Brenda Goodman on The Guston Curse

Philip Guston Painting, Eating, Smoking  1973  oil on canvas  77.5x103.5Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973, Oil on Canvas, 77.5 x 103.5 inches

In the early 70’s, I was working with a set of personal symbols that represented myself, my emotions, and important people in my life. Sometimes, a drawing would even include notes to myself and a record of important dates. So, my work was quite personal and diaristic — a direct expression of my most inner thoughts and feelings. But sometimes, an intruder would come into my world. It might happen like this: I would be painting myself lying on the floor of my studio with the things in my life heaped on top of me. It was very personal and meaningful. But suddenly- Oh no! There’s a light bulb and cord hanging down. Oh no! I’m lying on my back. Is it too much like the Guston painting of him in bed with a plate of French fries on top of him? OK, I knew I loved Guston’s paintings—they spoke to me. But it’s my story, my experience, my images. Still, I couldn’t get away from it—theres something about Guston.

It never goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t show up much; sometimes it shows up a lot; and sometimes, in happier moments, it’s not there at all. Yes, it’s The Guston Curse. You know what I’m talking about.

It wasn’t just the symbols. For a very long time I have painted blocks of color piled on top of each other. The color was not Guston, the shapes were mostly not Guston, and the paint handling was certainly not Guston but people still had to say–“Oh I see Guston in there.” It was my DNA coming out, not his, but when you resonate with an artist the connection is there. I used to be more defensive about it. As soon as a studio visitor would say “Guston,” I would say- “if I was older and Guston was younger they would say his work looks like a Goodman!” I don’t do that anymore. If it comes up I just say thank you.

Once, when I was going through the torture of giving up smoking, I did a painting of me smoking. Someone came into my studio and said, “You can’t do that- Guston already did that!” Very few artists can use red, black and white anymore without a reference to Guston no matter how different the work is. Another time I was going through a lot of anxiety about the telephone and waiting for special calls. I did some telephone pieces and then one day I was looking at a book of still lifes by different artists and lo and behold there is a Guston painting with the same black telephone called Anxiety. Grrr!

David McKee, who represented Guston, came to my studio in the early 80’s. I was doing a series of symbolic boats with my whole life packed into the boat shape. I was ready to give up the symbols and journey to a new place. He looked at the paintings and said the hair on his arms stood up. He said Guston did a series of boat paintings that had never been seen but, emotionally and compositionally, my boats had a similar feeling. Maybe a year later I was at his gallery and asked if I could see an image of one of those boat paintings. It took me aback.

If you have an affinity with an artist, it’s just that- an affinity. And it’s a good thing if you allow it. Guston had influences too!—DeChirico, R. Crumb, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics. And I’m an artist who has had a lot of influences–from Morandi to Dubuffet with many in between. But Guston – he has a special hold on me. The Guston connection isn’t pronounced anymore but even last week I was working on a painting with a sideways abstracted head with its nose to the ground. In the back of my mind a Guston painting popped in of a head to the ground. I ran to my Guston books and found the painting. Whew! There was very little connection that others might see, and I was relieved. No matter how different my work has become, I still find The Guston Curse to be a reality many of us painters have to cope with.

Several years ago, Musa, Guston’s daughter, invited me to his home/studio in Woodstock. I was thrilled to be sitting in his space. She opened a cabinet and in it were about 200 small tubes of Grumbacher cadmium red medium. She said I should take what I like. Being polite, I took just one. When I got home I thought I should have taken another one – one to save and one to paint with. But, oh! I forgot….I can’t use that red—especially one owned by Guston – then it might REALLY look like a Guston! Ah, The Guston Curse.

5-not-a-leg-to-stand-on-1 2Brenda Goodman, Not a Leg to Stand On, 2013, Oil on Wood, 72 x 80 inches


Doron Langberg on Jess

0624200510580004Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins), The Enamored Mage: Tranlation #6, 1962, Oil on canvas mounted on plywood, 24 1/2 x 30 inches

When I saw “The Enamored Mage” in person I was completely transfixed. Painted with heavy impasto, the protrusions of paint gush out of the surface, some following the image, some swelling under it. Slightly deflated and glossy, the shapes of color look simultaneously decomposed and bejeweled, like a Technicolor fungus growing out of the intricate netting of incised lines. Looking at the painting, my first thought was how was this made? For a painting so physical, there is no trace of brush marks or even layering of paint. The longer I tried to decode Jess’s process, the more I became mystified by it.

