(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The year 2003 saw renewed attention directed toward the iconoclastic American painter Philip Guston, with a major retrospective exhibition opening in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in late fall. Not long before, in late summer, 2003, came a rich new book about the artist from a treasured friend of Guston’s later years, the writer Ross Feld. Feld’s Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston is an unusual book: part memoir, part selected correspondence, and additional commentary supplied by the author’s editors after his untimely death in 2001 from Hodgkin’s disease, which had stalked Feld for many years. The book will interest fans of an exceptionally distinctive twentieth century American painter as well as admirers of Feld’s fiction and criticism. Beyond that, it will appeal to readers fascinated by the intellectual interplay between two types of creative artists, in this case a master of the visual arts and a verbal craftsman.

Modern literature has presented many striking examples of the brilliant insight that sensitive writers can bring to the painters or sculptors they admire. One thinks especially of Charles Baudelaire on Eugène Delacroix, Rainer Maria Rilke on Auguste Rodin, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Cocteau on Pablo Picasso, or Frank O’Hara on Larry Rivers. Feld’s ability to bring his prodigious intelligence to bear on Guston’s artistic output was evident from his first review of a Guston exhibition in 1976.

Philip Guston was an artist who read voraciously and was deeply conversant with modern literature and philosophy, so it was not surprising that he might befriend a writer such as Feld. In fact, another of his closest friends later in life was the acclaimed novelist Philip Roth, a sometime neighbor in Woodstock, New York. Furthermore, Guston was in many ways an extreme loner, someone in need of a loyal friend and defender. Ross was one such ally; he came along at a time when others seemed to be in the process of abandoning Guston, shaking their heads in disbelief over the baffling new direction his painting had charted. Late in his career Guston had returned to the representational painting with which he had begun in the 1930’s. The middle part of his career had found him swept up in the movement known as Abstract Expressionism. For the many critics, dealers, and curators who had come to associate him with that very dominant school of American painting during roughly the first decade and a half of postwar art, his new embrace of objects and figures was a shocking betrayal.

Born Phillip Goldstein in Montreal in 1913, as a boy the artist and his family moved to Los Angeles. As a student there he befriended Jackson Pollock, with whom he would chart new ground in what came to be called Action Painting, associated with the early stages of Abstract Expressionism, emphasizing the process of the artist’s confrontation with canvas, brush, and paint. Before this phase, however, Guston, like Pollock, had been employed as an artist with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the New Deal program that commissioned painters to decorate public buildings with murals, often derived from the celebrated styles of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. The latter was a direct influence on Guston, who traveled to Mexico in 1934 to learn from his technique. In 1935 Guston left Los Angeles for New York, where he began his stint with the Federal Arts Project of the WPA, under the supervision of the artist Burgoyne Diller. Guston’s wife, Musa, herself a painter and poet, was similarly employed by the WPA, and they painted murals together in upstate New York. By the mid-1930’s he had changed his name to Guston and had begun spelling “Philip” with one l, apparently to please his future wife’s family. He and Musa married in 1937, settling in New York City.

Never able to support himself through his painting, Guston took a series of teaching positions at midwestern universities but then returned to New York in 1950, immediately after a formative experience traveling in Europe as both a Guggenheim fellow and a recipient of the Prix de Rome. He supported himself with a teaching position at New York University. During the 1950’s he succeeded as a painter viewed by the New York art establishment as a bona fide member of the circle of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism.

One of the critics who championed his work was Dore Ashton, who remained an important friend and supporter. Ashton’s 1960 book Philip Guston extolled especially Guston’s dense fields of color, dark and impenetrable in the center of the canvas and light and ephemeral on the periphery. Guston would push this love of dark tones to an extreme in his major 1966 show at the Jewish Museum, only to be met with...

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