Painting, Smoking, Eating
oil on canvas
197 x 263 cm
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
I studied with Philip Guston from 1974-76 at Boston University. Looking at my work, he would not likely come to mind as an influence, but his teaching had a profound impact on my development as a painter.
I sometimes wonder what Guston would think of the proliferation of contemporary painters making, cartoonish, messy images with thick, and sometimes, encrusted paint. Many of these paintings borrow the most apparent, stylistic aspects of his work to ironic and sometimes cynical ends, while seldom embodying the underlying pictorial structure and formal intelligence that make his paintings great.
Guston came to Boston once a month to give crits. He would come around to individual studios and a flock of students would follow him, listening reverently to his comments. Once a month we were all a nervous wreck before, during and after Guston’s visits.
Guston was, for the most part, either extremely complimentary—“Marvelous!” was his favorite adjective— or extremely negative in response to student work. I don’t recall much in between. He was charismatic and his enthusiasms were infectious; his criticism could be harsh. He was never didactic or formulaic and seemed to respond from the heart. One time, when he was in the studio of a classmate, he became very quiet, looking around, seeming to search for words to express his feelings. Finally, he stammered, “You know, the more I look at these paintings I just want to take some white paint and cover everything up.”
On another occasion, I remember Guston asking permission to work on a student’s painting. It was moving to watch him work, swiftly and fluidly while he talked about what he was doing. He loved to talk and was extremely articulate.
Another time a student working from observation asked if he should include or omit the radiator in an interior he was painting. Guston was visibly irritated and snapped something to the effect of: “who cares about a radiator and whether you leave it in or out?” Blunt, but so true.
To one of the students in the program who had been rigidly trained to follow a linear process in developing his work, Guston said that painting things out is still painting, and just as important as adding to the painting. “You’re still painting when you get rid of things.” He encouraged us to take chances and to respond to the painting itself rather than a fixed, methodical plan.
Sometimes it seemed strange that he had chosen to teach at that particular school, with its decidedly academic program. But he said that he wanted to teach at BU because it was one of the few places where they were actually teaching us some skills and techniques of painting and drawing. He decried the loss of traditional curricula at most other art programs, where the advent of Abstract Expressionism and Pop had eclipsed most traditional, representational training.
Another time, while looking at some of my early collages, that were thick with layers of highly textured oil paint, he said, “Do you mind if I touch these?—I like to touch paintings”, in that slightly breathless voice that I still remember well. He ran his fingers over the collages and considered them.
Plasticity is the term that Guston always used to refer to the substance of painting and the tensions of pictorial space. His paintings are messy but they’re also masterfully taut in composition. Underneath the seemingly slapdash execution, his paintings are quite formal and reveal the high regard in which he held the masters. They’re humorous, but reverential rather than ironic. Few of the so-called Guston-influenced paintings that I’ve seen recently have the plasticity, cadence and gravity that connect his work to the great paintings of the past that he so admired.
The way in which Guston spoke about art was highly emotional and personal but also deeply rooted in his understanding of the traditions of European painting. He had an uncanny ability to wed intense, emotional expression with highly formal, pictorial structure, which is what made him a great painter and an inspiring teacher.
Excerpted from Memories of Philip Guston by Caren Canier, Painting Perceptions
Caren Canier (US)
mixed media with oil on panel
101,6 x 152,4 cm