“Look at those seagulls. My how they are free!” The musician John Cage said this to artist Philip Guston during the time of their friendship, in New York in the late fifties. Guston replied: “They’re not free at all - every moment in search of food.”
This exchange is found in the biography, conflicted but also involving, dedicated to Guston by his daughter Musa Meyer (Night Studio, John & Levi 2016) and recalled by the poet Morton Feldman, who with that sense of overturning that was part of all the American post-war avant-garde, concluded: “Cage is deaf, I am dumb, and Guston is blind.” The ideal condition for playing, writing and painting new things.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Philip Goldstein rapidly forgot his origins and his language, changed his surname (to Guston) and began his new adult life already at 17. We can now glimpse his creative itinerary in a show set up at Venice’s Accademia galleries, probably the city’s best contribution to the Biennale exhibition.
The Institution’s Director, Paola Marini, has already proven that she knows how to combine both the ancient and the contemporary at the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona; in this case, she has worked with curator Kosme de Barañano in order to add some poetry to the mix. Thus, they created a show in which the figurative brush strokes (even when they are abstracted from Guston) intersect with their sources of inspiration, including D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, and T.S. Eliot.
Therefore, this isn’t a chronological show but rather a set of fifty paintings representing fifty years of work, from 1930 to 1980; a tale that brings the brings the viewer from the artist’s youth (he was born in 1913) all the way to the year when Guston unexpectedly died during his self-imposed exile at Woodstock.
The overall feeling in almost every room of these different periods allows the viewer to comprehend his combined efforts: these convey an almost-dark sense of humor, the feeling of a depressed life that’s ready to pick back up again through a hint of pink or teal, the freedom of canvas sizes that aren’t by any means enslaved by enormity, as had happened to many exponents of the kind of abstract expressionism that the author was affiliated with (though not willingly).
The sources that are emphasized here are, indeed, lyrical and existentially-tinged, but we cannot forget his enduring love for cartoons: his mother had him study comics when he was little, and it was once again in the pages of comic books where Guston took refuge following his success—a triumphant American pavilion in 1960—and his seemingly-irremediable decline. It’s a shame, because even in the year when he died young painters like David Salle and Julian Schnabel began studying him once again. The fact that a gallery like Hauser and Wirth (which is among the most influential in the world) is currently focused on him says a great deal about how much his influence has been able to reach young people throughout the world (who are often fascinated by his takes on philosophers like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Sartre) even today.
(Philip Guston and the Poets, Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia, on display until September 3rd.)
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