Philip Guston

I was reading ArtNews today and saw a short article on the painter Philip Guston (unfortunately it is not available online). I saw one picture of Guston’s studio and burst out laughing, it reminded me of something..

When I finished my BFA in painting, I had to take a seniors seminar. I liked the teacher, but sharing this particular class with a mixed bag of undergrads was always dicey. When we weren’t savagely critiquing each other’s work, we usually watched videos. There were a couple of students who idolized Philip Guston so the teacher arranged for a viewing of a long documentary shot in Guston’s studio.

Our university has a rather nice Guston painting in its museum, and he’s a major influence in some circles in the painting school. Of course, like any artist, I am absolutely convinced my interpretation of Guston’s work is the correct one and all other points of view are absolutely incorrect. And my fellow students who loved Guston so much had the most egregiously incorrect interpretation I’d ever seen. I had to share a painting studio with one of them, he was always spewing out awful Guston pastiche paintings, and doing stupid stunts like spilling plaster everywhere, like on my still-wet oil paintings.

But anyway, these Guston devotees and I watched the film avidly. They excitedly discussed every detail, as Guston mixed colors and demonstrated his brushwork. The film spent about 30 minutes watching as the painting’s primary layer was executed, Guston discussed the imagery in this work, and then stopped work for the evening.

The film returns early the next morning and Guston is just setting up to paint again. But the huge canvas he’s worked on all yesterday is now blank. The filmmaker asks Guston what happened. Guston says, “I got up this morning, decided I hated it, so I scraped it down and wiped it all away with turpentine.” I suddenly burst out in uncontrollable laughter, I couldn’t stop myself. Guston was playing a monumental joke on his devotees who would be so stupid as to draw any interpretation of his work from the way he painted it. I laughed so hard, the teacher stopped the VCR and asked me what was so funny. I said, “we just learned precisely how Philip Guston does NOT paint.”

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