What makes it Art, Responding to Philip Guston, Part I

There comes a point when the paint doesn’t feel like paint. I don’t know why. Some mysterious thing happens. I think you have all experienced it… What counts is that the paint should really disappear, otherwise it’s craft.

Philip Guston

It’s all here. This may not be comprehensible to someone who doesn’t paint, but it is essential to understand this if one is to paint. There is no better description of the gulf between failed painting and the real thing.

Perhaps experience in another art would help transfer what he’s getting at to non-painters. It’s not a question of making the act of painting disappear. It’s not a smoothing out of any signs of what went into the work. That would be a superficial misunderstanding of what he means by the paint disappearing. Think of a great performance by an actor. When she has disappeared, leaving only the character before our eyes, it’s not a question of her putting on a disguise.

So it is with the paint. It is there in all its physicality. Yet this physicality dissolves into a visual world. Not necessarily, or completely, an illusion of this world. What we encounter presents to our perception a sense of certainty and plenitude. We cannot imagine anything being any other way instead of as it is. We have a growing conviction of that sense we have in front of the actual, of a presence going beyond our capacity to perceive it. Not that there is overwhelming detail, but that what is there alludes to what we cannot see. Both beyond the frame in an encompassing world, and into infinities of distance and scale within what is presented.

We never lose sight of partaking of a performance, but we are immersed in it. We are buoyed and lifted into joy by it.

As with an actual entity, we cannot consume the work. It does not get overtaken by familiarity and limitations, as most of what we refer to as images always do in the end. This is why a painting needs to be confronted as an object and not only viewed mediated in a photographic image.

No photo can contain a painting.

***

To will a new form is unacceptable, because will builds distortion. Desire, too, is incomplete and arbitrary. These strategies, however intimate they might become, must especially be removed to clear the way for something else…

Philip Guston

This approaches the same question from a direction that gives a painter a solid sense of what to get past. Here is the trap for the clever, the facile, those who cannot get beyond their Ego-driven will. The blessing of painting is in its transparency. For all its visual illusions, it does not hide anything. The histrionics of a willful approach will not hide the distortions, false passages, or arbitrary impositions. Painting is valuable if for nothing else then just as a school for the disillusionment of willfulness.

***

These are from a series of Guston quotes found on Art Quotes.

I’ve been drawn to Guston’s writing on art since I first heard of him years ago. His painting has been an inspiration, but his greatest influence has been on my conception of art. Recognitions of his insights have come to me again and again in my own practice.

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