Book review: Philip Guston Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations


Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations
Edited by Clark Coolidge
University of California Press

So much inspiring stuff in this book, I’m going to let it speak for itself. These are a few of my favourite excerpts:

“What I want is to be changed by this process. If it doesn’t change me, I become some sort of craftsman.” p.44

“Everyone destroys marvellous paintings. Five years ago you wiped out what you are about to start tomorrow.” p.54

“It’s as if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, but you knew what you didn’t want to do. It’s very important to know what you don’t want to do.” p.56

“Paintings are, for the most part, not successful. They are valiant tries.” p.74

“I began to see all of life really as a vast concentration camp. And everybody is numbed, you know. Then I thought, “Well, that’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this”.” p.81


Philip Guston Painter in Bed (1973) oil on canvas 151.4 x 264.8cm

“… you cannot begin where you think you may end up. You can’t begin with what you’re going to end up with.” p.91

“… then your problem is always one of constantly having to divest yourself of all these accumulated or accrued values, which have nothing at all to do with further creation.” p.101

“So I started drawing and I didn’t reason it out, but I think I felt, vaguely: What if I were like the mechanic, like as if he was drawing me something? Something was wrong with the starter and I didn’t know the parts, so he was drawing, he had this funny way of drawing. So, what if I was the mechanic there and wanted to draw? I went through a whole week of drawing like I didn’t know anything. … These were really like toilet drawings. And suddenly I thought there was a whole world to explore. Everything my eye fell on. My coat hanging on a chair. My self, my hands. A pair of shoes. Anything in front of me was grist for the mill. And I though, “My God, I’ve got a whole life’s work ahead of me. I solved it!”” pp.105-106

“Your instincts are ahead of your mind, your analytical mind, your theorising mind.” p.128

“Don’t accept. Question. Everything.” p.129


Piero della Francesca Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes
(c. 1466) Fresco 329 x 747cm

(Discussing Piero della Francesca’s Fresco in Arezzo, above): “I was talking about that man stabbing the other man in the neck, and this one man said, “Well, he looks so placid, you wouldn’t look like that if you were stabbing somebody.” … But in fact, … the greatness of it is, it always gives me the feeling that man will always do that. Like it’s an eternal man eternally stabbing another man. A timeless stabbing.” p.146

“… I remember being very strongly aware of forms acting on each other. Putting pressure on each other, shrinking each other, blowing each other up, or pushing each other. I mean, affecting each other as if the forms were active participants in some kind of plastic drama that was going on.” p.154

“Then they started becoming very real to me. Stories of what they did. I couldn’t keep up with the ideas. Like a novelist, I had to write down memos to myself: Paint them! They’re eating. They’re having beer and hamburgers. They’re out in the car. I mean, ideas kept coming so fast I really should have hired some assistants and tripled the production.” p.156

“I think a story is the most marvellous thing in painting. I mean, to have something to paint, to have a story you particularly want to tell.” p.157

“Remember … Mutt and Jeff? That’s my greatest love, the early Bud Fisher, … the early Bud Fisher is really great art.” p.159

The influence of Bud Fisher’s drawing (above) on Guston’s later work (below) can be seen in these examples, particularly in Fisher’s handling of the shoe soles and gloved hands.


Philip Guston (anyone know the details for this painting? Please let me know, thanks!)

“The only thing I really have to do is get myself to paint while I’m dreaming.” p.194

“Art is a mask.” p.208

“I’d gotten, I think, over the years so tired of all the myths about modern art. I got so bored with it that all the things they said you shouldn’t do struck me as being very worthwhile to do. Like representation, the painting shouldn’t be an illustration – why not? It shouldn’t build deep space – why not? I mean, they’re just myths, just shibboleths.” p.222

“They became real characters to me. And for about two years, all of 1969 and 1970, I was riding the crest of the wave as far as painting was concerned. There wasn’t enough time to paint all the things I wanted to paint.” p.223

“They’re the best reactions you can have to painting, when people laugh at it.” p.225

“I’ve never cared for Duchamp. I think he’s been one of the worst influences in the century. Like John Cage, who certainly worships Duchamp, I think he has also been one of the worst influences of the century, in this decade.” p.238

“Franz Kline, in a very easy bar conversation in the fifties, said, “You know what creating really is? To have the capacity to be embarrassed.” ” p.278


Franz Kline Mahoning (1956) collage, oil on canvas 254 x 203.2cm

“I don’t like writing that is snarled up. It’s a cover-up. Good writing is simple”. p.301

“American abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit. A mask to mask the fear to reveal oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be. … It is an escape – from the true feelings we have – the “raw” – the primitive feelings about the world – and us in it. … No, just conform to the banks – the plazas – monuments to the people who own this country – give everyone the soothing lullaby of “art.” We all know what this is – don’t we?” p.314


Derivative daubs

Maybe it’s a bad habit, but lately if I think of a painting I like by somebody else, I just try painting something similar as an exercise. I don’t look at the original painting or copy it, I just quickly do something small from memory, with that painting in mind. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is – at this stage I learn something new every time I paint, no matter what I do. Here’s today’s daubs, with their parent paintings.


