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.