From the tomb of Hafiz at Shiraz, Iran

Gurus and teachers. Having one is a given in most spiritual paths, common in many cultures and certain professions. But because I was never a good candidate for the disciple path (according to my mother, my resistance to authority was well developed at three years old), I never did the artist/mentor thing. It is probably the core reason why I have never wanted to teach and have kept my distance from any established spiritual tradition. What has worked so well for many just isn’t a fit for me.

But my library is full of advice, wisdom and insights from extraordinary minds. A book is the perfect delivery mechanism for those of us with power over issues: It neutralizes what would set us off in the flesh, and makes it easy for us to pick and choose at our own pace, on our own terms.

There are many artists in the Boston area who studied with Philip Guston while he was at Boston University. I have had extensive conversations about Guston the Teacher with Bruce Herman, chair of the Art Department at Gordon College, and more recently with David Goldman who teaches at North Shore Community College. When I hear their stories I am grateful that my exposure to Guston has been limited to his work and his writing. I am very sure I would not have fared well interacting with him directly. He was difficult. He was dogmatic. But he was also a gifted artist.

The book of his collected writings, lectures and conversations edited by Clark Coolidge is full of his koan-like art wisdom. I keep it close at hand and use it daily. This is my own version of the Persian tradition of consulting the Oracle of Shiraz, Hafiz, a popular method of divination that consists of thinking of a question and then randomly opening up Hafiz’ book of poetry. The answer is believed to be there on the page.

I am not looking for divination so much as I am in search of an operating frame for my day in the studio. The Guston book delivers again and again.

Here’s a Gustonism from the catalog for a 1958 show at the Whitney called Nature in Abstraction:

I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.

I think the only pressing question in painting is: When are you through? For my own part it is when I know I’ve “come out the other side.” This occasional and sudden awareness is the truest image for me. The clocklike path of this recognition suppresses a sense of victory: it is an ironic encounter and more of a mirror than a picture.


Philip Guston the teacher

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