PHILIP GUSTON’s touch on MY BLINDNESS

Something happened in New York City, May 21

By Rosanna Albertini

This is a piece on the physical status of painting and the dominant illusion that intelligence is not physical: rather an immaterial spark of infinity that makes humans different from monkeys… If such a deceiving idea has a comfortable room in your mind, listen to the story. Maybe you will stop recalling theoretical or historical stereotypes when you look at a painting. You might feel like a bird, perched on the artist’s shoulder, rolling your eyes into the display of wet colors.

PHILIP GUSTON, Untitled, 1967 Brush ans ink on paper, 18 1/8 x 23 1/8 inches @ The Estate of Philip Guston - Courtesy Hauser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, Untitled, 1967 Brush and ink on paper, 18 1/8 x 23 1/8 inches
@ The Estate of Philip Guston – Courtesy Hauser and Wirth

For most of my life as an art writer I have not been able to respond to Guston’s paintings. It was like having a locked door in front of me. There was no reason why. His paintings, those with figures, were flooding me with sadness, a fog in my brain. Reading essays and books did not rift my clouds. I couldn’t understand what was really going on, if it was me or Guston’s manner of operation, raising a barrier.

“It is writing of course it is the human mind and there is no relation between human nature and the human mind no no of course not. … oh yes the flatter the land the more yes the more it has may have to do with the human mind.” Gertrude Stein

Also Gertrude’s ‘of course’ was to me a matter of doubt. But her writing and thinking have something  of the painting’s flatness, they do not do not climb geometrical logics. On May 21, in New York City, my stubborn brain had to give up: I had to admit she was completely right: Guston’s paintings as probably any other great paintings for that matter don’t have much to share with human mind. I realized it after my head, on May 21, was seriously knocked down by a biker who hit my body like a balloon. I was crossing the street. For weeks each step has been painful, I’m still not my usual walking self. The day before the accident, I had seen Philip Guston’s exhibition of abstract paintings and drawings (1957-1967)  at Hauser and Wirth.

PHILIP GUSTON, Accord i, 1962 Oil on canvas 68 1/8 x 78 1/2 inches @ The Estate of Philip Guston - Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, Accord I 1962,  Oil on canvas 68 1/8 x 78 1/2 inches
@ The Estate of Philip Guston – Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Prisoner of a bed for hours, days, I started to revisit his paintings, those that are called abstractions, with new sympathy. They were inside my body along with bruises and changing colors around my left eye; they kept me in a state of questioning, about the human sites Guston had laid down carefully, layer by layer, but he didn’t clean them, nor idealized them; they are painted as messy  as they are: until a state of painted harmony is reached between strokes and colors.

PHILIP GUSTON, Untitled 1958 Oil on canvas 64 1/8 x 75 1/4 inches @ The Estate of Phiip Guston - Courtesy of Houser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, Untitled 1958,  Oil on canvas 64 1/8 x 75 1/4 inches
@ The Estate of Phiip Guston – Courtesy of Houser and Wirth

As still lives do, these paintings block in a configuration that is not allowed to change the most undefinable nuances of a daily conversation: bodies and sounds and gushes of wind in their invisible, constant mutations. Guston could feel them, he paints his own sensations through the moment and place he is in. His feeling of existence.

He wrote in 1960: “I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean him and his environment, in this total situation.”

Give a look to The Year, 1964: it has two empty pupils, black. Each of them is beginning and ending. Hadn’t the tormented fury of time crossed their holes already, they wouldn’t be  looking at us announcing a quiet end of the day after all; actions or changes continue not to be compatible, and yet The Year keeps all the chopped stories together, floating in the same gray light. White and pink still peep out gently, they are not foreground.

“I don’t know why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern paintings and poetry at its heart.

