The line, the line

Pub date March 8, 2011
SectionVisual Art

ART “Philip Guston: A Life Lived and Discussed” is an event for anybody who appreciates provocative talkers.

The subject of Michael Blackwood’s Philip Guston: A Life Lived is quotable throughout the 1981 bio-doc. Shot at various points during the last decade of Guston’s life, the film opens with a retrospective being hung at SFMOMA in 1980. The painter, who will pass away within the year, is seen walking through the show, chatting with the curator and, somewhat later, his wife Musa. He frequently touches the paintings, taking advantage of the fact that, as he puts it, “This is the one show where nobody will tell me not to touch the work.”

Next, there’s a news conference where Guston parries questions and charms his audience, who are busy scribbling notes. Blackwood’s movie then flashes back to the early 1970s, when Guston enters his last highly prolific period. He’s seen at home in Woodstock, N.Y., hanging out in his studio. Surrounded by recent paintings, he frequently moves them around, in order to display examples of what he’s discussing. At one point, he paints over a new work because it’s “too much of a painting.” He also breezily discusses his creative life, recalling his teenage years in Los Angeles with Jackson Pollock, his rising prominence as an Abstract Expressionist in New York City during the 1950s and ’60s, and his artistic concerns at the present moment.

Guston stresses his displeasure with the mistaken, seemingly necessary yet all-too-easy categorizing that plagues the art world. As he says, referencing the readily rehashed modernist values found in his early painting Mother and Child (1930): “You have to come from somewhere.”

An enthusiasm for painting that is in “the midst of happening” drives Guston’s work. He doesn’t seek to achieve an image in which there’s a recognized “this with that, and that and that.” Rather, he desires that a painting be a thing realized for the first time to (or by) the world. He wants it to be unfamiliar, to leave questions, and to settle nothing.

Frequently making declarations like “I really enjoyed myself painting this,” Guston also reflects on his darker moods. His outlook on existence? He doesn’t “think of it as pessimistic,” but nonetheless feels “doomed.”

As Guston gestures about, endlessly smoking cigarettes, it’s easy to see how autobiographical his later paintings are, with large heads, eyeballs, and cigarettes crowding the large canvases. He paints his world; and in doing so, seeks to offer something new to ours.

At slightly less than an hour, Blackwood’s film leaves you wanting more — and luckily, the University of California Press just published Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (344 pages, $29.95). The book is edited by Clark Coolidge, who makes a short appearance in the film discussing old brick buildings and how paintings are “dumb creatures.” After a screening of Blackwood’s portrait, Coolidge will be on hand for a public conversation, along with Bill Berkson, a fellow poet and friend of Guston.

Patrick James Dunagan is the author of There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn’t Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post-Apollo Press, 96 pages, $15).


With Bill Berkson and Clark Coolidge in conversation after the film

Mon./14, 7 p.m.; $10

Balboa Theatre

3630 Balboa, SF

(800) 838-3006