Philip Guston and Seymour Leichman were my two most important mentors. I apprenticed four years with Seymour and studied with Philip for two years as a graduate student at Boston University. There was another art professor at Boston University, James Weeks. He was the day to day mentor of the graduate students at B.U., while Guston visited once a month for several intense days of critiques. Weeks had been a member of the "California School" of painters, which included Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. I mention James Weeks because he and I did not see alike. He revered one technical idea which he believed was the hallmark of Matisse: Weeks struggled to make paintings which conformed to the two dimensionality of canvas. For Weeks, all color and form must, above all else, announce the flat surface of the painting. This is fine, and every good painter knows this as a technical problem of making form on a two dimensional surface, but for James Weeks it dominated his art so much that he could not see the main thrust of my art.
One day James Weeks was in my studio, looking at my recent work, and he burst out, "What is it with you and Rembrandt? You have to let go!" This brings me to Philip Guston and his essay "Faith, Hope, Impossibility," written in October 1965, just as he was turning from his "Abstract Impressionist" phase to his new figurative work. When I studied with Guston (during the same years I studied with Weeks) Guston never mentioned Rembrandt to me. In his essay Guston wrote, "Two artists fascinate me - Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt. I am fixed on those two and their insoluble opposition. Piero is the ideal painter: he pursued abstraction, some kind of fantastic, metaphysical, perfect organism. In Rembrandt the plane of art is removed. It is not a painting, but a real person - a substitute, a golem. He is really the only painter in the world!" From this quote you know my dilemma: I am a modern painter: I honor Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti, and Balthus. I also am involved in making my art full of the demands of Rembrandt: I want my painting to be a substitute for reality. If I succeed, when you view my art you are immersed in the reality in front of you in the way you are immersed during an emotional response to the real world around you. If I succeed, while viewing my art you also feel the modern idea of the two dimensionality of the picture plane, the abstraction. Like Guston I seek to solve both artistic problems simultaneously, Piero della Francesca and abstraction, and Rembrandt and the image being an identical substitute for reality.
I want to tell you about one more of Philip Guston's ideas found in the essay I am discussing today. This idea has great meaning to me. Guston wrote, "There are twenty crucial minutes in the evolution of each of my paintings. The closer I get to that time - those twenty minutes - the more intensely subjective I become - but the more objective too. Your eyes get sharper; you become continuously more critical. There is no measure I can hold on to except this scant half-hour of making." And... "Everyone destroys marvelous paintings. Five years ago you wiped out what you are about to start tomorrow. Where do you put a form? It will move all around, bellow out and shrink, and sometimes it winds up where it was in the first place. But in the end it feels different, and it had to make the voyage. I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through. Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing."
If you have been reading every word of my blog you know how I wrestle with the problem of making art and happiness. Philip Guston is on to something important here: "satisfaction is nothing." It is during the making of art when one touches true happiness. The artist cannot find happiness in the object which is the work of art, only frustration. There is frustration because one never finds absolute truth and veracity in the final product. It is during the making of art when one glimpse's the truth of existence. It is impossible to have absolute knowledge. The meaning of existence cannot be contemplated but is felt in moments of creation.
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