Sunday, September 20, 2009

On the Making of Art Objects

So, don’t really be thinking of Guston’s work when reading this, that will reduce it too much, I think. Also, don’t be thinking of painting either, at least not specifically. I mean, you can and all, but if you think of the making of art in general, I think it works best. Or think about yourself. Think about what you do. How you approach things. How you approach the museum or the page. The stance of the artist, maybe. That might be best. Or maybe just life in general. Driving a car across Kansas. Counting buildings in Chicago. And always be nice to the people you meet there.

Faith, Hope, and Impossibility
Philip Guston
Originally published in Art News Annual XXXI, 1966.
Adapted from notes for a lecture at the New York Studio School in May 1965.

There are so many things in the world—in the cities—so much to see. Does art need to represent this variety and contribute to its proliferation? Can art be that free? The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make.

To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid the familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending, baffling chain which never seems to finish. (What a sympathy is demanded of the viewer! He is asked to “see” the future links.)

For me the most relevant question and perhaps the only one is, “When are you finished?” When do you stop? Or rather, why stop at all? But you have to rest somewhere. Of course you can stay on one surface all your life, like Balzac’s Frenhofer. And all your life’s work can be seen as one picture—but that is merely “true.” There are places where you pause.

Thus it might be argued that when a painting is “finished,” it is a compromise. But the conditions under which the compromise is made are what matters. Decisions to settle anywhere are intolerable. But you feel as you go on working that unless painting proves its right to exist by being critical and self-judging, it has no reason to exist at all—or is not even possible.

The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury, and judge. Art without a trial disappears at a glance: it is too primitive or hopeful, or mere notions, or simply startling, or just another means to make life bearable.

You cannot settle out of court. You are faced with what seems like an impossibility—fixing an image which you can tolerate. What can be Where? Erasures and destructions, criticisms and judgments of one’s acts, even as they force change in oneself, are still preparations merely reflecting the mind’s will and movement. There is a burden here, and it is the weight of the familiar. Yet this is the material of a working which from time to time needs to see itself; even though it is reluctant to appear.

To will a new form is inacceptable, because will builds distortion. Desire, too, is incomplete and arbitrary. These strategies, however intimate they might become, must especially be removed to clear the way for something else—a condition somewhat unclear, but which in retrospect becomes a very precise act. This “thing” is recognized only as it comes into existence. It resists analysis—and probably this is as it should be. Possibly the moral is that art cannot and should not be made.

All these troubles revolve around the irritable mutual dependence of life and art—with their need and contempt for one another. Of necessity, to create is a temporary state and cannot be possessed, because you learn and relearn that it is the lie and mask of Art and, too, its mortification, which promise a continuity.


There are twenty crucial minutes in the evolution of each of my paintings. The closer I get to that time—those twenty minutes—the more intensely subjective I become—but the more objective, too. Your eye gets sharper; you become continuously more and more critical.

There is no measure I can hold on to except this scant half-hour of making.

One of the great mysteries about the past is that such masters as Mantegna were able to sustain this emotion for a year.

The problem, of course, is far more complex that mere duration of “inspiration.” There were pre-images in the fifteenth century, foreknowledge of what was going to be brought into existence. Maybe my pre-image is unknown to me, but today it is impossible to act as if pre-imaging is possible.

Many works of the past (and of the present) complete what they announce they are going to do, to our increasing boredom. Certain others plague me because I cannot follow their intentions. I can tell at a glance what Fabritius is doing, but I am spending my life trying to find out what Rembrandt was up to.

I have a studio in the country—in the woods—but my paintings look more real to me than what is outdoors. You walk outside; the rocks are inert; even the clouds are inert. It makes me feel a little better. But I do have faith that it is possible to make a living thing, not a diagram of what I have been thinking: to posit with paint something living, something that changes each day.


Everyone destroys marvelous paintings. Five years ago you wiped out what you are about to start tomorrow.

Where do you put a form? It will move all around, bellow out and shrink, and sometimes it winds up where it was in the first place. But at the end it feels different, and it had to make the voyage. I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.

Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing.


Two artists always fascinate me—Piero della Francesca and Rembrandt. I am fixed on those two and their insoluble opposition. Piero is the ideal painter: he pursued abstraction, some kind of fantastic, metaphysical , perfect organism. In Rembrandt, the plane of art is removed. It is not a painting, but a real person—a substitute, a golem. He is really the only painter in the world!

Certain artists do something and new emotion is brought into the world; its real meaning lies outside of history and the chains of causality.

Human consciousness moves, but it is not a leap: it is one inch. One inch is a small jump, but that jump is everything. You go way out and then you have to come back—to see if you can move that inch.


I do not think of modern art as Modern Art. The problem started long ago, and the question is: Can there be any art at all?

Maybe this is the content of modern art.



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