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Guston and Feldman

by Musa Mayer

These extracts are taken from Musa Mayer's biography of her father entitled Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, published by Da Capo Press, New York, 1997 (first published 1989, Knopf). (Numbers in square brackets refer to the notes in Musa Mayer's book, reproduced here at the end of the text.)

There was exhilarating company for Philip in New York - especially his closest friend of the fifties and sixties, Morton Feldman, the composer, whom he'd met through John Cage... My father went with Cage and Feldman to hear D. T. Suzuki lecture and, for a time, became interested in Zen Buddhism and the significance of "the Void." (p60)

"During those years we all talked constantly about an imaginary art in which there existed almost nothing," Morty Feldman said. "In a sense it was a three-way conversation, though I never brought the ideas of one to the attention of the other... 'Nothing' is not a strange alternative in art. We are continually faced with it while working." He told this story about his two friends in his article "Philip Guston: The Last Painter," written for Art News: "I remember taking a long walk with John Cage along the East River. It was a gorgeous spring day. At some point he exclaimed, 'Look at those gulls. My, how free they are!' After watching the birds I remember saying, 'They're not free at all - every moment in search of food.'

"That is the basic difference between Cage and Guston," Feldman continued. "Cage sees the effect, he ignores its cause. Guston, obsessed solely by his own causality, destroys its effect. They are both right, of course, and so am I. We complement each other beautifully. Cage is deaf, I am dumb and Guston is blind."[1]

My father also used to tell stories about the three of them. "Cage and Feldman were in my studio, in 1951 or 1952," my father wrote, "and I had done what were probably the sparest pictures of all...I think one painting just had a few colored spots on it, and lots of erasures. John Cage was very enthusiastic about it, and he said, 'My God! Isn't it marvelous that one can paint a picture about nothing!' Feldman turned to him and said, 'But John, it's about everything!'"[2]

Morty Feldman was a tall, heavyset man with a thick shock of almost black hair over an absent forehead, and eyes that were obscured by glasses with lenses like the bottom of a bottle... His morose, sardonic demeanor concealed a quick and biting critical intelligence. He was a man whose appetites more than rivaled my father's They both loved to eat and drink and smoke, and they loved doing it together. The two men prowled the city for movies and good cheap restaurants. My memories of Morty have him stretched out and snoring on our wicker chaise, following some feast the two friends had shared. (p61/62)

[When Guston's painting style changed dramatically in the late sixties, from abstraction to the figurative, cartoon-like style of his late works...] Not all his friends understood. Morty Feldman's failure to react favorably to the new work hurt my father deeply. Their friendship never really recovered, though Morty was always on Philip's mind and in his heart; in 1977, my father painted Friend - To M.F. It is a poignant image, as Robert Storr observes, of "their mutually regretted estrangement"; Morty's head is half turned away from the viewer. (p157)[3]

[In December 1980 following Guston's death earlier in the year]... the St Mark's Poetry Project wanted to do a "Homage to Philip Guston"... The St Mark's Parish House was crowded that night... Morty Feldman, reading from an essay he'd been writing for the catalogue of my father's last works, which were being organised into a show by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., offered a touching portrait of the friendship between two stubborn, difficult men. "I have resistance," he said, "in talking to anyone who could tell me why Guston assembled these last works the way he did. My attitude is not unlike my father refusing to ask for directions the time we were lost in Hoboken." I remembered that in Woodstock before the funeral, Morty had spent a long time puzzling over the studio wall of these last works my father had left, as if trying to decipher where he and Philip had lost one another. "For me," he continued, "the real research would be in reenacting that special kind of loneliness Guston shared with others throughout the seventies; a concern that something just might last a little longer, that our lifespan would not be a measurement of time documented on early, middle, late horizons. Two rabbis, who were very close friends, survived the Holocaust. One went alone to London, the other, to somewhere in South America. The rabbi in London wrote to his friend, 'Too bad you're so far away.'

"'From where?' was the reply.

"One of the most memorable afternoons I spent with Guston started off with, 'So I'm not Michelangelo,' as I was walking up the stairs to his studio. I looked at the start of a new painting for some clue to his depression. The clue wasn't there. 'O.K. so you're not Michelangelo, you're El Greco.' Guston's face lit up with relief.

"A small Guston painting from 1967 hangs over my desk: on a white ground, just two elongated black shapes about seven inches from each other. Their positioning in the field is characteristic of how Guston freezes a painting during the sixties. 'That one on the left,' he said, 'is telling the other one his troubles.'" (p234/235)[4]

1.Morton Feldman, "Philip Guston: The Last Painter," Art News Annual XXXI, 1966.
2.Philip Guston, as quoted in Dore Ashton, Yes, But... A Critical Study of Philip Guston, Viking Press, New York, 1976, p95.
3.Robert Storr, Philip Guston, Abbeville Press, New York, 1986, p50.
4.Morton Feldman, essay in Philip Guston: 1980, The Last Works, catalogue for an exhibition organised by the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., 1981.
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