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


3 thoughts on “Book review: Philip Guston Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations

  1. I’ve been unconsciously trying to place where you might emerge, to classify your style or lump you with a school. I don’t even know how long you have been painting or whether you are still formally studying. Regardless, that instinct of mine is reductive and of no use. I woke up to my racket after reading your thoughts on the Guston book. He was merely a name to me, along with a memory of some images from his more famous works.

    This is always a dangerous mindset, so little informed, a nearly blind judgment. I was thinking New York school, the abstract expressionists….. All in an attempt to award you into a pantheon of my own choosing – giving you an honoured place, which you would earn by fulfilling my expectations.

    Fuck all that, I’ll do my best to limit myself to being surprised and delighted (or not) at the glimpses you disclose of your work and your thinking from time to time. Liam – grinning here and feeling privileged.



    • I started painting with oils in January of this year. Ten years before I used to work in sculpture and ink drawing, in a style influenced by Ray Pettibon and Hans Hartung. Then I started making porn and only occasionally drew sex stuff, influenced by Tom of Finland and Robert Crumb. Since I started painting this year, I’ve been catching up with what’s happening now. I’m trying to keep a really open mind. Lately my interest has definitely gone towards expressionist figurative stuff (Schutz, de Balincourt, Eisenman) and the Leipzig school (esp. Rauch), but it could go in any direction at the moment. A few months ago I was obsessed with Condo and Yuskavage. It feels like paint is a language, and so far I’m still learning the vocabulary. Pretty soon I think I’ll actually be saying things with it. It’s a very exciting process.


  2. Pingback: Book review: David Salle How to See | dailydaub

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