September 6, 2009

99% Of The People

Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973
oil on canvas by Philip Guston

"Painting and sculpture are very archaic forms. It's the only thing left in our industrial society where an individual alone can make something with not just his own hands, but brains, imagination, heart maybe. It's a very archaic form. Same thing can be said with words, writing poetry, making sounds, music. It is a unique thing. Just imagine, 99% of the people just report somewhere, are digits, go to an office, clear a desk, get plastered and then they do the same thing the next day. So what is this funny activity that you do? What is it? I think that the original revolutionary impulse behind the New York School, as I felt it anyway, and as I think my colleagues felt and the way we talked all the time, was a kind of a ... you felt as if you were driven into a corner against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture, there are plenty of pictures in the world - why clutter up the world with pictures? - it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible. Whether it was just possible. It felt to me as if you were on trial. I'm speaking very subjectively. I felt as if I was talking to myself, having a dialectical monologue with myself to see if I could create. 

... But there comes a point when something catches on the canvas, something grips on the canvas. I don't know what it is, you can put your paint on a surface? Most of the time it looks like paint, and who the hell wants paint on a surface? But there does come a time - you take it off, put it on, goes over here, moves over a foot, as you go closer you start moving in inches not feet, half-inches - 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 this, maybe in parts of canvas. Maybe you can do it by painting a face, an eye, a nose, or an apple. It doesn't matter. What counts is that the paint should really disappear, otherwise it's craft. That's what I mean by something grips in a canvas.

The moment that happens you are then sucked into the whole thing. Like some kind of rhythm. I don't mean a dancing rhythm, or action painting rhythm. I mean you're psychologically sucked in and the thing, this plane, starts acquiring a life of its own. Then you're a goner. Then if you're lucky you have a run of 2 or 3 hours. Then you can't repair it, you can't fix it, and you feel as if you've made a living thing. All I can tell you is what it feels like when you leave the studio. You know, I have all kinds of wonderful ideas ... a little green there, a little blue there, and you proceed to do it. And then you leave the studio, it's like you have a bunch of rocks in your stomach. You can't stand to see illustrations of your ideas.

Well then, all the trouble starts and dissatisfaction starts. You go back, scrape it out and move it around, move it around. And then there comes a time, if you persevere long enough, where the paint seems alive, seems actually living and there's some kind of release. Lots of artists who paint have that experience to one degree or another, this release where their thinking doesn't precede their doing. The space is shortened between thinking and doing. It's a funny thing, what I really hate, yet I have to go through with it, is the preparation. You have to go through it, like somebody preparing for sacred vows, the sensation of you putting paint on, and it's so boring to put paint on and to see yourself putting paint on. You're really preparing for those few hours where some kind of umbilical cord is attached between you and it. You do it and the work is done and this cord seems to slacken, as if you left yourself there. And what a relief to leave yourself somewhere, to get out of it entirely. And then you leave the studio and those rocks aren't there anymore. 

... Once you've tasted that or experienced that, it's hard to settle for anything else. Also I'm not convinced that it's a good thing either. I don't propose this as a great value. In some way I think it's like devil's work. Man is not supposed to make life. Only God can make a tree. Why should you make a living organism? You should make images of living organisms. It seems presumptuous to attempt to make a thing which breathes and pulsates right there by itself. It's unnatural. What's inhuman about it is, the human way to create, I think, is the way we see, from part to part. You do this and then you do that, then you do that and that. Then you learn about composition, you learn about old masters, you form certain ideas about structure. But the inhuman activity of trying to make some kind of jump or leap, where even though you naturally have to paint, after all a painting is only a painting, the painting is always saying, what do you want from me, I can only be a painting, you have to go from part to part,  but you shouldn't see yourself go from part to part, that's the whole point. That's some kind of a leap. You can be painting over here and seeing the whole world. That rectangle or square is the whole world, that's reality. I'm describing the process of painting." - Philip Guston, 1966

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