Shelf Life: On Philip Guston, Carolee Scheemann and Ilya Kabakov
The truly consequential choices an artist makes are never experienced as choice but as necessity. For many Modernist painters, the compulsory option was, sooner or later, abstraction. For having submitted to the choice and then, two decades later, to an equally necessary rejection of it, Philip Guston has become one of the emblematic artists of the last century, one who understood that "Only our surprise that the unforeseen was fated allows the arbitrary to disappear." Guston was a renowned talker, as Clark Coolidge remarks in his preface to Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, which he has edited, with an introduction by Dore Ashton (California; Paper $29.95). An avid reader of Kafka, Beckett and Babel, Guston was no slouch as a writer either. Though new to us, this necessary book has in a way always been on the shelf: some of the pieces have been widely published and cited, and certain ways Guston had of talking about art have been incorporated into the thinking of those who heard that talk and passed it on. Still, much of the material is previously unpublished, and even familiar statements and interviews contain surprises. On the transience of one's judgments: "Five years ago you wiped out what you are about to start tomorrow." Who else has ever seen in Piero della Francesca "a vast precaution to avoid immobility"? Always "perverse and contrary," just as he called Picasso, Guston can sound a bit borscht belt—"Every time I see an abstract painting now I smell mink coats, you know what I mean?"—but still, this is a book of wisdom, not only for artists but for anyone seeking to learn something from art.
The collective nature of art-making, but also its aspiration to something beyond that, is summed up in a famous mot of Guston's that, appropriately enough, he attributed to a friend: "I believe it was John Cage who once told me, 'When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you're lucky, even you leave.'" As David Kaufmann points out in his compact and impassioned essay Telling Stories: Philip Guston's Later Works (California; Paper $24.95), to understand Guston's paintings means "to see them in their often negative relations with the New York art world." An accidental record of the way friends, enemies, the art world and ideas all crowd into an artist's work can be found in Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle, edited by Kristine Stiles (Duke; Paper $29.95). What a fascinating cacophony it is. Schneemann, the painter, performance artist and filmmaker perhaps best known for such transgressive early works as the orgiastic ritual Meat Joy (1964) and the antiwar film Viet-Flakes (1965)—though she is still, at 71, intensely productive—has engaged in a whirlwind of correspondence with several generations of artists, poets, musicians, critics and others. It is unusual to be given access to this kind of archive during the central figure's lifetime, and the book constitutes, as Stiles says, "an encounter with Schneemann's milieu at the same time as it initiates a biography on the artist."
What's striking is how furiously, even among her friends, Schneemann has fought to rebuke what she considers to be misprision of her art and herself. An example: in 1975 one of her most faithful interlocutors, the translator, editor and poet Clayton Eshleman, sent her a poem—bombastic in his usual manner—that, he says, "owes something to what you mean to me as a figure." Could he dedicate it to her? Schneemann rejects it utterly: "Your words oppress me.... I do not accept your poem: no levity, no light, not rising free." It can be true, as William Blake said, that "opposition is true friendship," but for all the support Schneemann has enjoyed within her circle, one suspects her art has often been a lonely struggle.
Art flowing from friendship and conflict is also the subject of Matthew Jesse Jackson's The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes (Chicago; $35). The "unofficial" art of the Soviet Union disproves institutional theories of art. Boris Groys, acknowledged by Jackson as having written in 1979 the "defining text on conceptual art in the Soviet Union," reminds us in his recent essay collection History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism (MIT; $27.95) that "Soviet unofficial artists had no access to any galleries, museums, art markets, or media." In an important way, he continues, they were more like hobbyists than professional artists, though their ambitions were huge: to be "the face of their time." History Becomes Form includes that "defining" essay, "Moscow Romantic Conceptualism," as well as a number of other important texts on Kabakov and other Russian conceptualists, but Jackson's thorough account is now the best introduction in English to this peculiar and fascinating period, which he calls "a space that the history of twentieth-century art has not yet been able to describe, much less understand."
The unofficial artists were, as Jackson quotes Kabakov, "'friends in unhappiness' but not necessarily kindred spirits." Kabakov's art was often less concerned with critiquing Soviet reality, which is how it has generally been interpreted (though he has never claimed to be a dissident), than with "confronting the self-mythologizing tendencies within unofficial art," deconstructing "the decayed Romanticism within unofficial modernism." Jackson, by carefully reconstructing the lost cultural context for Kabakov's early work, ends up highlighting his essential isolation even within this small, self-referential circle. Yet his was part of a collective effort. Placing Kabakov in his milieu, Jackson succeeds in eliciting something of the work's original resonance. His approach is less capable of shedding light on why this enigmatic art holds such interest even now, but perhaps that's a subject for another book.