PHILIP GUSTON, Group II 1964, Oil on canvas 65 1/8 x 79 1/8 inches @ The Estate of Philip Guston - Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, Group II 1964, Oil on canvas 65 1/8 x 79 1/8 inches
@ The Estate of Philip Guston – Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, The Year 1964, Oil on canvas 78 x 107 1/2 inches @ The Estate of Philip Guston - Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, The Year 1964, Oil on canvas  78 x 107 1/2 inches
@ The Estate of Philip Guston – Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

At work in his studio, Philip Guston looks like a fisherman. Aquatic density in his compositions, floating of perceptions maintaining their chaotic and movable quality. Never twice the same. Never rigid, either. Known images and symbols are gone. What remains, then? The physical status of painting.

Finally, now that my body has been wounded, and my mind absorbed by pain, I see how great is Philip Guston’s art. I needed the loss of faith in the image of myself I had met most of my life: positive, invulnerable, independent. I became one of the many anonymous black holes Guston repeated  and repeated inside the bundle of matter, the formless nest of our daily situation. His paintings of the sixties are not images of anything one recognizes, nor portraits of ideas. He looks down. The narcissus he sees is a black spot on the asphalt where I bumped my head.

He does nothing to fill the blackness, his own or others’. And if sameness is everybody’s destiny what can he do? Paintings will carry it; vertical objects lifting an horizontal scene, so the angle is changed. There are not forms, not hierarchies, only a common ground.

PHILIP GUSTON, Painter III 1963 Oil on canvas 66 x 79 inches @ The Estate of Philip Guston - Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

PHILIP GUSTON, Painter III 1963,  Oil on canvas  66 x 79 inches
@ The Estate of Philip Guston – Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

The extremely simple drawings assembled on the same wall brought tears to my eyes: the line is not Paul Klee’s vein reproducing nature’s growing energy, memory and identity are not in these marks on paper.   Each sign says ‘I’m here, now. I am unique, not sure what I’m doing here, and yet don’t be mistaken: I am the language the Guston artist practices to tell himself he is alive, the marks of his human nature, looking hesitant as well as strong.’ Existential beauty, no need to explain.

Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957 Photo: Arthur Swoger @ The Estate of Philip Guston - Courtesy Hauser and Wirth

Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957
Photo: Arthur Swoger
@ The Estate of Philip Guston – Courtesy Hauser and Wirth

THIS IS MY ITALY: A RADIANT, ABANDONED GREEN LAND

by Edgar Honetschläger and Rosanna Albertini

Conversation between an Austrian wanderer from Vienna and an Italian native who lives in Los Angeles

PHOTOS OF ITALY by Edgar Honetschläger

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EH      This is my Italy. You might see it like a dream world, but this is the Italy my eyes see. Japan was dreamland too for me: Tokyo, or the breathtaking countryside, never appeared real to me. Ghosts and spirits everywhere, and people who believed in them. I guess the two cultures are strong enough to allow it.

The beauty I encountered was almost unfathomable: the intact landscape, the colors. Flowers blooming all over, butterflies, birds everywhere. At Bolsena lake the water played all the blues of the scale, then the rain came and the isola Bisentina vanished within minutes. For a while the lake looked like the sea, with no end to it.

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RA      Not the usual images of Italy. They are thick and secret, a texture of vegetable history intertwined with ruins, fountains, grottos that are for ghosts, figments of our mind. Impenetrable walls of plants: one can play with them in a reversed metamorphosis: unraveling our body through branches and leaves that are as hungry as the three-headed dog the Romans called Cerberus. Lost in Central Italy’s greenness, I was never able to separate mythological images, or the Etruscan smile, from valleys looking as if time hadn’t passed and ancient eyes could look at me from open caves pierced into the mountains.
But, it’s real landscape, not a dream.

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EH      To me it is a dreamland: I’ve always seen Italy exactly as in these photos since 1999; I went down to Italy regularly. I guess I make it that way as I do not like reality. I am simply not willing to live in a purely empiric, rational, only driven-by-science world. That’s my privilege as an artist. I embrace all things that cannot be seen: the birds that twitter their hearts out, the spirits in trees, the ANIMA, the animistic that is only to be felt, the alchemia of a seemingly untouched landscape that mankind has formed over milleniums with respect for all creatures so desperately needed to keep a natural equilibrum.

