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Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled 7-95, 1997, oil on linen on panel, 16×20”. (Image courtesy of Max Protetch Gallery)

My two major sage sources over the last few months have been Philip Guston and Thomas Nozkowski. Both artists are recognized for being extremely intelligent and cerebral; yet the power of their work is visceral and immediate. For me it is both retinal and it is somatic: My eye is in completely, as is my body.

For what I do and the way I work, Guston and Nozkowski are the best at articulating what easily falls into the inchoate and ill-defined. And even after repeated reading, their insights feel authentic and fresh. Given the self-conscious preenings that are so ubiquitous, I believe it is wise to hold on fast when you find something that sidesteps all the claptrap and digs right into the soil beneath your toes.

From an interview by John Yau with Nozkowski published in the Brooklyn Rail in 2010:

Rail: It interests me that these paintings go through a lot of changes, and that a lot of work goes into them, but you don’t want to show that.

Nozkowski: Well, I come from a working class background and I know too much about work to think that there is anything inherently good about it. I no longer have to prove to my parents that I’m doing real, honest work. I don’t think it’s essential to show the signs of work, to demonstrate the effort involved in making something. I mean, making something physically is not the most interesting part of making art. A letterpress book isn’t smarter than a Xeroxed one. Oil painting always shows its history anyway. You can’t ever erase something; you can’t get rid of it. It will affect everything that’s put on top of it, whether you’ve peeled most of the paint away or rubbed it down into a fine veil of color.

Rail: I feel like it’s part of what happened, but you don’t fetishize process.

Nozkowski: That’s definitely true. However, if you look at the surfaces of my paintings, you’ll see that the “signs of work” aren’t only shown by the facture. More often you can see that in the color. Oil paint is translucent, often transparent, and seldom completely opaque. You mix it, beat it, and layer it. It is never pure and—a commonplace—it is always seen in context, changed and charged by its size, position, and relationships with other colors. It is slippery stuff, the most elusive part of painting. I like it best in excess, when it feels like it is about to go out of control. I don’t want to create the idea that I have some singular idea of specific colors from the start of a painting. These come out of the process, trying to correct things and make it all add up. You know, you put something down and it’s not right, you do the next thing and you try again to fix it. I’ve talked about how I like painting best when it turns a little homely, turns away from the grandiose and opts for simple desire. To really want to possess something and to be willing to do anything to get it will take you pretty far. That’s the reason so much outsider painting looks so great.

Some great phrases in this conversation: not fetishizing the process, liking it best in excess and when it feels like it is about to go out of control, when it turns a little homely, when it turns away from grandiose and opts for simple desire. My kind of language and my kind of experience.

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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


“Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.” (Close up of a recent piece)

I spend a lot of time alone. But being isolated for most of the day doesn’t mean the mind stops chattering. It chatters constantly, but the dialogue is either internal (between entities whose identities are still undetermined IMHO) or with that object in front of me, the WIP (work in process.)

Is there such a thing as a dialogue carried on with a painting? This is hard to describe to someone whose thinking is precise and linear. But for many of us, the objects we make are conversational and they do engage in a back and forth of ideas, tensions, directionals, outcomes. No, they are not sentient beings. But maybe they are something else. Maybe they are a something that has its own dynamic arc of aliveness. Like I said, this is hard to describe.

Something that showed up in a conversation between painter Philip Guston and art critic David Sylvester touches into this if just obliquely. Here is Guston talking about the picture plane:

We were talking yesterday at the studio about the picture plane, and to me there’s some mysterious element about the plane. I can’t rationalize it, I can’t talk about it, but I know there’s an existence on this imaginary plane which holds almost all the fascination of painting for me. As a matter of fact, I think the true image only comes out when it exists on this imaginary plane. but in schools you hear everyone talk about the picture plane as a first principle. And in the beginning design class, it’s still labored to death. Yet I think it’s one of the most mysterious and complex things to understand. I’m convinced that it’s almost a key, and yet I can’t talk about it; nor do I think it can be talked about. There’s something very frustrating, necessary, and puzzling about this metaphysical plane that painting exists on. And I think that, when it’s either eliminated or not maintained intensely, I get lost in it. This plane exists in the other arts, anyway. Think of the poetic plane and the theater plane. And it has to do with matter. it has to do with the very matter that the thing is done in.

