Philip Guston: Doomed


The fragmentary essay below does not aspire to render a contextual study of the painter in ways that are structurally adequate to the task of synthesising its findings within other more comparative findings. Rather it is attempts to constitute its object as being spectrally other in that the text posits a final fold within an imaginary construction after the death of the artist. There is within this a semblance not just of the drama of death (of history, art, and the subject) but another form of after life, even if touched by a delirium of sense.




Painting, Smoking, Eating” (1973)

In the work “Painting, Smoking, Eating” (1973) there are three occurrences, smoking that is happening, painting that has happened, and eating which will happen. The question posed by the painting is, are these successive actions and as such are they linked in a repetition-compulsion chain? The scene is weighted by something that is rendered outside of this chain, and that is sleeping, which does not occur readily but is rather a source of incessant anxiety. There is no way out of this murmur of what is incessant that is founded on the contrary of ethical pain and aesthetic pleasure.

The Zen monk Dogen (1*) once said that humans could hear through their eyes. Dogen invites a view of reality in which logical, dualistic sense is thrown asunder. This holds a poetic mode of resemblance to the working of (non) sense in the late paintings of Philip Guston.

Faces depicted in Guston’s paintings invariably have eyes that are like bulging eruptions of tissue facing the world. Other sensory organs, or even sensory passages, seem to be either absent or diminished. These heads are perhaps more like witnessing outposts, framed within an immobile gaze that is cast away from the very moorings that might in turn provide a sense of having a world. Could it be that the eye is being figured as the last refuge of a subject adrift from the indexes that constitute it? Philosophically the history of the Western metaphysical tradition can be viewed as a construction of meaning through the notion of presence and with this a relationship to ocular metaphor (to see, is to know). The subject is constructed as a spatializing entity, drawing lines, constituting limits, in ways that privilege the ocular capacity within philosophical discourse. Language in turn becomes embedded within the metaphors provided by this process. Guston appears to create a double reflex or gesture in the relationship to this privileging of the eye over the other sensory organs. In exaggerating the visual sign of the eye, Guston extends the immanent logic of this sign, to push it to a threshold that isolates the orbit of its constitution; he appears thus to diminish its power. The exaggerated depiction of the eye draws the viewer into the eyes isolating impotence because it lacks a world in which it might delight or wonder. Also, these are paintings that also appear to signify the loss of eye; they are bad paintings in the sense that they represent, without the adequate capacity for doing so. Somehow the very loss of capacity both to see, and in turn to paint, isolate these paintings from a possibility of framing the dimension of history, because the visual field that touches the extended space of history is out of reach. History has become a passing over and through in which subjects are cast adrift as mere vestiges (2*).

Bereft of the tissues of narrative strands, these late paintings appear to be immersed within the feeling of empty time. Empty time in this context might be understood as a texture or a weight that pulls on things and slows them in such a way that lends a stagnancy of matter and dulls all things that are held within the frame. Emptiness thus circulates and clings to all the surfaces that are touched, becoming a form of sticky equivalence that connects all things. Substances congeal, assuming in turn blob like characteristics, and with this the air seems to thicken with bodies that appear to be held in poses close to states of slumber. The atmosphere relating to entropy accrues, thus buns are sticky, paint, leaded and creamy, sight is trapped in monotony, and backgrounds slighted by a forgetting of detail. These paintings appear to move only by virtue of emerging within the medium that describes them, and yet within their own medium nothing appears to happen, and even if something appears to happen, it leads back to the nothing from which it emerged. There is, of course signs of duration, but only to the extent to secure the ever- open of eyes deemed incapable of blinking, that might in turn, interrupt the stagnant ready-at-hand heavy present. For a moment we could start to imagine that these paintings are sites of a dialectical critique of the society of mass consumption, with all its pristine shine, sharply defined edges and surfaces, its smooth persuasion in positioning things, the glamorous cynicism, hyper-pulsation within its orbits and style, but the space that might contain all of these facets will also be the sign of this otherness that has already been subsumed in an after-world which is set in the boredom of its deliberation. What we are witnessing is a point beyond critique, in the form of a series of inscriptions that are recorded within bodies and things that have been pressed or pushed through this world. These bodies are presented as being alert only to the tiring rhythm of empty ambition, polluted by cigarettes, lured, and fattened by French fries, deprived of the sleep that clear conscience might secure, with hearts weakened by stress, becoming instead a buried darkness of the floating signifiers of a promise held above. They are bodies rendered foreign in their own constitution, holding in their dark reserve, projections of signs that can only articulate exhaustion. We might see the body as a dead weight being dragged through the plane of the canvas in order that it might soak up, in the manner of a sponge soaking in a cloud of turpentine vapour. Such bodies do not serve as vehicles of resurrected promise, but rather in a half-paced manner, they continue without hope of reply, and it is this sense of lack that lends a feeling of authenticity to the situation that contains the action, or orientation towards the immediate horizon. A mood of being already dead prevails, or at least the sense that each possible horizon is impregnated with death, and it is this that marks all conditions of knowing and acting.

