Sue Hub­bard

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The Deep Heart’s Core

Philip Gus­ton and the The Po­ets, Gal­lerie Dell’Ac­cademia di Venezia, Venice, 10 May 2017 - 3 Septem­ber 2017

Among the mad, the bad and the oc­ca­sion­ally won­der­ful work that makes up this year’s Venice bi­en­nale, one ex­hi­bi­tion stands out for its in­tel­li­gence, depth and vis­ual alchemy: Philip Gus­ton & The Po­ets at the Gal­lerie della’Ac­cademia. Philip Gus­ton, born Philip Gold­stein in 1913, is cel­e­brated in the United States, where he is well rep­re­sented in ma­jor mu­se­ums but is less known, out­side the art world, in Italy and the UK. That Gus­ton loved Italy and revered its pan­theon of great painters makes his pres­ence in Venice even more per­ti­nent.

His late paint­ings are a chal­lenge. In Oc­to­ber 1970 the Marl­bor­ough Gallery, in New York, mounted a sem­i­nal ex­hi­bi­tion of thirty-three paint­ings and eight draw­ings that marked his break with ab­strac­tion and his re­turn to fig­u­ra­tion. In the 1960s Gus­ton had said, some­what hereti­cally in an art world dom­i­nated by Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism and the mots justes of its guru Cle­ment Green­berg, that:

there is some­thing ridicu­lous and miserly about the myth we in­herit from ab­stract art. That paint­ing is au­ton­o­mous, pure and for it­self, there­fore we ha­bit­u­ally an­a­lyse its in­gre­di­ents and de­fine its lim­its. But paint­ing is ‘im­pure’. It is the ad­just­ment of ‘im­pu­ri­ties’ which forces its con­ti­nu­ity. We are im­age-mak­ers and im­age-rid­den.

The Marl­bor­ough show re­ceived scathing re­views. It’s hard, now, to imag­ine the sense of out­rage at the ap­par­ent ef­fron­tery of Gus­ton’s car­toon­ish iconog­ra­phy from those for whom ab­strac­tion was vir­tu­ally a reli­gion. Few, even such emi­nent crit­ics as Robert Hughes, un­der­stood what he was do­ing. Though Willem de Koon­ing had an inkling that it was ‘about

free­dom’. Es­cap­ing from the re­sult­ing brouhaha to the Amer­i­can Academy in Rome, Gus­ton took com­fort in the tra­di­tional iconog­ra­phy of ex-voto im­agery and Ital­ian paint­ing with its el­e­ments of ev­ery­day life. Pan­theon, his 1973 paint­ing, con­tains, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter Musa Mayer, ‘two of his peren­nial stu­dio sym­bols: an easel hold­ing a primed, wait­ing can­vas, and a naked light bulb, the source of il­lu­mi­na­tion for an artist who painted at night…[along with] the names of five artists…: Masac­cio, Piero, Giotto, Tiepolo and de Chirico’ that, like graf­fiti, can be read as both protes­ta­tion and credo.

By show­ing Gus­ton’s vis­ceral works along­side texts from: D. H. Lawrence, W. B Yeats, Wal­lace Stevens, Eu­ge­nio Mon­tale and T.S. Eliot, this won­der­ful ex­hi­bi­tion ex­pands our com­pre­hen­sion of Gus­ton’s pic­to­rial thought pro­cesses. His fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage of ob­jects, his iconog­ra­phy of com­mon things: shoes, heads, cig­a­rettes and eyes can best be un­der­stood in re­la­tion­ship to the poetic prin­ci­ples of these five great lit­er­ary gi­ants of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury for whom po­etry was, as paint­ing was for him, pri­mar­ily a search for mean­ing rather than a means of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The move­ment away from syn­tac­ti­cal struc­ture to a search for sig­nif­i­cance be­yond the ar­range­ment of words, par­al­lels the in­her­ent quest within Gus­ton’s own im­agery, which moves from ob­ser­va­tion to see­ing, from feel­ing to know­ing. In Mon­tale’s words it was a pur­suit for ‘Knowl­edge of an ob­scure world we feel around us but which in re­al­ity has its deep roots within us’.

Po­etry, un­like prose, is the lan­guage of vi­sion and mys­ti­cism, of rit­ual and prayer. At its most pro­found it touches what Yeats called the ‘deep heart’s core’. Gus­ton’s im­ages merge ob­jects from Piero della Francesca with the comic strip, Klu Klux Klan fig­ures and those from pop­u­lar cul­ture, along with lit­er­ary ref­er­ences to form a vo­cab­u­lary of pre­vi­ously un­for­mu­lated ideas. These reach to­wards mean­ing through a process of ex­plo­ration that echoes Eliot’s gnomic lines: ‘… and the end of all our ex­plor­ing will be to ar­rive where we started and know the place for the first time’.

Where did this sense of spir­i­tual quest come from? It’s tempt­ing to spec­u­late that it was coloured by his Jewish sen­si­bil­ity. Gus­ton’s Ukrainian Jewish

par­ents es­caped per­se­cu­tion to em­i­grate to Canada from the Ukraine. When the fam­ily moved to Los An­ge­les the young Gus­ton was fully aware of the Klu Klux Klan’s ac­tiv­i­ties against Jews and blacks. It was against this back­ground of per­se­cu­tion and in­creas­ing fi­nan­cial pres­sure that, in 1923, his fa­ther hanged him­self in the shed, to be found by his son. It’s hard, with this knowl­edge, not to see Gus­ton’s lexicon of Klans­men, light­bulbs, shoes, cig­a­rettes and clocks, and the clus­ters of tragic heads round as pol­ished boul­ders, against this back­ground of do­mes­tic grief and anx­i­ety. That this was also fu­elled by the haunt­ing news­reel im­ages of the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz - the piles of aban­doned shoes and tan­gled bod­ies – would hardly be sur­pris­ing.

To paint, to write a poem is a form of rea­son­ing. A philo­soph­i­cal quest made man­i­fest through the ar­range­ment of paint or the se­quence of words. As Kosme de Barañano notes in his cat­a­logue es­say to the ex­hi­bi­tion, Gus­ton uses the graphic syn­the­sis of comics, mixed with the ‘mag­nif­i­cent night­mares’ of Masac­cio and the mys­te­ri­ous light of Piero, as the poet Wil­liam Car­los Williams uses pop­u­lar rhymes and ev­ery­day ex­pres­sions. To see Gus­ton’s wheels and light­bulbs, his paint­brushes and easels is not to be shown a still life or a do­mes­tic in­te­rior but rather the ‘stu­dio’ of the artist’s mind, his very thought pro­cesses.

This de­sire to com­mu­ni­cate and transcend the ba­nal is not only the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind much cre­ativ­ity but is also ap­par­ent in many spir­i­tual prac­tices. Barañano sug­gests that Yeats’s poem Byzan­tium (1930) presents the ‘same in­trigu­ing iconog­ra­phy as Gus­ton’s paint­ings’. Yeats’s poem, the tale of a jour­ney, seeks to bring to­gether aes­thet­ics, spir­i­tu­al­ism and mys­ti­cism by means of a se­ries of sym­bols and metaphors. It’s a poem that de­scribes the act of writ­ing a poem, just as Gus­ton’s The Line (1978) is a vis­ual metaphor of artis­tic cre­ation that makes man­i­fest a jour­ney of sel­f­re­al­i­sa­tion in paint. Here two fingers poke from a cloud to draw a line along the red plain at the bot­tom of the can­vas in a sort of sec­u­lar ex­is­ten­tial ver­sion of Michelan­gelo’s Fin­ger of God in the Sis­tine Chapel reach­ing out to breathe life into Adam, the first man.

Gus­ton con­curs with Wal­lace Stevens’s sen­te­ments that ‘A poem need not have a mean­ing and like most things in na­ture of­ten does not have’. A Stevens’ poem, with its se­ries of of­ten un­fath­omable and sur­pris­ing im­ages, is an ex­plo­ration, a way of think­ing about the world rather than an ex­pla­na­tion. A reach­ing and a grop­ing to­wards. Un­like the physi­cist or the car­tog­ra­pher the pur­pose of cre­ativ­ity, here, is to not to name or cat­e­gorise but to cre­ate an equiv­a­lence of a par­tic­u­lar state of mind. It’s a search not for what is al­ready known, but for what’s as yet un­known. In his poem ‘Of Mod­ern Po­etry’ Stevens sums it up thus: ‘The poem of the mind in the act of find­ing/What will suf­fice’. While in the in­tro­duc­tion to his poem in Amer­ica’s 93 Great­est Liv­ing Au­thors Present this is My Best, he wrote: ‘po­etry is po­etry, and one’s ob­jec­tive as a poet is to achieve po­etry, pre­cisely as one’s ob­jec­tive in mu­sic is to achieve mu­sic’. This very much chimes with Gus­ton’s thoughts ex­pressed in 1960 dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion at the Philadel­phia Mu­seum School of Art: ‘Isn’t it so that the sonata is above all an im­age? An im­age of what? We don’t know, which is why we con­tinue lis­ten­ing to it’. The pur­pose of mu­sic, like mod­ernist paint­ing, is to reach be­yond log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion into the med­i­ta­tive and in­tro­spec­tive hin­ter­land found in the best po­ems.

Gus­ton’s is a po­et­i­cised uni­verse. His enig­matic im­ages, with their fleshy Bac­cha­na­lian pinks, reach back to mem­o­ries of Ro­man fres­coes, while his ev­ery­day ob­jects take on the weight of ob­scure sym­bols and metaphors, so that Eliot’s lines: ‘We had the ex­pe­ri­ence but missed the mean­ing’ seem par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent. Gus­ton’s per­sonal mythol­ogy of dreams and night­mares seem to have been con­jured, as a shaman may elicit vi­sions, from deep within his sub­con­scious, in his night stu­dio.

Among the razzmatazz of Venice this in­tel­li­gent ex­hi­bi­tion re­minds us of the deep­est pur­poses of art and po­etry. As the mythol­o­gist Joseph Camp­bell wrote in The Hero’s Jour­ney: Joseph Camp­bell on His Life and Work:

The outer world is what you get in schol­ar­ship, the in­ner world is your re­sponse to it. And it is there where these come to­gether that we have the myths….The mytho­log­i­cal sys­tems are a con­stant, and

what you are rec­og­niz­ing is your own in­ward life, and at the same time the in­flec­tion of his­tory.

Through his un­likely meld­ing of the comic book and the ev­ery­day, Gus­ton touches that deep place sought not only by the po­ets but by the blues mu­si­cian and the singer of Por­tuguese fado. It’s the story of the pain and ab­sur­dity of life, that jour­ney into the cen­tre of the self. For the sear­ing work cre­ated at the end of his life – the pro­file of a supine man, his eyes wide open, per­haps, on his death bed – Gus­ton takes as his ti­tle Eliot’s East Coker. In the dark sur­round­ing space the pes­simism is pal­pa­ble: ‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait with­out hope’. With the white sheets drawn tight un­der his chin, the stub­ble-faced man with the sharp nose stares at the ceil­ing as if read­ing writ­ten on it the lines: ‘In my be­gin­ning is my end. In my end is my be­gin­ning’. Gus­ton died in Wood­stock in 1980.

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