And later in the conversation, Guston shares a few more painterly insights:

It’s terrible to rationalize about painting because you know that, while you’re creating it, you can have all sorts of things in your mind consciously that you want to do and that really won’t be done. You won’t be finished until the most unexpected and surprising things happen. I find I can’t compose a picture anymore. I suppose I’ve been thinking about painting structures for many years, but I find that I know less and less about composing and yet, when the thing comes off in this old and new way at the same time, weeks later, I get it, and it arrives at a unity that I never could have predicted and foreseen or planned.

Ah, the love of uncertainty. The thrill when “the most unexpected and surprising things happen.” Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.


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.

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A few more thoughts gleaned from the Guggenheim show, The Third Mind. This show was as closely aligned to my view of artmaking as any other exhibit I’ve ever seen. The experience is still reverberating for me several days later.

Here are some provocative words from two giants, John Cage and Philip Guston.

We learned from Oriental thought that those divine influences are, in fact, the environment in which we are. A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of things that come in through the senses and up through one’s dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.

–John Cage

Art is not self expression but self alteration.

–John Cage

Look at any inspired painting. It’s like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation.

–Philip Guston

To will a new form is unacceptable, because will builds distortion. Clear the way for something else—a condition which…resists analysis—and probably this is as it should be.

–Philip Guston

During a time when I am still sitting in the silence—in the thinking and feeling rather than the doing, making, manifesting—my thoughts have been drawn to examples of significant disruptions in the flow of artistic output. Not just my own, but others.

Probably the standout example from the recent past that is pointed to most frequently (and which I have written about here previously) is the painter Philip Guston. In the early 1970s his work turned rather quickly from a career of lyrical abstraction to the caricatured world of goons, rednecks and Klansmen, a Southern version of a Mad Maxian nightmare. He said he wanted to “paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet…to paint as a cave man would.” I was a young painter at the time, and the shock of that shift is one of my most salient memories of reoriented response to an artist whose earlier work I adored.

Thoughts about this radical shift were prompted by reading a Ken Johnson review in the New York Times of a current show of his drawings at the Morgan Library. (An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting today.) According to the review, Guston stopped painting in 1966 and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted to “clear the decks.”

Although it took me years, I did finally come to terms with Guston’s last phase (he died in 1980.) I “came to terms” in the sense that I spent hours looking at his work and reading what he wrote about it. At a retrospective of his work at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge several years ago, I watched several documentaries made about this shift, and the evolution came to make more sense to me. As Johnson states in his review of this phase of Guston’s output, “suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out.”

I’m not contemplating a shift in my own work of that magnitude, but I do feel a sea change that is still unnamed and more inchoate than clear. Unlike Guston, I do not have a sense that there are ideas and preoccupations that my life long interest in non-representationalism cannot hold. But Guston’s willingness to “go naked” and follow where his sensibilities led regardless is an extraordinary gesture of guts. Overidentification with a particular aesthetic, technique or process results in the same troubles that we encounter in our psyches when we overidentify with our own story, our highly subjective (and usually painfully inaccurate) sense of who we think we are. As the spiritual traditions advise, achieving wisdom means you have to give up your story, your safe concept of what reality is. The wisdom path demands that you start the day by breaking yourself apart. Then the next morning, you wake up and break yourself apart again.

To all this I say yes. Notwithstanding, this passage about Guston’s earlier work, written by Lawrence Weschler in his book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, still rings true for what a great piece of art does for me:

I remember one time, for instance, seeing this small Philip Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. Now, the Brooks was a big painting on every scale: it had five major shapes in it — a black shape, a reed, a green — big areas, big shapes, with strong, major value changes, hue changes. Next to it was this small painting, with mute pinks and greys and greens, very subtle. It was one of those funny little Guston kind of scrumbly paintings, a very French kind of painting…[m]y discovery was that from 100 yards away — this was just one of those little breakthroughs — that from this distance of 100 yards, I looked over, and that godd*mned Guston… Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum… Well, that godd*mned Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall.

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