Patrick Dunagan

The line, the line


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

Micheline, man


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So much of Jack Micheline’s work is great that it almost feels like a lie to speak of it. He remains a problematic, adorable, and — to the very end — indefinable artist. This is not loose praise.

In an introduction to the new Micheline collection One of a Kind (Ugly Duckling Press, 155 pages, $15), editor Julien Poirier asks, "Why does literature consider Jack Micheline a joke if it considers him at all? When he puts everyone in the dark!" It isn’t conspiracy speech to claim there are no valid or easy answers to this question. As Micheline said: "Fuck fame sweetheart. It is so fleeting. This stupid thing called Fame. (power, money)." He was well aware that "it is a sad affair what Modern America does to its poets. Or what happens to poets in 20th-century America." He lived his art and life against such destructive forces.

Micheline died in 1998, riding a BART train to the end of the line. He loved trains, racetracks, cities, poets, musicians, artists, and women. He was at ease with the roiling mass of humanity. His friends ranged from Charles Bukowski and Charles Mingus to street hustlers and bookstore proprietors. Late in life he became a prolific painter, and One of a Kind includes several reproductions of black-and-white paintings and drawings alongside a healthy selection of previously uncollected (for the most part) prose and poetry. Micheline’s work is phallus-centered and action-oriented, but it can also allow gender to be an open question. Ultimately, one of his primary concerns is the inherent and often unnoticed beauty found in subtle gestures.

Micheline dug speech. The nonstop rapport of an active city street lifted him from within:

I walked in the streets of night

so no one could see my face

and heard beautiful sounds

If you don’t know Micheline’s work, read One of a Kind. (If you do, read it too.) Micheline is an essential tick at the center of humanity. His poems don’t solve problems, but they celebrate and provide attentive insight into what it means to truly live. Hearing them will do you good. Poirier’s introduction, taking the form of a personal letter addressed to Micheline, is a treasure in itself. The intuitive care he’s given to Micheline’s poetry is clear. As an editor and fellow poet, he possesses the wonder necessary to assemble this book, yet true to his hope, the reward belongs to Micheline. This is the book Jack Micheline was working on for all those years.