160919a Night Lamp (2016) oil on canvas


Dana Schutz Night Sculpting (2001) oil on canvas 106.7 x 119.4cm


160919b (2016) oil on canvas


Jules de Balincourt US World Studies #1 (2003) oil and spray paint on panel 111.8 x 86.4cm


160919c (2016) oil on canvas

Stern 2004 by Marlene Dumas born 1953

Marlene Dumas Stern (2004) oil on canvas 110.1 x 130.2cm


160919d (2016) oil on canvas

(I didn’t have any particular painting in mind when I made this one, but Schutz and de Balincourt in a general way)


160919e (2016) oil on canvas


Neo Rauch Vorort (Suburb) (2007) oil on canvas 149.9 x 248.9cm


Colour in portraits


160915b (2016) oil on canvas

Still thinking about the colour application from the last post, and also thinking generally about the way unusual colour can work in a portrait. I painted this green man with a red background, nothing planned, just doodling with paint.

It’s the kind of experimentation that makes me think I really ought to be more systematic about investigating my CVD, but instead I find myself using colour in a free-wheeling way that appeals to me, and I simply accept that I’m not seeing it the same way as people with different colour vision.

Here are other unusually coloured portraits that I had in mind. I think most of these are exaggerating or evoking a light effect, but in my painting I was just experimenting with colour arbitrarily.


Henri Matisse The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse) (1905) oil on canvas 40.5 x 32.5cm

Henri Matisse 1905 by Andr? Derain 1880-1954

Andre Derain Henri Matisse (1905) oil on canvas 46 x 34.9cm


Vladimir Tretchikoff The Chinese Girl (1953-54) oil on canvas


Nicole Eisenman Corn Fed Guy (2005) oil and vinyl sticker on canvas 52 x 40cm

The long face I painted is from imagination, but it came out in a way that reminds me of Stanley Spencer’s 1959 self-portrait (below), and the paint handling reminds me very slightly of late Lucien Freud.

Self-Portrait 1959 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Stanley Spencer Self-Portrait (1959) oil on canvas 50.8 x 40.6cm


Lucien Freud Robert Fellowes (1999) oil on canvas

Different strokes (Schutz, Linhares)


160824b (2016) oil on canvas 29 x 30cm

These paintings were made quickly, with a vague intention to recreate a certain kind of expressionistic brushwork and colour remembered from paintings by Judith Linhares and Dana Schutz (I gave up fighting the influence of Schutz and decided to work through it instead).


160824c (2016) oil on canvas 32 x 31cm


160906 (2016) oil on canvas 50 x 42cm

Here are examples of the kind of paintings by Linhares and Schutz that I had in mind.


Judith Linhares Cove (2011) oil on canvas 134.6 x 165.1cm


Dana Schutz Stare (2003) oil on canvas 123.2 x 91.4cm

Climate change, cognitive dissonance and ideology

On May 12th 2016, Noam Chomsky gave a lecture at Harvard-Epworth Church, Cambridge, MA. He took a question from the audience, about:

“the cognitive dissonance that many of my generation feel surrounding what we’re told about climate change versus how we’re told to live our lives, in the sense that we’re still encouraged to have children, we’re still encouraged to continue consuming in unsustainable ways, pursue careers, in spite of the fact that we’re also taught in the same institutions that are encouraging us to go on, have careers, live our lives, at the same time that catastrophic climate change is almost inevitable. So, I guess my question is, do you have any advice in terms of dealing with that intense cognitive dissonance and not be paralysed by the sense that there’s nothing we can do, and our generation is essentially doomed to inherit an intractable problem.”

The question begins at 53:12.

I have the same sense of cognitive dissonance in regard to my own decision to dedicate time and energy to painting. Currently, my painting does nothing to respond to the problem of climate change, except to ignore it. My paintings don’t contribute to averting climate change (as a collective effort), nor (to be more cynical) does my painting prepare me personally for a world affected by climate change (by, for example, earning me money). Every time I hear about another flood or drought, I think, “I can’t ignore this any longer”, and yet I continue to paint.

Zizek describes this in a lecture that was uploaded to YouTube on Dec 19th 2014, saying:

“… this gap between what we rationally know and what we unconsciously believe tells us, I claim, a lot about our predicament: namely, how we relate usually to the prospect of ecological catastrophe. It’s a paradox. Basically, we know catastrophe is coming, there will be global warming, whatever, but why don’t we act? Why don’t we do something? I don’t think it’s enough, this simple Left-ist explanation: manipulation, big companies, whatever. I claim: We know, but we don’t believe.”

