what do the shoes mean in philip guston paintings
In 1931, the 18-year-old Guston produced an indoor mural with Reuben Kadish in an effort by the local John Reed Club of Los Angeles to fundraise money in support of the defendants in the Scottsboro Boys Trial. This mural was then defaced by local police forces, known as Red Squads. The subsequent court ruling found no fault on the part of L.A. police, even though irreversible damage was sustained to many works of art. This marks just one instance of political corruption witnessed by Guston, a theme which he would return to paint in his late style. [ citation needed ]
In September 1935, at 22 years of age, he moved to New York where he worked as an artist in the WPA program during the Great Depression. In 1937 he married artist and poet Musa McKim, whom he first met at Otis, and they collaborated on several WPA murals. During this period his work included strong references to Renaissance painters such as Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Masaccio, and Giotto. He was also influenced by American Regionalists and Mexican mural painters. In 1938 he painted a post office mural in the US post office in Commerce, Georgia, entitled Early Mail Service and the Construction of Railroads.
My question, I think, is whether we should see Guston as being as true to the ideals of Rosenberg as De Kooning was. If the artist has eliminated the boundaries between art and life by the decision to “just paint,” then is it the case that everything about an artist’s life enters the painting when the artist has eliminated these boundaries? Isn’t that what Rosenberg said? And given that Guston studied and absorbed the influences of Miro, Picasso, Piero della Francesca, and other artists, without imitating any of them, perhaps Greenberg’s belief that there is continuity of ideas through the evolution of art also makes sense. Just thinking out loud, as it were.
“There are so many things in the world – in the cities – so much to see. Does art need to represent this variety and contribute to its proliferation? Can art be that free? The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make. [. ]
“The problem, of course, is more complex than mere duration of ‘inspiration.’ There wre pre-images in the fifteenth century, foreknowledge of what was going to be brought into existence. Maybe my pre-image is unknown to me, but today it is impossible to act as if pre-imaging is possible.
“Many works of the past (and of the present) complete what they announce they are going to do, to our increasing boredom. Certain others plague me because I cannot follow their intentions. I can tell at a glance what Fabritius is doing, but I am spending my life trying to find out what Rembrandt was up to.
“I have a studio in the country – in the woods – but my paintings look more real to me than what is outdoors. You walk outside; the rocks are inert; even the clouds are inert. It makes me feel a little better. But I do have a faith that it is possible to make a living thing, not a diagram of what I have been thinking: to posit with paint something living, something that changes each day. [. ]
“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 at 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.”
(Theodor Adorno stated that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The pile of shoes — a reference to the Holocaust — says otherwise. It tells us how barbaric, urgent and stultifying it is to be an artist. Your intelligence cannot save you. This is what Guston has in common with his friends de Kooning and Pollock. This is what he recognized when he jettisoned sophisticated techniques and began to use only a line to draw.)
In “Waking Up” (1975), which I have never seen before, Guston revisits “Painting, Smoking Eating” (1973). In the earlier painting, which is largely dusky cadmium red and pink, the artist is lying in bed, his eye open and staring, a cloud of smoke rising from the cigarette in his mouth. A plate is lying on the bed, piled with small slices of pie or cheese wedges. (One could do a whole show of Guston’s paintings of food — including salami sandwiches and piles of cherries). On the other side of the bed, there is an empty canvas on an easel, a desk lamp, and a bucket for paintbrushes. Behind them is a pile of upside-down shoes, some of the soles outlined in black, with black dots marking the soles and heels.
Monument was painted in the artist’s studio in Woodstock, New York – where Guston had moved from New York City in 1967, and where he would live until his death in 1980 – during the most prolific period in his career, a burst of productivity which began in 1974 and was only curtailed by a heart attack in March 1979. In a letter to the poet Bill Berkson in July 1976, Guston wrote, ‘I’ve been painting around the clock, 24 hours or more – sleep a bit and then go back – it is totally uncontrollable now’ (quoted in Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, New York 1988, p.179). Many of the paintings he produced in this period were, like Monument, large in scale and filled with humorous and paradoxical imagery.
Supported by Christie’s.
Philip Guston, Connection (1979)
Guston’s late work is deep and rich with allusions to the entire Western canon of painting. They’re deceptively masterful and walk the line between tragedy and comedy like a standup with a complete understanding of the history of human civilization. But I can’t live in Guston’s world much these days. His monographs aren’t much help in my studio right now. But I’m glad he’s hanging out in the lobby. As I get back into my own studio it was a nice reminder that it’ll come back. The waters aren’t as choppy this time and I’m looking for a softer light. Seurat’s drawings have a nice glow.