There is something immensely charming about sitting in an Italian art institution that dates to the 17th century, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, and watching a film of Philip Guston walking around Woodstock, New York, where he had his studio, praising the city’s sturdy old red brick buildings. Stopping before a hulking one, he muses, “There’s something about the fact that it’s not used anymore. It exists as an object. Like a work of art.” Ruskin had his Stones of Venice, Guston his bricks of Woodstock. The film was made in 1980, shortly before Guston’s death from a heart attack, and it is on view in a stunning exhibition of Guston’s paintings and drawings that went on view to press today at the Accademia.
Titled “Philip Guston and the Poets,” the show, curated by Guston scholar Kosme de Baranano, is built–somewhat loosely–around Guston’s reading of and relationships with poets. There are the whimsical works on paper he made to illustrate his wife Musa McKim’s poems in 1972–75, and there are the other ones he made to accompany poems by his friend Clark Coolidge. In a drawing that replicates lines from McKim, Guston draws on his own experiences of Italy, sketching vignettes of Italian buildings next to the phrase “Here we are up in Woodstock/thinking of Venice, Rome, Sicily.” (According to Guston’s daughter, when the Gustons visited Venice in 1960, the Accademia was the family’s first stop.)
And then there are the paintings, many of which are on loan from major institutions. De Baranano convincingly argues that Guston was drawing on imagery from poets like W.B. Yeats, Eugenia Montale, and Wallace Stevens, and also echoing those poets’ sensibilities. (It’s no surprise that, in a show in Italy, Montale, with his ossi di seppia, gets the lion’s share of attention.)
The most direct relationship between Guston and a poet’s work is the one with T.S. Eliot. Shortly before his death, Guston was rereading the “Four Quartets,” and did a kind of oblique self portrait that drew on his experience of an earlier heart attack, a painting of man’s head in which it is apparent that the man is lying down, seemingly on the verge of death. Guston related the image to the “East Coker” passage in “Four Quartets,” an excerpt of which is on the wall next to the painting: Old men ought to be explorers/Here and there does not matter/We must be still and still moving/Into another intensity.” In the film, Guston says, “When I came home from the hospital, I wanted to paint a man dying. That is what happened to me. [I had a] heart attack. I was reading the ‘Four Quartets’ at the same time. I like the ‘Four Quartets’. I didn’t want to do a self-portrait. In the middle of it I became aware that [the painting] was like [Eliot’s poem].”
Here are some other highlights from that film, which, unlike most such films, actually gives a nuanced view into the artist’s thinking and process. Guston refers to the figures in his paintings as “a bunch of dumb creatures, like in the real world.” He says to Coolidge, the poet, “If the artist starts evaluating himself it’s an enormous block, isn’t it?” He describes an image he painted after his wife, McKim, had a stroke, an image of a woman’s head where only the top half is visible, and the rest appears to be submerged in some substance or another, and how this image became a horseshoe, and then a wheel. He talks about the famous show at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970, when he made his abrupt switch from abstraction to figuration. Some painters were so offended, he says, that they would no longer talk to him. He was made to feel as though he’d been “excommunicated.” One who didn’t have such a reaction was Willem de Kooning who, Guston recalls, told him, “What do they think, that we are all on a baseball team? Art is about freedom.”
In a happy coincidence, “Guston and the Poets” may resonate interestingly with curator Christine Macel’s biennale, which includes a “Pavilion of Artists and Books.” Guston’s work would seem to generally gel with Macel’s approach to the biennale: he was political in his art, certainly, but he was never pedantic, never preachy. His paintings were, above all, paintings. The biennale opens to select press tomorrow, so we shall see.
Going from Guston’s show over to the Damien Hirst extravaganza at the Punto della Dogana, I couldn’t help but compare Guston’s far less literal self-portraits with Hirst’s extremely realistic one, cast in bronze, holding the hand of Mickey Mouse, in the guise of “the collector” in his elaborate fairy tale about a fictional shipwreck. One is bombastically jokey, the other is modest to a fault. In the film, the interviewer asks Guston if a certain painting of a painter is meant to be him. “This is you at work?” She asks. “Well, yeah,” Guston replies, then amends himself. “The artist. And his tools.”