During a time when I am still sitting in the silence—in the thinking and feeling rather than the doing, making, manifesting—my thoughts have been drawn to examples of significant disruptions in the flow of artistic output. Not just my own, but others.
Probably the standout example from the recent past that is pointed to most frequently (and which I have written about here previously) is the painter Philip Guston. In the early 1970s his work turned rather quickly from a career of lyrical abstraction to the caricatured world of goons, rednecks and Klansmen, a Southern version of a Mad Maxian nightmare. He said he wanted to “paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet…to paint as a cave man would.” I was a young painter at the time, and the shock of that shift is one of my most salient memories of reoriented response to an artist whose earlier work I adored.
Thoughts about this radical shift were prompted by reading a Ken Johnson review in the New York Times of a current show of his drawings at the Morgan Library. (An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting today.) According to the review, Guston stopped painting in 1966 and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted to “clear the decks.”
Although it took me years, I did finally come to terms with Guston’s last phase (he died in 1980.) I “came to terms” in the sense that I spent hours looking at his work and reading what he wrote about it. At a retrospective of his work at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge several years ago, I watched several documentaries made about this shift, and the evolution came to make more sense to me. As Johnson states in his review of this phase of Guston’s output, “suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out.”
I’m not contemplating a shift in my own work of that magnitude, but I do feel a sea change that is still unnamed and more inchoate than clear. Unlike Guston, I do not have a sense that there are ideas and preoccupations that my life long interest in non-representationalism cannot hold. But Guston’s willingness to “go naked” and follow where his sensibilities led regardless is an extraordinary gesture of guts. Overidentification with a particular aesthetic, technique or process results in the same troubles that we encounter in our psyches when we overidentify with our own story, our highly subjective (and usually painfully inaccurate) sense of who we think we are. As the spiritual traditions advise, achieving wisdom means you have to give up your story, your safe concept of what reality is. The wisdom path demands that you start the day by breaking yourself apart. Then the next morning, you wake up and break yourself apart again.
To all this I say yes. Notwithstanding, this passage about Guston’s earlier work, written by Lawrence Weschler in his book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, still rings true for what a great piece of art does for me:
I remember one time, for instance, seeing this small Philip Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. Now, the Brooks was a big painting on every scale: it had five major shapes in it — a black shape, a reed, a green — big areas, big shapes, with strong, major value changes, hue changes. Next to it was this small painting, with mute pinks and greys and greens, very subtle. It was one of those funny little Guston kind of scrumbly paintings, a very French kind of painting…[m]y discovery was that from 100 yards away — this was just one of those little breakthroughs — that from this distance of 100 yards, I looked over, and that godd*mned Guston… Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum… Well, that godd*mned Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall.