Guston’s Difficulta

Michelangelo, detail of Jonah from The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1471 – 1484.

Experiment Station readers may recall my recent post on Philip Guston in relation to Bob Dylan. Washington City Paper‘s subsequent pairing of that piece with another post on Guston by my colleague Brooke prompted me to consider a term from the Italian Renaissance, Difficulta. This expression referred to a practice of artists of the period to depict a scene of self-conscious complexity, so as to show the artist’s mastery of their craft. The example most often described in art history is Michelangelo’s portrayal on the Sistine Ceiling of the prophet Jonah moments after he has been disgorged by the whale. The representation of these awkward, writhing figures so that they would appear gracefully and beautifully rendered was a way of visually boasting and showing one’s artistic prowess.

What does this have to do with Guston’s art, particularly the Phillips’s current exhibition Roma? Well in short, Guston’s art is a 20th century version of difficulta, where the artist sets up deliberate challenges that he strove to overcome. Continue reading “Guston’s Difficulta” »

An American Watermark in Roma

Detail, Cerveteri, 1971-1972, Oil on paper mounted on panel, 58.4 x 73.7 cm; Private Collection, California.

Dismayed by the critical response to his Marlborough Gallery exhibition in New York, Philip Guston did not bring any art supplies with him when he arrived for a six month sojourn as artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. It was several months before he regained the creative energy necessary to embark on the Roma series, and he purchased his art supplies within walking distance of where he was staying. Guston selected Fabriano paper, made in Italy, as the support for most of the Roma paintings.

However Guston’s Cerveteri, which depicts an Italian hill town, is dated 1971-1972 and has a Strathmore watermark, identifying it as an American-made paper. Might Guston have made this work after he returned to his studio in Woodstock, New York in May 1971, demonstrating his continuing preoccupation with themes he explored in the Roma series, as curator Peter Benson Miller proposed ?

Karen Schneider, Librarian

Philip Guston: Slipping through My Fingers

Philip Guston. Residue, 1971. Oil on paper. Private Collection. © Estate of Philip Guston; image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, NY

After giving 3 hour-long tours of Philip Guston, Roma, I’ll be honest; I have trouble with his artwork. Guston’s paintings are profoundly personal statements with objects that I recognize. Almost as soon as I see them I can say: I see a shoe; I see a fountain; I see a hood. Yet as soon as I think I understand what he wants to communicate, it slips through my fingers. His meanings are multi-veiled and intangible. I get that looking at art is not just about “getting it.”  But I keep coming back to Guston’s enigmas, and I’m puzzled; I’m asking new questions; I’m talking about it; I’m confused. One thing is for sure—I’m engaged.