This painting is part of the “Translations” series of 32 paintings, all dedicated to the Sun.  Each painting is a meticulous interpretation of a single image, pulled from Jess’s huge archive of magazines, children’s books, comic strips, found photographs and photographs from his personal family album. “The Enamored Mage” is based off of a photo of Jess’s partner, the poet Robert Duncan. This reference photo is the only one in the Translations series that Jess took himself, and depicts Duncan in their home amidst his books.

In the painting, the theme of Sun and light is hinted at by the two burning candles, the Tiffany lamp, the window in the background and the “Zohar” books, which means ‘glow’ in Hebrew. Although usually faithful to the tonal structure of the reference photo, this time Jess made some interventions- he added flames to the two candles, which strangely do not emit light, and toned down the light that was hitting the books. In doing so, Jess made Duncan’s portrait seem to illuminate the room, reflecting on the edge of the desk below him like a celestial body rising over a lake.

Duncan is not only the subject and light source of the painting. His poem “The Ballad of the Enamored Mage” is referenced in the painting’s enigmatic title. The last few lines of the first verse of the poem read:

How all Forms in Time will grow
And return to their single Source
Informed by Grief, Joy, insatiable Desire
And cold Remorse

By invoking Ecclesiastes’ “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return,” Duncan meditates on the bond between material and spirit. This belief that material, whether pigment or images, holds within it emotional meaning was essential to Jess’s practice. Jess saw his paintings as “salvages”. By painting the otherwise forgotten images he appropriated, he continued their life cycle, imbuing them with his own thoughts, experiences and feelings.

Through painstaking care, the intense and inexplicable surface of “The Enamored Mage” comes to embody Jess’s love for Duncan. This painting is a tribute to their relationship, their shared passions and the home they made for themselves. But ironically the ‘light’ of Jess and Duncan’s love had to exist behind closed doors. Homosexuality would remain criminal in California for more than a decade after this painting was made. Maybe Jess’s obsession with the Sun was an expression of his desire to live his life out in the open. Or rather, maybe painting “The Enamored Mage” was his way of bringing the Sun into his home, in the form of his beloved Duncan.

*Biographical information taken from- Michael Auping, “Jess: A Grand Collage”

Drifting OffDoron Langberg, Drifting Off, 2014, Oil on linen, 70 x 55 inches

Carolee Schneemann on Arthur B. Carles

Carles AbstractionArthur B. Carles,  Abstraction, 1935-40, Oil on canvas, 38 1/2 x 51 inches

How did I manage to get to the great museum on the parkway, perched like a castle above the two rivers? Did the Reading Railroad stop at Market Street, or was it 30th Street? In any case, I could walk along the parkway, finding the elongated steps to the museum cluttered with seductive people playing guitars, reading poetry, smoking French cigarettes, always welcoming.

I would slip into the great halls, wandering through the amazing spaces where an Egyptian shrine would be next to a Medieval bedroom. There I could rub my hands along the sides of an ancient wooden bed before entering a room of sculptures and fetishes from Africa.

I wandered freely, the rooms seemed shadowed, full of subtle, shifting light. My anonymous voyage within sculptures, paintings, vases, tapestries shifted suddenly one day when I followed a staircase down to modern classrooms. I was following an intoxicating aroma. I have tried at many contemporary events to offer this enchantment. It filled me with an ecstatic excitement and I followed it to an open door. There I stood fascinated to see a group of people at easels all giving their attention to a still life of transparent glass bottles and piles of oranges and bananas. They were oil painting! My elixir was turpentine!

The teacher came to the open door and asked if I would like to come in. He set up an easel with a tablet and put out drawing pencils. I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe I had entered this sacred arcana. It was all I could desire and hope for. The teacher’s name was “Blackie,” Morris Blackburn. He invited me to come back whenever I could. One Saturday I managed to travel again. I followed the stairs back down to the painting class. The teacher asked us to come around and stand in a circle. He was holding a brown paper lunch bag. He tore the paper bag into many small pieces, which shifted between his hands and then he threw them on to the floor in front of us. And then he asked, “What is the purpose of these torn up paper pieces?” The adults looked perplexed. I actually raised my hand and said, “Is it to show the rhythm between all the pieces?” Blackie grinned with delight. He said, “Yes, this is gestalt.”

I saved babysitting money and took the train to the museum whenever I could escape from home. No one bothered a kid in knee socks and ballet slippers with a small rucksack. I discovered gallery after gallery of paintings, dazzled by impressionists, abstractionists, and –because the year was 1954 — the influences of European abstraction and American expressionism were raw. I fell in love with the paintings of Arthur B. Carles.

Over time, Carles sustained my initial excitement, then indeed he uniquely bridged traditional convention and the aesthetic dynamics that would be celebrated in the 60s and 70s. His near-disappearance from aesthetic history and discussion has always pained me. I felt I was alone within this visual realm of exquisite painting — vigorous, risky, luscious, and always enlarging a concept of gestalt.

