Fear & Philip Guston
Born in 1913, Canadian American painter Philip Guston began his career in the 50’s in New York during the Abstract Expressionist movement. The Ab-Ex-ers were sweeping the country as the next great thing and developing a bit of a swagger. Painters everywhere were ditching representational painting for the new experimental style of pure abstraction, and Guston was no exception. Well-esteemed and well-reviewed, he was a part of the in-crowd. Everyone loved the guy.
His paintings of the ’50s and ’60s were thickly painted, muted works in grays and subtle pastel colors that hung in space like little painterly nerve centers on monochromatic backgrounds. They were tours de force of trembling sensitivity and touch. The work was beautiful, on-trend, and supported by his network. He was basically just rocketing to the top.
Picture him in this one photo in his soaring studio at the American Academy in Rome, standing in front of one of these types of paintings, wearing an ascot and holding a cigarette, the poster boy for the cool new thing. Then, around 1967, a feeling of unease and restlessness started to creep into his mind, and he began to feel the need to change.
The images that started coming out of him were strange: bare light bulbs, ashtrays, disembodied eyes, piles of legs, and shoes (and all in that same splodgy gray, black, pink palette). But now, a cartoonish nightmare was replacing those soft, melancholy abstractions. We all know about the enormity of this change, but rarely do we hear about how it felt emotionally to be the one making it. In 1972, Guston spoke at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art about his tumultuous feelings of doubt and exhilaration during this major shift in his work. His words were transcribed in the book Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge.
In the talk, he details the exact circumstances during which he made the leap: “this awful period of tug of war.” He was in his studio in the backyard of his Woodstock cottage on Maverick Road in mental agony, hemming, and hawing, and generally in a full freak-out freefall. He talks about how much he needed to isolate himself from the New York art world at this time because holding on to his nerve felt so fragile:
“I didn’t go into New York. Or I went to New York, but I wouldn’t see a show. There were a lot of retrospective shows when I was in [the city], but I hadn’t the slightest interest. I would have to send elaborate telegrams to de Kooning about why I couldn’t attend his big show at the Modern. I just didn’t want to look at any painting. I was really living in this world, and I just didn’t want to look at anything else. I remember Barney Newman called me; he was having this big show at Knoedler, and I said, ‘Barney…’ I lied. I said something was wrong with me and I couldn’t come. I just simply couldn’t. I didn’t know what I would do or say if, while doing this stuff, I had to go into a room with these big striped pictures. And I like his work, but I just couldn’t.”
Guston, up until now, had had a “fairly full career as a painter,” yet felt the need to distance himself from the conservatism of his abstract artist community. Screwing up the courage to try these radical new painting ideas wasn’t easy. Guston also had to battle the conservatism within: “I couldn’t accept this new stuff. That was the problem. Months would go on, and I couldn’t accept it.”
He said that he had hung up some of his “pure abstract things” in his home and thought they looked “very good.” But then would retreat to his studio and “do these things, the guys in cars and all that,” He steeled himself to make drawings and paintings of the new images that were trying to emerge: crude figurative depictions of Klan figures in cars, painting, smoking, etc… He recalls that at the time these new works were done “with convictions. That’s what I meant.”
He’d go back into the house and see “those beautiful things from the past” and think, “The hell with that stuff in the studio; that’s terrible! I can’t stomach it.” He was so discombobulated that he felt nauseous, had trouble sleeping, and considered rolling up and hiding all his new work. Then, the cold light of day would send him marching back to the startling pieces forming in his studio with new motivation and a strange feeling of relief. The emotional rollercoaster went on like that for days. He would put the new brave things up and then take them down later in shame: “They were so worn with pushpin marks. Up would go the pure [abstract] things. Big sigh of relief. ‘Whew. I can live there.’ Come in the next day—’ I can’t stand that; it’s got to be dirt.’” He said the only way he could get over “that torture” was to think of himself as “dead.” He said it started like a mental game but soon became serious: “What if I had died? I’m in the history books. What would I paint if I came back?” This “rebirth” freed him creatively and “released” him to go forward with “a beautiful, extravagant sense of irresponsibility…I had to throw over my path.”
Morty Feldman, his good friend of 20 years, visited him in Woodstock and was not a fan of the new direction. Guston recalls that Feldman was “pretty upset.” He couldn’t understand why Guston would turn his back on all that gorgeous painterly abstraction and turn instead to this crudely comic figuration. But in a perverse way, Guston relished his outrage: “I wanted to feel as if I was saying to him, ‘You think you know me? You don’t know me…’ There are parts you don’t know.’ And so, I’m just waiting for the day Morty comes up and says it’s fantastic. He will.”
Recently, in my studio, I’ve been undertaking a huge change myself. So, reading this honest account of how hard it was for such a great artist to change was a great help. It was so galvanizing to read that it’s supposed to feel squeamish and that you’re going to lose your nerve from minute to minute, and that you’re going to think everything you’re making is dumb. And according to Guston, this is all normal and expected and part of the whole dying to be reborn. It’s messy and stressful, and you must strap yourself to the mast and endure until you’re past the sirens of doubt.
In the book The War of Art, Author Stephen Pressfield talks about how your brain will do just about anything to stop you from taking a risk. He writes, “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we must do…the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and our soul’s growth. That’s why we feel so much resistance.”
What if we have a Morty in our lives who is not so thrilled that we’re transforming into something new? Or what if we are merely trying to sandbag our minds against our resistance? How do we keep that treacly trickle of fear out, or at least stop it from stopping us? Well, for me, I turn to a cocktail of self-help audiobooks. I literally need a voice in my ear saying, ‘You can do this. It’s okay to do this.’ And, yeah, many of these self-helpers are pretty narcissistic. And one might only get 10 percent good stuff out of them. But even those little ten percent add up to a magical combo meal that helps me keep my nerve, even if it is only hanging by a string sometimes.
The moral of the story is that we have to do whatever it takes to keep fear from sabotaging new directions in our work. Yeah, Morty might not be on board, but others will be. And people, especially other artists, find bravery exciting. And don’t be afraid to turn to extremely lame or embarrassing sources for a shot of courage sometimes.
Let’s check back in with Stephen Pressfield and read about how fraught that final stage of a big transition can be. He reminds us of how Odysseus, after 9 days of rowing, had the home fires of Ithaca finally in sight only to have the mischievous wind of Aeolus blow him backward all the way back to where he started: “Resistance is most powerful at the finish line…At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button, marshals one last assault, and slams us with everything it’s got…Be wary at the end. Don’t open that bag of wind.”
In this spirit, and in the spirit of Guston, I suggest we make a contract with ourselves: to finish, without judgment, a single first new work even if it feels utterly dumb, even if it might be a waste of time and materials. Even if friends think it’s a crazy left turn. Honor that contract like it’s with the devil himself.
And just make that thing.
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.