Asked about what was at the root of his late paintings, he simply uttered the word “doomed”. This single word appeared to contain an excess of different possible senses. The paintings are born out of an impulse to speak but are also rendered bereft of the capacity to do so. As paintings they appear to simply endure a world under the sign of extinction, the death of the subject, the end of history, media saturation and exhaustion. They are fugitive paintings in which traces of the world persist but without sense of destination. Watches and clocks appear to mark out the stagnant air with monotony, simply turning over in an empty version of time. In presenting a universe in which remoteness or inertia come to dominate, there is no possibility of a process of reflection figuring an agency of decision. The fat of the world thus accrues in the face of this lost vitality. Things are abandoned without the trace of their original signature; they pile up, or are left undone, consumption is unattended, bodies appear as indifferent, or idle, and even the lights are not switched off. Only addictive or dumb acts stay in some register of reality, but these are held as repetitions or compulsions that record forms of circular tracings as just another mode of stasis. What is being attempted here is to probe the way in which proximity and distance appear as kinetically welded to a subject, whose very orientation appears to be cast adrift in contradiction to such forces. We are given renderings of scenes, in which looks are in circulation, that also contain active criss-crossing of circuits of desire, in which muscles arch and tense in order to be able to be viewed and to view, and with this a negation of a positive virility of spatial articulation, that Guston wishes only to slow to the point of immobility. In this state of immobility, we are drawn to the weight of the paint, that almost seems to stand for the burden endured by the subject. Is it not the substance of paint that sticks things together, serving as an essential glue of this world, paint that is also the source of mobility that lends signature to all things touched and caressed, in all these respects Guston directs us toward paint as a vanishing point of the labour process. All things lost or abandoned, are recuperated by and within the materiality of paint, with all of its insistence of registration and sensual presence.

Paint is the only redress to ruination that can be offered as redemption. This makes me wonder about his earlier period that is designated as Abstract Expressionist. Having seen the cycle of his work, it might be imagined that he could have returned again to this idiom but in a darker palette as if to carry forward a mood that is not accessible through naming. Just like a poet whose dependency on the pure word, there is a shine that is accessible through gesture that touches on withdrawal. This withdrawal of direct speech might have signified an endurance of no longer being able to communicate with the employment of indexical markings. Such an approach to the night-time of art would have attested to the possibility of a midnight condition of no longer being able to go either backwards or forwards, thus being alone in a state of suspension with only paint marks being offered as testament.

Such an idea of a final shift opens a dialogue with late Goya’s black paintings (3*). What lies beyond such a dialogue, is the possible dissolution of the kettle (4*) boiling in blackened space leaving instead just the swirl of vapour within darkness. Thus, a presentation of a condition of painting that is neither purely serene nor singularly desperate, but beyond such contraries: painting that speaks without recall to the conditions of having a language to do so. This would be a presentation that no longer rests on an unresolvable tension between figuration and abstraction but rather is a third genus beyond such opposition, with pink, black and green or the spiritual and the secular in free play within a zone that is but a steppingstone towards the immeasurable.