1961 TenebrationCarolee Schneemann, Tenebration, 1961Painting collage, Oil on canvas, 52.5 x 46 inches
Dedicated to James Tenney


Ellen Harvey on Rogier Van der Weyden

Weyden010Rogier Van der Weyden, Last Judgement, c. 1445–1450, Oil on oak, 87 x 216 inches

This rather battered old reproduction hangs in my studio. I’ve owned it since I was five, which is when I first and last saw the original. This is the painting that made me want to be an artist.

The painting is Rogier Van der Weyden’s Last Judgment, also sometimes known as the Beaune Altarpiece. According to Wikipedia, he was commissioned to paint it in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his newly founded Hospices de Beaune. After it was finished around 1450, it was hung in the hospital, with beds for those too sick to walk (and presumably most in need of contemplating their spiritual fate) placed directly in front of the painting.

Like many altarpieces, the painting can be folded shut. When open it’s over 7 feet tall by about 18 ft wide. The outside shutters show the donors, Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins, and grisaille scenes of the Annunciation and of Saint Anthony (good for skin diseases) and Saint Sebastian (good against the plague). The inside of the painting, which would only have been shown on special occasions, shows the risen wounded Christ surrounded by angels bearing the instruments of his passion, seated on a rainbow. Below him, the Archangel Michael weighs the souls of the dead. The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist and the twelve apostles accompanied by portraits of three women, a king, bishop, a pope, and a monk sit on fiery clouds on either side. The dead, who rise up out of the ground at Michael’s feet, are weighed and then progress either towards heaven on the left side of the panel, depicted as a golden Gothic church, or on the right towards the fiery pit of hell, weeping and tearing at their hair and flesh.

We were living in Germany at the time and were on holiday in France. I remember nothing of that trip apart from this painting. I recall begging to be allowed to stay with it at the hospital and being left behind with an accommodating priest. Unlikely as it sounds, it’s apparently an accurate memory. I can’t remember actually seeing the painting, just that it was impossibly large, frightening, detailed and glamorous. It swallowed me up. I didn’t just want to own it. I wanted to live inside it. I wanted to make something just like it.

I’ve often wondered what it was about this painting that so captivated me. In part, there’s the sheer visual spectacle of the piece: the gold, Michael’s peacock wings, the sense that you could simply step into this other richly detailed world where everything is burning and glittering forever. I remember particularly loving the red hot sword that floats at Christ’s left hand. The sheer labor and size of the painting also impresses – the fact that Van der Weyden took such trouble, such care to make this immersive experience just for you. It makes you feel how important the subject is. And what a subject! Who can resist the high drama of the Day of Judgment, that final moment of narrative collapse? I feel an immense sympathy with the desire for immortality and what I fear is a prophetic sense of fellow-feeling for the damned who (interestingly enough) far outnumber the saved in Van der Weyden’s vision. It’s also sad – it’s a kind of painting that just can’t exist any more. The apocalypse now only really exists in the movies. Even if you could paint like Van der Weyden it wouldn’t work. No painting or installation of mine, no matter how large or beautiful will ever move the dying to repentance or save a soul. I look at this painting and know that I will forever fall short.

I’ve never been back to Beaune. I think I’m afraid to.

CompositesmallcroppedflatEllen Harvey, The Unloved (all four panels), 2014, Oil on four wood panels, inlaid plexiglas mirror, together 9 x 70 feet, Photo by Dominique Prevost

unnamedThe Unloved (detail)

Austin Furtak-Cole on Duccio di Buoninsegna

tumblr_mpm7lgFOGp1rqcv5do1_1280 (1)Duccio di Buoninsegna, Rucellai Madonna, 1285, Tempera on panel, 177 x 114 inches

I was introduced to this painting in an undergraduate art history survey class and didn’t think much of it. My young self was unable to get excited about an awkward religious painting in a three by four inch reproduction in the fourth edition of a Stockstad art history book.

After college, I saw it in person for the first time. I traveled around Europe for three months with the soft goal to see, in the flesh, as many of the reproductions from that art history book as possible. I remember seeing this Duccio at the Uffizi then, but like a lot of the work I saw on that trip, I simply checked it off the list – I knew it was important, but I didn’t know how to spend time with it.

