Ingrid Pfeiffer & Bernhard Martin on Philip Guston
Guston is still an insider’s tip. In his legendary late work Guston
broke with everything commonly found in the 1960s. Now it can be
discovered at the Schirn in Frankfurt. Sponsored by the Deutsche Bank
Stiftung, the show is curated by Ingrid Pfeiffer. She talks with the
painter Bernhard Martin about the Guston phenomenon and why the
American painter (who died in 1980) fascinates so many artists today.
||Ingrid Pfeiffer: Why do some many painters I meet—whether in Europe or in the USA—say Guston is their great hero?
I’m sorry to say that I’m not necessarily one of them. Other artists
are more important to me. But of the Americans of his generation,
Guston is my favorite. There are several reasons. First, because he’s a
great painter, who made a radical switch from abstraction to
figuration. Every artist knows how much chutzpah you need to do that.
Secondly, because of the gesture of his painting. The way he applies
the paint, his gestures, the spiritual and intuitive aspect—all of this
makes him appeal to many other artists.
has been a curator at the Schirn Kunsthalle
in Frankfurt since 2001. She has conceptualized numerous exhibitions including Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors
(2002/03), Yves Klein Retrospective
(2004/05), James Ensor
(2005/06), Barbara Kruger. Circus
(2011), and Yoko Ono: Half-A-Wind Show
is among the most willful German artists. Many German and international institutions have devoted solo exhibitions to him, including the Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg
(2008/09), the Arario Gallery
, Seoul (2006), and MoMA PS1
, New York (2001). Bernhard Martin’s works are included in collections such as that of the Museum of Modern Art
, New York, the Museum der Moderne
, Salzburg, and the Deutsche Bank Collection
generally applies to his abstract paintings. They are simply very
beautiful. His late work, however, is very puzzling—nothing you want to
surround yourself with in everyday life. The huge heads, also referred
to as Cyclops because all you see is one large eye. The stubbly hair,
the nasty feet and shoes which in this collection have something
violent about them. These works were associated with war, Vietnam, and
the Holocaust. And the titles, such as Cave, Pit, and Tomb. That’s all very disturbing, back then surely more than today.
My perception is completely different. I can’t see the merits of his
abstract paintings. They’re much too one-dimensional. But I still find
them interesting. You can see how Guston experimented with pastosity. I
don’t find his late works ugly or disturbing at all. This morning, I
had another look at some photos from Woodstock, where he lived at the
time. It’s a very small enclave. You can only achieve a transformation
like Guston’s if you withdraw. To the solitude of the studio,
surrounded by paint, pots, brushes… If you can’t find a solution for a
painting, you sit on the sofa twiddling your thumbs and look down at
your feet. Everything that happens in Guston’s paintings is very
obvious. Later, he goes beyond the window, to an imaginary view of the
city. He doesn’t paint landscapes, probably because he can’t find a
solution for them or the style is too kitschy for him. I think that
what many people identify as gravestones in his paintings are actually
IP: No, that’s what the works are called.
I wouldn’t necessarily call these works violent. I recognize a
whimsical humor in them. That’s a very important point. He had a tragic
life, he lost his father …
BM: … when he was very young.
As a small boy he discovered the corpse of his father, who had hung
himself. That’s an experience after which anyone might see a
psychoanalyst for the rest of his life. Guston had something very
poignant to say about this: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my
angels.” That’s a quote from Rilke. According to the most recent brain
research, we don’t necessarily have to continually work through bad
experiences. We can overcome them by overlaying them with good
experiences. Guston layered, as it were, his own world over the
traumatic experience of he had when he was a little boy. And this gave
rise to the black humor, the grotesque, the bizarre in his work. He
overcomes the hardness of the world with a twinkle in his eye.
BM: There’s something very therapeutic about painting. That’s one reason I became a painter.
IP: Do you paint at night too?
I paint at all times of the day and night. I paint when I get the urge.
That’s why we spend so much time in the studio. That’s why we perceive
objects in our surroundings so incredibly intensely. A sofa takes on a
different meaning, or a shoelace, or the cigarette in the ashtray—all
of this is very present. This is a very important theme with Guston, I
believe. The solitude of the painter in the studio, being all alone.
IP: There’s a very impressive painting he did called Bad Habits.
It depicts Guston’s bad habits—working late at night, his depression,
the greasy food he ate, the alcohol, the cigarettes. Everything is very
reduced … the paintbrush, the book, the bottles …
Which brings us back to the studio situation. Those are the things he
looks at all day long. I can relate completely. I also have phases when
I drink alcohol in the studio. Often, they’re very creative phases.
