even more pertinent.
His late paintings are a challenge. In October 1970 the Marlborough Gallery, in New York, mounted a seminal exhibition of thirty-three paintings and eight drawings that marked his break with abstraction and his return to figuration. In the 1960s Guston had said, somewhat heretically in an art world dominated by Abstract Expressionism and the mots justes of its guru Clement Greenberg, that ‘there is something ridiculous and miserly about the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.
The Marlborough show received scathing reviews. It’s hard, now, to imagine the sense of outrage at the apparent effrontery of Guston’s cartoonish iconography from those for whom abstraction was virtually a religion. Few, even such eminent critics as Robert Hughes, understood what he was doing. Though Willem de Kooning had an inkling that it was ‘about freedom’. Escaping from the resulting brouhaha to the American Academy in Rome, Guston took comfort in the traditional iconography of ex-voto imagery and Italian painting with its elements of everyday life. Pantheon, his 1973 painting, contains, according to his daughter Musa Mayer, ‘two of his perennial studio symbols: an easel holding a primed, waiting canvas, and a naked light bulb, the source of illumination for an artist who painted at night…[along with] the names of five artists…: Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, Tiepolo and de Chirico’ that, like graffiti, can be read as both protestation and credo.
By showing Guston’s visceral works alongside texts from: D. H. Lawrence B Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T.S. Eliot, this wonderful exhibition expands our comprehension of Guston’s pictorial thought processes. His figurative language of objects, his iconography of common things: shoes, heads, cigarettes and eyes can best be understood in relationship to the poetic principles of these five great literary giants of the twentieth century for whom poetry was, as painting was for him, primarily a search for meaning rather than a means of representation. The movement away from syntactical structure to a search for significance beyond the arrangement of words, parallels the inherent quest within Guston’s own imagery, which moves from observation to seeing, from feeling to knowing. In Montale’s words it was a pursuit for ‘Knowledge of an obscure world we feel around us but which in reality has its deep roots within us’.
Poetry, unlike prose, is the language of vision and mysticism, of ritual and prayer. At its most profound it touches what Yeats called the ‘deep heart’s core’. Guston’s images merge objects from Piero della Francesca with the comic strip, Klu Klux Klan figures and those from popular culture, along with literary references to form a vocabulary of previously unformulated ideas. These reach towards meaning through a process of exploration that echoes Eliot’s gnomic lines: ‘… and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.
Where did this sense of spiritual quest come from? It’s tempting to speculate that it was coloured by his Jewish sensibility. Guston’s Ukrainian Jewish parents escaped persecution to emigrate to Canada from the Ukraine. When the family moved to Los Angeles the young Guston was fully aware of the Klu Klux Klan’s activities against Jews and blacks. It was against this background of persecution and increasing financial pressure that, in 1923, his father hanged himself in the shed, to be found by his son. It’s hard, with this knowledge, not to see Guston’s lexicon of Klansmen, lightbulbs, shoes, cigarettes and clocks, and the clusters of tragic heads round as polished boulders, against this background of domestic grief and anxiety. That this was also fuelled by the haunting newsreel images of the liberation of Auschwitz – the piles of abandoned shoes and tangled bodies – would hardly be surprising.
To paint, to write a poem is a form of reasoning. A philosophical quest made manifest through the arrangement of paint or the sequence of words. As Kosme de Barañano notes in his catalogue essay to the exhibition, Guston uses the graphic synthesis of comics, mixed with the ‘magnificent nightmares’ of Masaccio and the mysterious light of Piero, as the poet William Carlos Williams uses popular rhymes and everyday expressions. To see Guston’s wheels and lightbulbs, his paintbrushes and easels is not to be shown a still life or a domestic interior but rather the ‘studio’ of the artist’s mind, his very thought processes.
This desire to communicate and transcend the banal is not only the motivation behind much creativity but is also apparent in many spiritual practices. Barañano suggests that Yeats’s poem Byzantium (1930) presents the ‘same intriguing iconography as Guston’s paintings’. Yeats’s poem, the tale of a journey, seeks to bring together aesthetics, spiritualism and mysticism by means of a series of symbols and metaphors. It’s a poem that describes the act of writing a poem, just as Guston’s The Line (1978) is a visual metaphor of artistic creation that makes manifest a journey of self- realisation in paint. Here two fingers poke from a cloud to draw a line along the red plain at the bottom of the canvas in a sort of secular existential version of Michelangelo’s Finger of God in the Sistine Chapel reaching out to breathe life into Adam, the first man.
Guston concurs with Wallace Stevens’s sentements that ‘A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature often does not have’. A Stevens’ poem, with its series of often unfathomable and surprising images, is an exploration, a way of thinking about the world rather than an explanation. A reaching and a groping towards. Unlike the physicist or the cartographer the purpose of creativity, here, is to not to name or categorise but to create an equivalence of a particular state of mind. It’s a search not for what is already known, but for what’s as yet unknown. In his poem ‘Of Modern Poetry’ Stevens sums it up thus: ‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice’. While in the introduction to his poem in America’s 93 Greatest Living Authors Present this is My Best, he wrote: ‘poetry is poetry, and one’s objective as a poet is to achieve poetry, precisely as one’s objective in music is to achieve music’. This very much chimes with Guston’s thoughts expressed in 1960 during a panel discussion at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art: ‘Isn’t it so that the sonata is above all an image? An image of what? We don’t know, which is why we continue listening to it’. The purpose of music, like modernist painting, is to reach beyond logical explanation into the meditative and introspective hinterland found in the best poems.
Guston’s is a poeticised universe. His enigmatic images, with their fleshy Bacchanalian pinks, reach back to memories of Roman frescoes, while his everyday objects take on the weight of obscure symbols and metaphors, so that Eliot’s lines: ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’ seem particularly pertinent. Guston’s personal mythology of dreams and nightmares seem to have been conjured, as a shaman may elicit visions, from deep within his subconscious, in his night studio.
Among the razzmatazz of Venice this intelligent exhibition reminds us of the deepest purposes of art and poetry. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work:
“The outer world is what you get in scholarship, the inner world is your response to it. And it is there where these come together that we have the myths….The mythological systems are a constant, and what you are recognizing is your own inward life, and at the same time the inflection of history.”
Through his unlikely melding of the comic book and the everyday, Guston touches that deep place sought not only by the poets but by the blues musician and the singer of Portuguese fado. It’s the story of the pain and absurdity of life, that journey into the centre of the self. For the searing work created at the end of his life – the profile of a supine man, his eyes wide open, perhaps, on his death bed – Guston takes as his title Eliot’s East Coker. In the dark surrounding space the pessimism is palpable: ‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope’. With the white sheets drawn tight under his chin, the stubble-faced man with the sharp nose stares at the ceiling as if reading written on it the lines: ‘In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning’. Guston died in Woodstock in 1980.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. The Poetry Society’s only ever official Public Art Poet, she has published three collections of poetry: Everything Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon), Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt), a book of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt) and two novels, Depth of Field (Dewi Lewis) and Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her third novel will be published by Cinnamon in 2017. Art critic for many years on The Independent and The New Statesman, her Adventures in Art, a compendium of essays on art, is published by Other Criteria. She was recently invited to record her poems for the National Poetry Archive. com. www.suehubbard.