In summer 2013, I went back to the Uffizi. The first room I walked into had three epic mother and child paintings by Cimmabue, Giotto, and Duccio. This time the Duccio hit me. Its presence rooted me to the floor. There are times when a painting stops the world around me for a moment and all I can do is stare back in wonder at this thing that holds me. How could he make such a thing? I can’t imagine making that painting. I can’t imagine being in the mind of Duccio as he makes this immaculate thing – to have faith, to be enthralled by a religion and its icons and then to paint, immortalize them, giving the people who believe a little something to grasp onto beyond their faith.

Our time allows less of that. Or at least in my experience there is less to have faith in, to grasp, and to believe. Or maybe it’s more that there is choice, or the illusion of choice. The structures that help us feel human and make us feel like we have purpose have changed over time, perhaps giving more responsibility to the individual to decide how they find purpose.

Recently, in making my work, I’ve felt my own presence. The paintings hold me; my insides can flutter at those moments. I am present in making the painting and thus the painting gains presence. I imbue them with meaning as I give them my touch. Or at least I’d like to think so.

detailRucellai Madonna (Detail)

Her hands are my favorite part of the Rucellai Madonna. They are alien, otherworldly. I am familiar with them, I know they are hands, but they confuse me. It intensifies what they symbolize. Her head is like this too, as if a ripe, full moon were rising under the hood of her robe; her face at that strange angle, staring back at us with a gentle awareness. The roundness of her head draws attention to her halo. Every figure in this painting has a halo. The angels are kneeling. The angels are in awe! Think of the gravity of that. Their gold-feathered wings tucked.

But those hands, Mary’s hands, they are tender. Warmhearted. They hold baby Jesus with the utmost care, with a sensitive touch. Those long tendrils love.

Although the memory of that painting remained when I left the Uffizi, I wanted a token to remember it by, a post card or print. I purchased one but felt unsatisfied. Nothing came close to reproducing the incredible deep blue of her robe.

SONY DSCAustin Furtak-Cole,  Lover,  2013, Oil on Panel, 16 x 16 inches

Virginia Wagner on Wangechi Mutu

for blogWangechi Mutu, My Strength Lies, 2006, Ink, Acrylic, Photo Collage on Mylar, 90 x 54 inches (diptych).
Courtesy of the Artist.

It was a Lord of the Flies summer. I was coming from an undergraduate art program that served only to nurture the special seed inside each student and found myself immersed in Yale’s dog-eat-dog summer residency. Somewhere in the web of criticism, tangled social hierarchies, drunken critiques, and displaced aggression, I lost the thread of my work. The art I wanted to make was ridiculed so I made blind stabs at what might make the cut. I was failing based on criteria I couldn’t name or number.

June turned to July and we took a field trip to New York. The lot of us funneled through Sikkema Jenkins’ doors into Wangechi Mutu’s first solo exhibition there: An Alien Eye: And Other Killah Anthems. The work hit me like my native tongue in a sea of Jabberwocky-speak.

I walked through slowly, savoring the wonder that stirred. The two rooms were strung with giant landscapes on mylar, populated with hybrid, cyborg creatures engaged in life and death struggles. I was overwhelmed with a joyful sense of relief. Art wasn’t such a big mystery. Or, rather, the big mysteries were contained within the art. But knowing when art was powerful, when it was moving, was the most natural thing. I knew it when it struck me in the gut.

The work was easy to “get” but infinitely explorable. From across the room the pieces seemed to explode as colorful, inky blossoms. The vibrancy and roiling patterns drew me close, like a butterfly with the promise of nectar. Standing in front of a towering diptych, the terrible nature of the drama materialized from the attractive forms.

That diptych is called “My Strength Lies” and it commands the space and respect of a history painting. Its figures are epically proportioned within the frame. The in-your-face, larger-than-life protagonist looms above you; the scale shift suggests a large landscape; wild stormy skies hint at hazy, infinite depth.

The work seems to revolve around cycles of building and falling apart. The structure of the composition is circular – swinging your attention up a hill, where it scrambles onto a hairy mound, climbs a rickety tower and crosses a wooden beam to fall down a giantess and trace her leg to its stolen limb that sprays blood back up the hill.

detailWangechi Mutu, My Strength Lies (Detail)

The forms in the piece appear to be engaged in an all-consuming struggle to remain upright. But there is a sense of futility to their toil. Your strength lies where? In the ground, perhaps. The mass on the right panel is composed of the same substance as the giantess, but it is bent to the point of being broken, with its head planted in the soil. The woman constructing the tower relies on the foundation of this partially decomposed creature. The giantess draws from the downed body as well, carrying off its bloody limb.

The efforts to build stable structures involve human engineering, both in the wooden scaffolding of the ladder and the mechanical appendages of the giantess. But this technological armor is not infallible. The grounded figure also has mechanical and wooden augmentations and they didn’t stop it from toppling.

