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.