restricted access Guston and Me: Digression and Return (1992)
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Guston and Me: Digression and Return On one of my rare (these days) visits to New York I saw an exhibit of drawings by Philip Guston at the Museum of Modern Art. What led me there was not so much interest as just plain curiosity. Guston's name and work had always existed ever so vaguely on the periphery of my inner awareness of American painters. Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky as well as Franz Kline and Mark Rothko had absorbed the greater part of my early fascination during the 1950S with the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. On the way into the show I picked up a brochure about Guston and, as I wandered through the various rooms where his drawings were displayed in chronological order from the 1930S to 1980, I read it casually at first, then with increasing excitement. It suddenly dawned on me that I was looking at the work of a man born five years before me, in 1913, who had traced out in some fifty years a movement from an intuitive and naive preoccupation with the figure in his early years to a total involvement with nonfigurative abstraction in his middle years to, finally, a bold, declarative return to the figure in the last fifteen to twenty years of his life (Guston died in 1980). And in this clear symmetrical arc of Guston's digression from the figure and return to it after establishing himself as an important abstract painter I saw virtually the same arc of my digression from the intuitively naive tonal preoccupation of my early years and a publicly declared return to tonality after an intense period of immersion in total chromaticism via the twelve-tone method. The clarity and simplicity of the pattern of an undeniable parallelism between his life in painting and mine in composition came with something of the force of an electric shock, totally unexpected and all the stronger for its very unexpectedness . In the brochure essay I read that "by the late fifties while well respected for his painting, Guston had become disenchanted with abstraction, commenting it was 'too simple' and 'too easily consumed ... too thin: He sought to render 'touchable things: and once again instinctively turned to drawings to work through a major stylistic shift."l The essay goes on to say, "Guston's decision to resume drawing the tangible world was not an obvious choice. In a compelling account he described the period of 1961H:i8 as one of 'fierce confrontation' when he was pulled by two equally powerful impulses."2 It concludes with the statement that "with his declaration of 196o-'We are image-makers and imageridden '-Guston articulated a theme that has continued to preoccupy artists to the present day."3 In the days that followed I kept coming back to Guston and thinking about the striking parallelism between his work and mine, a parallelism more important for its clear motion from tangible concreteness to abstraction and back again to tan- GUSTON AND ME 243 gibility and concreteness than the chronology of these changes. Still, the chronology has its points of interest too because, while not exact as to the precise years when changes occurred, it is fairly close if loosely measured in decades. Guston turned toward abstraction around 1950; I made a conscious decision in 1950, the year I was in Italy at the American Academy in Rome, to embrace dodecaphony. "Disenchanted by abstraction," Guston returned to the figure and drawing in the 1960s; disenchanted with total chromaticism and its abstract, narrow straits, I returned to tonality in 1965-but obliquely at first. Guston confronted "two equally powerful impulses" in 1966-68; I struggled through my own "fierce confrontation " from about 1965 to 1970. Guston experienced a "hostile reaction among critics and the public" following the 1970 exhibition of "his newly figurative paintings ";4 the first performance and recording of my Third String Quartet in 1972 called forth a melee of reaction going the gamut from extreme hostility and rejection through deep shock and puzzlement to open praise and acceptance. Guston's career and mine seem, unbeknownst to either of us, to have marked off crucial turns and events in the stylistic evolution of American paintingand music, paradOxicallyan evolution that emphaticallydenied and seriously called into question old, received notions of a constantly continuing progress and ever-renewing avant-gardism in art. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed certain to me that something larger, more impersonal...