The piece is both detailed and hewn with reckless abandon. The speed and broad strokes of the process – the spray paint, ink spills, large cutout shapes – invoke the great forces of nature at work in the bodies and in the laws that govern the landscape. We see the inescapable cycles at play, but we also see that each player is infinitely, intricately unique. Mutu’s alchemical way of pouring inks, paint, and viscous liquids creates skins that are as multifaceted as our own.

Although the forms are bent, broken, and fated to fall, they are powerful. To hear Wangechi talk about her art, as we did that day, it is clear that the struggles taking place within it speak to us on many levels – about racial violence, sexual violence, human nature, the consequences of war, perseverance, rebirth. At the time, they spoke to me about creating. I saw the endless work, the infinite detail and attention that go into getting a piece of art to its feet. And yet we keep making images and objects despite creations that are, at best, incomplete hybrids of our intentions: at worst, fallen things. But the monstrous forms can still be magnificent and of real use to those that see them. So we pick up all of our odd parts and loose limbs and start again.

Fielding Terns Oil on canvas 56inx44in 2011Virginia Wagner, Fielding Terns, 2011, Oil on canvas, 56 x 44 inches

Julie Heffernan on Angela Dufresne

angela-dufresne-hot_50 by 60 inches_2012.Angela Dufresne, Some Like it Hot, 2012, Oil on canvas, 50 by 60 inches

A hot/cold interior, a crimson stage in the middle of a veiled blue vault, one lone, naked lady, tiny in scale but lit up—the lightest thing in the room– presiding over a vast and louche lounge. A large chandelier looms in front of her, but it’s clearly not the room’s light source. That part is played, rather, by her. She is the sun and it is her glowing form that sheds light, since the only lit part of the chandelier is on the side facing her; the other is in shadow, like a waxing crescent moon. Due to the canted perspective of the room the chandelier hangs off to the right in front of her, as if they are engaged in a conversation of light. The room roils as a sensuous interior space—a nightclub perhaps, with three perspectivally-receding rows of carnival lights, casting a blue glow and framing the woman inside a barrel vault of that thick cobalt luster. There’s a potted palm off to the side in the red darkness, the fingers of which are snaking into the blue curtained archway created by the first row of tiny lights. A few dark figures cluster in the immediate foreground, evidently her audience.

This is a strange room. It is a spatial outlier. Blue curtains advance in a way they shouldn’t and the red background, which should be coming forward–as the color red does–, instead anomalously recedes. Clearly different rules apply here. Everything is dark and glowing with alizarin phosphorescence.

What to make of this scene? It seems to me that a kind of birthing space is being presented here- the glowing reds behind the frosty blue curtain swag suggesting a radiating uterine warmth, full of vulval folds like rectilinear muscle walls, while the blue-lit barrel vault mimes the coldness of the birth passage, the cleaving from the mother, and the loss of that sonorous warm bloody bag of primal nurture. Numerous thin frosty glazes, like thick veils, separate the viewer from that warm beckoning far away place behind. It brings to mind Peter Sloterdijk’s description of the vulval shape of certain doorways in the East. He says, “Whoever believes in ritual acts of approach, that they are standing before this entrance of all entrances, or envisages it in symbolic imagination, is immediately affected by a suction that is meant to make the beholder’s senses reel….And in reality, as soon as the entrants pass through the grotto grate, they encounter the tropical night; and the fall of this exquisite night would mark the end of everything based on clearing, distance and concreteness. From now on, asking about the intimate has its price for the analytical intelligence too.”

We are off balance here, like swooning mendicants. Or newborns. We are transfixed by the tiny lady with her warm glow, but she seems to be making fools of us, wearing her silly duck bill of a mouth. We want to submit to her, follow her back into that memory of uterine sublimity as she and the chandelier orb, like a glowing ovum, gaze at each other in a continuous back and forth. But we know we would be foolish to do so; she would only lead us astray. Where’s the authentic mother in all of this, the one who’s supposed to notice us, tend to us? Why are we being messed with here?

We pause and recollect; maybe that’s all we get. Maybe this is about the provisional nature of the maternal, that it’s not about perfection, a return to the womb and the biunal relationship at all, but about the pleasures of the attractive promise. This is desire, desiring itself continuously, unceasingly, not mother at all. We’ve been done with mother for a while now. We’re off to our own version of Yonder. And with the experience of desire comes the pleasure of wanting and gazing and, as is the nature of painting, not having to stop. We can look and look, touch with our eyes, and imagine the mother in whatever false guise she may assume. She is still a goddess despite her mask.

SPw_Sanctuary, 2014Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait with Sanctuary, 2014, Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 inches