Reflections on Philip Guston
The Generous Law: Philip Gustons Wobble
The title of this brief reflection is cobbled together from Philip Guston’s 1978 letter to Ross Feld, a younger poet and critic who had written appreciatively of Guston’s signal 1970 show, which marked his leap (or return) to figuration after years building a solid legacy of moodily lyrical abstractions. In the letter Guston sensitively describes his conceptualization of art, in both thought and iteration: “I begin to wobble—wonder if I am reaching for the invisible too much—and in tottering like this, I am prone to settle for ‘less.’ And luckily for me, ‘less’ sticks in my stomach like a sour thing until my ‘ideal,’ that I’ve always had but lose momentarily (could be that one should—needs—to have it slip away—in order to regain it) the ‘shimmering’—the dazzling gift.’”1 He also describes what he terms art’s “generous law,” meaning its native capacity to assimilate change.
In both his abstract and later figurative works, Guston melded drawing and painting into one contemplative, wobbling line, while combining seemingly wayward, massed, patches of mutable color with his inimitable touch. It is the sense of touch (a quality William Carlos Williams, in his collection of essays In The American Grain rated as a higher order of idiomatic calling for the American sensibility than its chief alternative which he posited as “[. . .] recoiling into individual smallness and insentience, and gutting the great continent in frenzies of mean fear.”2) that bodily translated Guston’s abstract lyricism into seething enclosures of anecdotal dreams and nightmares. Interestingly, Williams and Guston weren’t “purebred” denizens of America (Williams’s mother was from Puerto Rico; Guston was a transplant from Montreal’s Jewish quarter), yet both became ultimately identified as two of America’s most clear-eyed witnesses: the poet in the syntax of the specific and the vernacular (Paterson), the painter of country’s smallness, insentience (in his Klan imagery) but also of the lonely touch of the artist in his night studio. It is Guston’s touch, like Williams’s “variable foot” (as he called his elastic meter), that transcends his abstract and figurative works, unifying both phases with a “wobbling,” human, pulse. A dazzling gift indeed.
- Philip Guston in a letter to Ross Feld, Nov. 13, 1978, Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston, 149 (Berkeley, CA: Counter Point Press).
- William Carlos Williams, In The American Grain, (New York: New Directions, 1956).