Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
I’ve been mulling over Barry Schwabsky’s take on the Philip Guston show at Hauser & Wirth [“Maker’s Marks,” June 20/27]. I reacted so strongly to his empathy for David McKee. The focus on McKee’s demeanor was, although delicately presented, beautifully observed.
Having known Philip well, however, I wish to add my two cents on this passage: “The search for fresh ingredients meant not only poring through the history of art, but also keeping an eye on younger painters. I don’t think it’s really true that in the late 1950s and ’60s, Guston was—as a gallery wall text claims—‘very much removed from the public debate, apart and alone in his studio.’ Could those final drawings ever have come into being without him having been aware of a younger artist like Cy Twombly, with his sparse mark-making? A group of paintings from 1964 to ’65, their gray and black lit up by a bit of pink, seems like an attempt to observe how much can be done by varying and redeploying the fewest possible elements, as if he’d been observing the kind of ‘systemic painting’ that had been in the air.”
Philip didn’t search. He didn’t pore. His 1966 Jewish Museum show was more reductive and alarmingly bleak than the sleekly sparse proposals proffered by the incoming generation. Unlike Picasso, he was no longer interested in looking over his shoulder to see what younger painters were doing or if they were gaining on him. While he maintained fealty to the prescribed ideology, which he had helped create, he saw Pollock, Rothko, and Still hit a lethal constipation; he miserably accepted this observation as a warning. He was too tired and too self-interested to compete within a trajectory plotted toward what he saw as irrelevancy. Sad but dismissive, he would have found knowledge of what the art world was up to as distracting as flies. Matisse said that after the age of 50, a painter never has to enter a museum again. Philip had everything in his head like no one I’ve ever met. When I told Grace Hartigan that he didn’t care if he never showed again, she didn’t believe me. Confusing his intelligence with his ego, she was wrong. He meant it. In this case the wall text, I believe, was correct.
The Philip I knew really cut himself off. This isn’t just the report of a youthful sycophant. I know what I saw. The fatigue. And the mad euphoria of not caring at all. His recognition of the corner he’d backed himself into sometimes made him giggle like a lunatic—like old Ben Gunn from Treasure Island. This was titanic and anything but canny. This was a living suicide, like the youth in Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, who knows if he shoots himself in the head he won’t die; he’ll just get up and begin again. But you actually have to shoot yourself in the head. Really.
Gertrude Stein told Picasso that writing isn’t the same thing for a writer as painting is for a painter. And all of Philip’s friends (and supporters) were poets. Philip didn’t see shows and certainly didn’t look at too many other painters. He kept his thousands of books in boxes in the garage so he wouldn’t be tempted, like Ulysses lashed to the mast, by information—he made sure he’d never be desperate enough to crib something in a momentary lack of inspiration. He had two books occupying his vast, empty bookshelves: Osvald Sirén’s book on Chinese art and Roberto Longhi’s book on Piero della Francesca. Period. Those were the only books in the entire house. He floated out to sea like Ray Johnson. He really didn’t care. He would have had contempt for Cy Twombly as Twombly’s work, despite its fury and apparent nonchalance, is actually pedantically compositional, not unlike almost everything Still did after about 1955. Philip would have found this useless. He craved the support, the verification of narrative’s spine. He was only interested in story. He was master enough to leave formal issues in the dust.
new york city
Yes, Black Lives Matter
I am glad to have run across Kai Wright’s article “Black Lives Still Must Matter, Even After Dallas” [posted online July 8]. I especially liked Wright’s statement “There’s…no reason to connect the [attack on police in Dallas] to the hundreds of people who joined the antiviolence march.” The murder of the Dallas police officers is horrifying, and it’s important to grieve. But it’s also important not to forget what else is going on. We still need to be able to push forward with the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement has not set out to promote violence against any other race, but to promote equality between all races. Nor does BLM discard the fact that all lives matter. What it does is focus on the way that black lives are being taken unjustly and at an appalling rate.
Kai Wright’s otherwise superb editorial “Black Lives Still Matter” [Aug. 1/8] notes that “the parade of lawful violence against black bodies is a terribly old one.” Old it is, but it is unacceptable to call that violence “lawful.” Wright no doubt sought a shorthand term to describe the violence perpetrated by police and other agents of the state, as well as government-tolerated (or even sanctioned) violence by the likes of George Zimmerman. But notwithstanding that the perpetrators have almost always escaped any consequences, even in those rare cases when they’ve been called to account through prosecution or other measures, such acts have always been unlawful as well as immoral and can never be otherwise. Progressives should avoid shorthand terms that might unintentionally offer them an aura of legality.
Great “Back Issues” piece [“Donald Trump, Neo-Nazis, and the Racist Continuum,” July 18/25]! Trump didn’t create his minions. They’ve been there all along, apathetic, ineffectual, stewing in the darkness. When Trump loses in November, he’ll probably dry up and blow away, but the stain will remain.
D.D. Guttenplan’s “Clean Sweep” [Aug. 29/Sept. 5] identified Zack Exley as the Bernie Sanders campaign’s senior digital adviser and Saikat Chakrabarti as the leader of Sanders’s data team. In fact, Exley was a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign and Chakrabarti was its director of organizing technology. The piece also mistakenly attributed a quote to Exley about his children attending local schools. Finally, as several readers have pointed out, Exley put forward an idea similar to Brand New Congress even before he worked for the Sanders campaign.