Zizek goes on to say more. This part of the lecture begins at 54.08

So, why am I painting? Should I be painting differently, or doing something else altogether? I don’t have answers to these questions, and strangely I currently seem to be immune to absorbing the ways that Chomsky and Zizek answer these questions. However, I also don’t expect the issue to go away. In fact, if the science is correct, then it will become more pressing every day, for all of us, and art will be impacted whether it responds actively or passively.

Early work

One thing I love about painting is that you can constantly evolve what you’re doing, making new choices and learning new things about the process from one moment to the next. Given enough input, this evolution continues over decades. I find it fascinating, and very encouraging, to compare an artist’s early work with later works, and see their progression. It makes me wonder what my paintings might look like in the future, if I work hard and stick at it.

Some of these comparisons are twenty years apart, others only a few years.

George Condo


George Condo Clown (1985) oil on canvas 50.8 x 40.6cm


George Condo Purple and Yellow Abstraction (2012) acrylic, charcoal and pastel on canvas 147.3 x 167.6cm

Neo Rauch


Neo Rauch Der Mohrenschneider (The Carrot Cutter) (1989) oil on masonite 125 x 60cm


Neo Rauch Der Laden (2005) oil on canvas 209.9 x 300cm

Peter Doig


Peter Doig New York (1980) India ink and watercolour on paper 29 x 41cm


Peter Doig Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) (2004) oil on canvas 200 x 186cm

Dana Schutz


Dana Schutz Tired but Happy (2000) oil on panel 43 x 34cm


Dana Schutz Reformers (2004) oil on canvas 190.5 x 231cm

Jules de Balincourt


Jules de Balincourt The Concert (2003) oil and enamel on wood panel


Jules de Balincourt Internal Renovations (Diptych) (2005) acrylic, oil and spray paint on panel 220 x 299.7cm

Laura Owens


Laura Owens Untitled (1991) acrylic and pencil on paper 121.9 x 152.4cm


Laura Owens Untitled (2015) acrylic, oil, Flashe, and silkscreen ink on linen 274.3 x 213.4cm

Daubs in progress

Lately I’ve had a few canvases on the go, and I alternate between working on them. This helps take the pressure off working on just one at a time, and also prevents me from working wet-into-wet out of impatience. I’m trying to use all the canvases like pages in a note book, just practicing whatever kind of paint technique I feel like at the time, but I’m also trying to think about how I combine colours and compose the elements on each canvas.

These are all in process. I’m not sure why I’m posting images of them when they’re incomplete. Maybe because I want to see them like this, on here, to think about what (if anything) to do with them next.


160904 Green / Yellow Cubes (2016) oil on canvas

The cubes are painted on a separate scrap of canvas that I’ve pinned onto the main canvas. When the paint is dry, I plan to sew it on.


160906a Yellow / Black / Red Apple (2016) oil on canvas

Every time I try to write something using paint, I’m surprised how difficult it is to control my handwriting. It made me realise how little control I have using a brush, so I decided to practice using a handwriting exercise.


160906b Red / White / Black Hats (2016) oil on canvas


1609?? Green / White / Blue Botany (2016) oil on canvas

Robert Crumb’s “unconscious inspiration”

Ironically, I may have found the “unconscious inspiration” for my interest in, what I call, “subconscious referencing“. It’s some years ago that I first read The R. Crumb Handbook, and until last night I had forgotten that Crumb gives this example of what he calls an “unconscious inspiration” in his own work (click on images to see them larger).

One day’s primordial soup


160823b (2016) oil on canvas 37 x 32.5cm

Lately I haven’t been posting many pictures of my paintings because I lent my camera to a friend. Now I’ve got it back, so here’s a day’s worth of paintings. George Condo said something once, on the lines of, “I’m not going to hide my workings”, and I like that. Some of his early paintings are so difficult to love, but they’re all part of the continuum of his work and that’s what’s really interesting.

I’m still at a very early stage and I think of all this stuff as the “primordial soup” from which my future paintings will hopefully emerge.


160823c (2016) oil on canvas 38 x 38cm

This one reminds me of the robot in Frank Kelly Freas’ album cover artwork for Queen’s News of the World (okay with me, because I like the episode of Family Guy where Stewie is terrified of that picture), and also of Adrian Ghenie’s Pie Fight paintings (not a route I’m interested in pursuing, because I pretty much agree with Jerry Saltz on Ghenie).


Adrian Ghenie Pie Fight Study 3 (2008) oil on canvas 30 x 40cm


Frank Kelly Freas Queen: News of the World [album cover] (1977)

Here are the other paintings I made on 23rd August. I was experimenting with putting together colours and forms that I’d usually think of as bad or ugly, to see if something interesting would result. It takes faith to believe that something interesting could spring from these inauspicious beginnings, but there it is.


160823d (2016) oil on canvas 40 x 32cm


160823e (2016) oil on canvas 39 x 56cm


160823f (2016) oil on canvas 31 x 39.5cm


160823g (2016) oil on canvas 39 x 28cm