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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.