You’ve managed to find your way. Your work has been collected in depth by all the right people, all the right institutions. You could easily ride through to the end – making the same work, making money, collecting accolades – following the same pathways. And yet, you’ve seen something in the mirror. You’ve caught a glimpse of some other thing that you had left aside long ago. Now that thing is staring you down, demanding your attention and it’s in your face – everyday. What do you do?
“This was the last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘‘martyrs to art.’’ This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status.” [Edmund White on 1970s New York City Culture]
Philip Guston: For the most part, they said I was finished, I was through. The New York Times attacked the show – the headline was, I think, ‘From Mandarin to Stumblebum.’ Since then, Dore Ashton has written a book about me,* and a few others have written sympathetically. There seems to be about an eight–to ten—year lag. For a while I was with no gallery, but that made me feel good. Freedom is a marvelous thing. You know that old chestnut, that people are afraid to be free – well, it’s true. When I had my first show in the new figurative style in about 1970, the people at the opening seemed shocked. Some painters of the abstract movement – my colleagues, friends, contemporaries – refused to talk to me. It was as if we’d worked so hard to establish the canons of a church and here I go upsetting it, forgetting that that’s what good artists should do. At the opening only two painters, David Hare and Bill de Kooning, acted differently. It wasn’t necessarily that they liked it. De Kooning said something else. He said, ‘Why are they all complaining about you making political art, all this talk? You know what your real subject is, it’s about freedom, to be free, the artist’s first duty.’ [Philip Guston in conversation with Mark Stevens]
Painters were turning away from Modernism. Not like Philistines. It was just done, it was over. It had reduced everything away – no space, no light, no illusion, no images. That’s OK, but many painters desperately wanted to speak, to tell stories, and find new ways to examine their lives AFTER the endgame. The seventies was about discovering the old forms, the older world of painting and art. Could those things find their way back into the world of painting? Could imagery be just as affecting and real as a box on the floor or a rectangle on the wall? What would a painting look life if it wasn’t Modern?
“I live out of town, and driving down to New York City I go down the West Side Highvvay. There are all these buildings that look as if they are marching. You know, by painting things they start to look strange and dopey. Also there was a desire, a powerful desire though an impossibility, to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet. How would you paint them; how would you realize them? It was really a tremendous period for me. I couldn’t produce enough. I couldn’t go to New York, to openings of friends of mine like Rothko, de Kooning, Newman. I would telephone Western Union with all kinds of lies such as that my teeth were falling out, or that I was sick. It was such a relief not to have anything to do with modern art. It felt as if a big boulder had been taken off my shoulders.” [Philip Guston Talking]