Image of a house on a mountain top, Sung Dynasty

Guston could easily play with the notion that the working artist aspired to be a demigod and, as such, would have to experience a peculiar kind of hubris—Guston’s own idiosyncratic hubris. This was one of his most distinctive leitmotifs, expressed in another way when he spoke of “a third hand” doing the work. That metaphorical hand becomes shorthand for describing an experience every true painter knows—that of transcending himself and his tools, as if following some ancient imperative. Sometimes Guston couched these thoughts in terms of the Sung painters, whom he deeply admired. He thought they did “something thousands and thousands of times…until someone else does it, not you, and the rhythm moves through you.”

This passage is from Dore Ashton’s introduction to Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge. The mystical sense of this idea—not a quality I typically associate with Guston‘s approach—can also be juxtaposed to one of Guston’s favorite quotes that was inscribed below a self portrait by Giorgio de Chirico: “What shall I love if not the enimga?” Or also alongside another favorite from Franz Kafka:

The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.

Third hand interventions, loving the enigma, talking a path that causes stumbling rather than walking—they all speak to what passes through the mind during a typical week. And all of it is in an effort to reach that moment when you can feel yourself “sunging”—the exquisite experience of having a rhythm that is moving through you.

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