People I met there are outstanding individuals, the landscapes pure and virgin like churches and medieval houses positioned as if Leonardo da Vinci was looking at them, no change.  People more courteous than in most European countries: for me Italy is the last refuge in Europe, Italians are simply more humane.
Therefore your reaction shows me that one only gets to see and experience what one wants to see…

RA      I’m so distant from you: old stones and medieval churches are paradoxical sites to me: elegant, calm and harmonious, often shiny with gold and painted decorations. I’m only grateful that the rain of time washed away all the blood spread by centuries of violence. Italy has been invaded more than any country in the world. Clearly, I try to justify our misfortunes. That’s why we are kind, but with sparkles under the ashes. Your images, therefore, are true to the place more than you believe. They are the wild, secret face of Italy. My Italy for sure.
My dear friend, this is morning rumbling of my brain. Tell me please: how do you think in German language? Is it visual thinking?
See, when I think in Italian, Americans say it’s poetic language, and I laugh, for I do know we think and speak in a strange Italian way: animistic, metaphors are instinctive, idiomatic. It’s a primitive manner to feel like an ant among ants, a tree among trees, human animals among all the animals of the world. Think of Francesco’s Cantico delle creature, sister moon and the stars, brother wind and the air. And, if you can, follow me through idiomatic expressions in which I see the deep irony of an agricultural country forgotten and abandoned in these days. Yet, it is stuck in our words and sculpted in our minds.

Piove sul bagnato
Ha mangiato la foglia!
Che cosa aspetta / Forse di candire?
Ci resto di sasso
Ammazzo il tempo
Cercando il pelo nell’uovo

It rains on the wet
She ate the leaf!
What is she waiting for / To dry up like a candy?
I react like a stone
And I kill time
Looking for a hair in the egg

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EH      Oh, German is a philosophical language and a very political one. No other language I know can pin down a fact so well.
Japanese is fuzzy, it is like the food. There is no center in Asian food many small dishes, no climax, like their stories: you have space to think and make up your mind.
German language is not very visual.
There is quite a difference whether you grew up with HÄNSCHEN KLEIN or HUMPTY DUMPTY, the surreal element is missing. I grew up with the latter.
For German speakers Italy is the land of dreams: Goethe [Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] gave us something to look for: while doing research in Sicily for my movie Il mare e la torta, [The Sea and the Cake] I realized that Goethe had visited Taormina and had painted the Greek theater in a watercolor (the same theater is in one of Woody Allen’s movies). Looking into tourism catalogues from the German speaking world, it’s impossible not to notice that the photos taken are exactly the same angle —more or less replicas of Goethe.
In other cultures, promotion about Taormina looks different. Leoluca Orlando [ Mayor of Palermo] once told me: “Goethe did good and bad for us at the same time; he brings us tourists still today, but they come with a preconception.”

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RA      But Goethe*, humane as he was, understood the modern world in its early beginnings and still enlarges our perception of it. Look at this, he could have joined John Cage: (please forgive my lack of chronological faith, I learned it in the eighteenth century.)
“We find that in observing objects our attention takes on a definite direction, that scattered data can be learned and retained more easily by comparison, and that in art we can in the end rival nature only when we have learned, at least in part, her method of procedure in the creation of her works.”
John Cage used to call it “her manner of operation.” And his own manner was not far at all from some of Goethe’s wishes:
“Everything is subject to constant change, and when things cannot coexist, they thrust each other aside. The same goes for knowledge, for practical training, for modes of representation and for precepts. Man’s objectives always remain very much the same; men still wish, as they always did, to be good artists and good poets. But the means by which these objectives are to be attained are not apparent at all, and there is no denying that nothing could be more agreeable than achieving something important without really trying.”
Isn’t it what you did with your photos?

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Introduction to the Propyläen, 1798 in Goethe on Art, edited by John Gage, University of California Press, 1980

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