Suddenly I have bottles of gin and whisky in the fridge. I can see this
very clearly in his paintings. The lonely light bulbs, the
bottle—that’s a typical image. When he’s sitting in his studio and
doesn’t know what to do. You wait for the moment when you can truly
define what you want. I don’t know how much time he spent on his
IP: It varied. Sometimes he worked on them for only a very short time, and sometimes for a very long period.
BM: You can tell from the layers. He used very soft oil paints so that he could paint such impastos.
There are large sections of his paintings that are incredibly
picturesque. When you stand in front of the originals, it’s pure
painting. Some of the works are three meters wide. And it’s interesting
to note that many painters today are painting very large works again.
There are a few artists I’m very critical of, because they use this
format to show how great they are. In such cases, the large size has
something dominant. It’s about overwhelming the viewer. I find this
BM: … pretentious
IP: And mostly devoid of humor. These artists take themselves incredibly seriously.
BM: A common occurrence in Germany painting.
IP: Yes. “I’m a great master.” And a master paints large works, a new Rubens …
BM: … a painter prince.
But with Guston the large format means the opposite, because he shows
his own weakness, as it were, his vulnerability more clearly. The large
size is not an expression of inflated self-esteem. He puts his
questions on a bigger surface. I find that exciting. Guston is a very
subtle, sensitive painter. I see a lot of vulnerability, self-scrutiny,
and ruthless candor in his work. He presents the problem, not the
BM: That’s the hardest thing,
finding yourself, with all your facets and abysses. And that’s the
difference—as you pointed out—to the painter princes. But with Guston
there’s another interesting aspect, which is one reason why he’s so
popular among people in my generation, who grew up with comics. He
comes from comics. Guston and Pollock
knew each other from early childhood on and made comic drawings at the
very beginning, before they studied art. That’s very American. To my
mind, Guston was the first figurative painter in the USA. The others
didn’t paint. They took other routes. Although he actually comes from Abstract Expressionism—another
very American phenomenon—I see him as the first figurative painter the
USA ever produced. He’s the most American artist, in my opinion,
because he unites three important American phenomena: jazz, comics, and
IP: A bold hypothesis!
BM: We have to make hypothesis! Of course I see this through a painter’s glasses.
Guston is often associated with the epithet “bad painting,” but he
surely would have rebuffed this, because at bottom he was a classical
artist. I even see him as being very European. He went to Italy umpteen
times to view the originals of Renaissance paintings he had admired as
young man. He engaged more with Giotto and Piero della Francesca
than with the painters of his own era. When “bad painting” emerged in
the 1970s, he had already moved out into the country and was doing his
own thing—his figurative late work that is so famous today.
I also took a break. I withdrew for three years to experiment with new
things. I realized I had reached a dead end and that if didn’t make a
change I’d be doomed to repeat myself.
IP: Very audacious.
You don’t actually acknowledge this—you simply follow your instincts.
You realize that it’s reached the point where you aren’t making headway
with your old stuff. You have to take a new path. But the repercussions
can be more unpleasant than you thought.
IP: That’s exactly what happened to Guston. He didn’t expect that people would stop buying his work.
all in the same boat. Which reminds me of something Picasso said: You
should always show your old works, never the new ones. He knew this
from his own experience, of course. At some point he was too far ahead
in terms of his development and the others couldn’t follow him …
IP: … Picasso
was always breaking new ground. He changed his style continually. But I
don’t think Guston ever sold many works. For most of his life, he lived
off of money he made from teaching. The art market wasn’t very big at
the time. In 1962, he had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum,
which he saw as an endpoint. And Abstract Expressionism was on the
wane. Pop, Conceptual Art, and Fluxus had arrived, styles he couldn’t
relate to. He left his gallery because it embraced Pop. Many of his
friends, including Pollock, were dead. Everything was falling apart. In
addition, Guston considered the 1960s to be very violent. There was the
Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, racial unrest. He had had a run-in with
the Ku Klux Klan in his youth and was very politically active in the
thirties and forties. This all came to a head in the sixties. He
experience this period as being steeped in upheaval and didn’t paint at
all for two year. In 1966 and 67, he only drew. In the seventies he
taught a lot. He was a gifted teacher, he could talk his head off. He
was always surrounded by young artists.
BM: And we mustn’t forget that artists like Polke and Richter
were rediscovered by young artists. In their early 50s, no one gave a
hoot about them any more. They were brought back into the ring by their
students and ex-students, including Guston.
IP: And it
was young people who came to Guston’s openings in New York. He didn’t
sell anything, but the galleries were always full of young artists.
That’s always a good sign. When other artists like your work, you’ll be
successful one day.
Philip Guston. Late Works
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt
11/6/2013 – 2/2/2014
January 7, 6 pm
Artist’s tour through the exhibition with Bernhard Martin (in German).
Please register here: Tel 069.29 98 82-112 or firstname.lastname@example.org