Proliferate Like Mad

Philip Guston North 1961-62

“Guston insists that the issues Abstract Expressionism raised regarding painting were “the most revolutionary problems posed and still are,” despite the fact that so many people (artists, critics, curators) had tried to kill the movement off. The error of these would-be murderers is to mistake Abstract Expressionism as a mere “style, as a certain way of painting.” It’s a cinch to get rid of a style; as Guston says, “After 10 years or 15 years, you’re bored sick of it. Younger painters come along and want to react against it.” The revolution of Abstract Expressionism, however, was not a matter of any stylistic innovation; instead, Guston says, it “revolves around the issue of whether it’s possible to create in our society at all.” He immediately draws a distinction between “creating” and simply producing art:
Everybody can make pictures, thousands of people go to school, thousands go to galleries, museums, it becomes not only a way of life now, it becomes a way to make a living. In our kind of democracy this is going to proliferate like mad. In the next ten years there will be even much more than there is now. There’ll be tons of art centers and galleries and pictures. Everybody will be making pictures.” [Raphael Rubinstein on Provisional Painting Part 2]

Philip Guston Traveller III 1959-60

“To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid the familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. (What a sympathy is demanded of the viewer! He is asked to “see” the future links.)
For me the most relevant question and perhaps the only one is, “When are you finished?” When do you stop? Or rather, why stop at all? But you have to rest somewhere. Of course you can stay on one surface all your life, like Balzac’s Frenhofer. And all your life’s work can be seen as one picture—but that is merely “true.” There areplaces where you pause.” [Philip Guston Faith, Hope and Impossibility]

Philip Guston Untitled 1963

Time plays a curious role in the perception of finish or its lack. Most Abstract Expressionist paintings now seem quite finished to us. But in some canvases—I’m thinking of mid-1950s Joan Mitchell and mid-1960s Guston—the flurries of marks have yet to settle down. It’s rare to find a completed work that can retain an unfinished aura for several decades; Miró’s white-ground anti-paintings of the 1930s are another striking exception. Long before Studio 35, Chinese artists had pondered the question of finished/unfinished. In his invaluable book on Chinese painting, Empty and Full, French scholar François Cheng quotes Chang Yen-Yuan, a Tang dynasty historian, in praise of the incomplete:
In painting, one should avoid worrying about accomplishing a work that is too diligent and too finished in the depiction of forms and the notation of colors or one that makes too great a display of one’s technique, thus depriving it of mystery and aura. That is why one should not fear the incomplete, but quite to the contrary, one should deplore that which is too complete. From the moment one knows that a thing is complete, what need is there to complete it? For the incomplete does not necessarily mean the unfulfilled. [Raphael Rubinstein on Provisional Painting Part 2]

One thought on “Proliferate Like Mad

  1. Very interesting thoughts and very actual problems doing art today (and 98% artists are not making any money from it) Because art and money are essentially not connected. The market is like an extra galaxy, like the stock market. It’s mostly betting. But the artists have other problems…

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