Something looks back, even if the gaze is dark, for no matter what intensity of blackness, the shining contained within difference still becomes manifest. At the threshold of visibility, figures of radiance and resistance are joined together within the diagram of becoming. Within this diagram, there is Goya’s painting of ‘The Dog’ (1819-1823), Picasso’s ‘Self Portrait Facing Death’ (1972), and Guston’s ‘Kettle’ (1978). All three paintings present figures alone in space, dramas of dissolution staged at the limits of experience. Why do these paintings meet up in this space? Already the staging has started to assume a spectral otherness, a halfway meeting place between the virtual and the real, and with this life and death. Is not lateness always marked by such signage and with this a feeling of delirium? So not only the mixing of three paintings, but a halfway narrative mixing the spectral, virtual, and the real. If then other paintings start to be figured as immanent projections of the after life of these works bereft of authorship, what then? Clearly this is just a fictionalised projection, a sign of a boundary crossing, or a doubling of the represented real with the impossible excess. Is not this crossing over of boundaries a transgression of the disciplines that keeps everything in place, subjects pressed under, objects leaning against, lines drawn between such conditions? All of this might serve to return us to the insight of the priest-poet Dogen when he stated that humans can hear through their eyes. Imagine a space of painting predicated upon such logic. Surely a stepping stone into immeasurability.


在作品《繪畫、抽煙、吃飯 》(1973)中,我們可以看到三個階段的行為:進行中的抽菸,已經完成的繪畫,和即將開始的進食。這幅畫引發了對動作連續性的質疑:這些行為真的構成了一個不斷重複的強迫性循環嗎?但場景中有一個重要的元素,那就是睡眠,它並沒有直接出現,而是成為了源源不絕的焦慮。這種無休止的焦慮與道德上的痛苦和美學上的愉悅形成了對比。










1*. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) was a Japanese Buddhist priest who was also a poet and philosopher. He travelled and studied in various monasteries in China. One of his sayings was: “To study the Self is to forget the Self.” 道元禪師(1200-1253)是一位日本佛教僧侶,同時也是詩人和哲學家。他曾在中國的多個寺院旅行和學習。他的一句名言是:“學習自己,就是忘記自己。”
2*. For a discussion about vestiges see Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses (Chapter 5) Stanford University Press, 1996 關於痕跡的討論,可參見讓-盧克·南希的《繆斯》(第五章),斯坦福大學出版社,1996年。
3*. In referring to Goya’s late paintings I was thinking of ‘The Dog’ painted between 1819 and 1823. The painting was executed directly on the wall and as such was not executed with a public in mind. There is a sense in this of painting enduring at a limit. It is this limit experience that attracted Guston to such a work. Goya was painting at the inaugural beginning of the impulse towards modernity but appeared to understand its closure at the same time. The meeting point of late Goya and late Guston is in an idea of a “radically darkened art” that Adorno evokes in his last book ‘Aesthetic Theory’ (1970).在提到戈雅的晚期畫作時,我想到的是1819年至1823年間繪製的《狗》。這幅畫是直接在牆上作畫的,因此並非為公眾所繪。在這其中有一種繪畫在極限中持續的感覺。正是這種極限體驗吸引了古斯頓對這樣的作品的興趣。戈雅在衝向現代性的初步開端時期繪畫,但似乎同時理解了其結束。晚期的戈雅與晚期的古斯頓在一個想法上相遇,那就是阿多諾在他的最後一本書《美學理論》(1970)中所喚起的“徹底變暗的藝術”理念。
4*. The Kettle, 1978 《水壺》1978年。


Phillip Guston @ Tate Modern

Until 25 February 2024


Text by 撰文 x Jonathan Miles

Translated and Edited by 翻譯及編輯 x Michelle Yu 余小悅


© 2011 ART.ZIP all rights reserved.  ISBN 977 2050 415202

Site by XYCO