We are Rashomon

Renate Ponsold, “Philip Guston, 1966, N.Y. Jewish Museum Retrospective”

The past weekend was spent with my partner Dave’s family, gathering in Utah to remember his mother who passed away at 88. At her memorial service I was reminded once again that all of us have many identities and many versions of ourselves. The community where she lived saw a kindly older woman who loved children and taught them in Sunday School. Her family had a very different view. It is like the essential paradox of any biographical project: the story of a person’s life, no matter who they are, can be shaded and skewed. We are each an assemblage of multiple realities, a mini-Rashomon where all possible explanations of us and our lives are variations of the true.

This was born out as well in my recent devouring of all things Philip Guston. I fell under the spell of his insights and wisdom when I read Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations. More a talker than a writer, Guston is best experienced in transcripts of his conversations. He loved talking, and it is his preferred form. My copy of the book is now awash with underlines and comments. It has had a deep impact on my time in the studio.

Being so moved by his words, I felt compelled to continue to plumb the life of this complex, brilliant, driven man. Night Studio: A Memoir Of Philip Guston is written by Musa Mayer, Guston’s only child. Mayer is a particularly unique witness to Guston’s life: while she owns up to the unavoidably subjective view any child has of their parent, she also relies on her psychological counseling background to buy some distance and objectivity. She is intelligent and articulate, truthful and yet generous of spirit. I read her account cover to cover in one sitting.

Guston was an insightful and inspiring teacher, a devoted and passionate friend, an extraordinarily hard working and gifted painter. But the narcissism that seems to come hand in hand with the excessive drinking and hard living of that generation made him a destructive and difficult parent. The evenhandedness of Mayer’s account speaks to the deep work she has done over her lifetime to come to terms with the parts of this agitated, restless, gifted man.

Having read both of these books back to back left me feeling somewhat untethered, a bit uneasy. I am so inspired by his understanding of art making while I abhor who he was in his personal life. Like all of us, there is no one narrative to explain or capture the fullness of his life.

Whether a genius painter or a newly deceased parent, the best answer to the question of who they were is simply this: e) all of the above.

8 Replies to “We are Rashomon”

  1. Nancy Natale says:

    I am with you, Deborah. The human personality is such a mystery. Even someone you know so absolutely after years and years still has the capacity to surprise, and I guess we can say that of our own selves as well. And some people have the ability to appear one way to the world at large while being someone else entirely to their intimates.

    I also came under the spell of Guston because of his work and read several books about him, including Musa’s. Unlike some people whose biographies and autobiographies I have read, I did not come to dislike Guston and am still a major fan of his work, although I can’t pretend to understand all of it. In the end, the awe I felt for his ability to keep facing those canvases despite his mental and emotional state outweighed everything else.

  2. Nancy, So in alignment with your view. He was heroic on so many levels. As a practitioner of art making he is one of my heros, describing the process better than almost anyone else I have read or known. I’m comforted to hear that you have had a similar response. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on Guston, an artist I deeply admire, whose words I’ve never read. This post echoes some of my thoughts on reading the “memoir” of Balthus, a very complicated man whose words are both beautiful and horribly conservative and narrow.

  4. Although I admire Guston’s work, I don’t know much about his life or words, but would like to read these two books based on your post. I definitely felt this kind of dichotomy between admiration and distress in reading the new Van Gogh biography, which I’d highly recommend. Just started reading the Steve Jobs biography, which also can both attract and repulse through its depiction of Job’s volatile nature.

  5. Diane, two great examples of that dissonance that we encounter with larger than life heros. Both the Van Gogh and the Jobs biographies are on my list. Thanks for the recommendations and reminders to get cracking!

  6. Hello Deborah — good to read your ruminations on life/on death and on Guston. Phil was my mentor in graduate school, and I had the good fortune to work with him closely for two years. He was, as you can guess, a brilliant raconteur and astonishingly insightful in his critiques in my studio. That said, he was full of odd contradictions as well (aren’t we all?). For example, one time, after a fairly harsh studio crit, I went back to the easel and produced three little Guston-esque paintings just for a lark and to see what he’d say. I hid them behind a bunch of other things, and the next time he came to the studio he rifled through the stuff leaning against the wall and pulled these three knock-offs out to look at.
    “Now THESE are great!” he said.
    I had to laugh, and yet also felt a little saddened. He did seem to need acolytes and sycophants. But that was just a a sign of his insecurity. He was, nevertheless, a great painter and excellent mentor.

  7. Great artists do tend to be difficult, contrary, sometimes mean, even violent. I would be willing to be more of a jerk to become one!

  8. Bruce, I didn’t realize you studied with Guston. And your anecdote is not surprising to me but also dispiriting. Have you read the collected writings or his daughter’s memoir? Given your background I would be very interested to hear your take on both book.

    Hanlon, you are just too wicked for words. Endearingly wicked. Thanks for stopping by, both of you.

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