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Issue 227

Philip Guston’s Vivid Reflections on the Power of Art

An extract of Philip Guston's thoughts on painting and drawings taken from an upcoming book, I Paint What I Want to See (2022), featuring his notes and interviews

BY Philip Guston in Features , Thematic Essays | 09 MAY 22

September 28, 1972  

There is nothing to do now but paint my life; my dreams, surroundings, predicament, desperation, Musa – love, need. Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures, or think about art.  

If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting, that is exactly what I want and expect.  


From a note to Dore Ashton on the draft of Yes, But . . .  

In general, I feel I am always described as in trouble and in crisis. Most artists feel that way. But when the picture comes out there’s a calm and feeling of continuity. I think the frequent use of crisis and anxiety gives the impression that I am in constant pain. As it feels to me, when the picture takes form, the new structure itself calms me and I would hope that the looker does not feel he is looking at pain, trouble, and anxiety, but at a new structure which he can contemplate. Ideally! That he gets a real, positive change.  

Years later, discussing my work with Clark Coolidge, we used to talk a lot about Melville. One story Clark told me stays in my mind: Melville is writing to Hawthorne after having finished Moby Dick. He says, ‘I’ve written an evil book and I feel spotless as a lamb.’  


Portrait of Philip Guston in his studio
Philip Guston in his studio, Florida, 1967. Courtesy: © The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth

August 15, 1978  

Oh, how I hate the calculation, the reasoning of the eye and mind. I hate the composing – the designing of spaces – to make things fit! What, after all, does it satisfy? It robs and steals from the image that the spirit so desperately desires.  

But I love the shadows, for themselves alone.  

My wife Musa once wrote, ‘Because the sun was behind them, their shadows came first, and then the birds themselves.’  


The Law  

The Laws of Art are generous laws. They are not definable because they are not fixed. These Laws are revealed to the Artist during creation and cannot be given to him. They are not knowable. A work cannot begin with these Laws as in a diagram.  

They can only be sensed as the work unfolds. When the forms and spaces move toward their destined positions, the artist is then permitted to become a victim of these Laws, the prepared and innocent accomplice for the completion of the work.  

His mind and spirit, his eyes, have matured and changed to a degree where knowing and not knowing become a single act.  

It is as if these Governing Laws of Art manifest themselves through him.  

Philip Guston and his wife Musa McKim
Musa McKim and Philip Guston, photographed by Fred McKim, Musa's father, in 1938. Courtesy: © The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth

Thoughts (or Advice to Myself) 

Sunday, September 27, 1978 

I just did a painting which I shall call The Tomb or The Artist’s Tomb. So it is truly a bitter comedy that is being played out. Painting, which duplicates and is a kind of substitute for your life, is lived from hour to hour, day to day. Nothing is stable, all is shifting, changing. There is no such thing as a picture, it is an impossibility and a mirage to believe so. A fantasy the mind makes like having a dogma, a belief. But it won’t stay still, remain docile; you can’t tame anything into docility, with yourself as the master. Being a lion tamer – that’s just circus razzle-dazzle. 

Sometimes I spread out all over the canvas, the rectangle of action, and make this unstable and precarious momentary balanced-unbalanced condition. I did this last week. Now, in reverse, yesterday and today, I made a rock, with platforms, steps for my forms to be on, and play out their private drama. 

This will remain for a while. 


The only thing I have is my radicalism against art. All that abstract shit – museum and art history aesthetics. 

What a lie – lie! 

The only true impulse is realism. Arty art screws you in the end; always be on guard against it! 


If I speak of having a subject to paint, I mean there is a forgotten place of beings and things, which I need to remember. I want to see this place. 

I paint what I want to see. 


Philip Guston Figure 1978
Philip Guston, Figure, 1978, oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm. Courtesy: © The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth

The Appointment (A True Story) 

Once there were two Philips who were friends. One was a very famous writer, a celebrity, the other a painter who had some degree of fame. Philip the Painter, who lived in the mountains and whose solitude was always being interrupted by the telephone, decided to put a stop to this thievery of time. He installed a switch that turns off the ringing telephone. This was a luxurious feeling for him, since he could telephone out to the outside world, but the outside world could not reach him at all. 

Philip the Writer, who lived in the City (by preference, he once said, where he could roam the streets at will, eat in foreign restaurants, and taste all sorts of imported delicacies), had been trying to telephone Philip the Painter for six months. Then, after a trip to European cities, Philip the Writer tried again to telephone Philip the Painter. Again without success. Finally, Philip the Writer wrote this letter: ‘For Christ’s sake let your phone ring. The world isn’t just shit heads and monsters wanting to disturb you at your sacred foolishness – there’s also me, your old pen and brush pal. Call me.’ 

Philip the Painter waited a week before he telephoned Philip the Writer, whose answering service said he was busy and that he would telephone Philip the Painter. But remember, Philip the Painter’s telephone couldn’t ring, and since he again went back to his ‘sacred foolishness’ in his studio, weeks went by. He received a second letter from Philip the Writer. This time in capital letters. ‘HOW CAN I CALL YOU BACK IF YOU DON’T ANSWER THE TELEPHONE? HUMANLY IMPOSSIBLE. TECHNOLOGICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. HOPELESS SITUATION, NO?’ Then, as if they were secret agents, a designated time was chosen (through a third party, a neighbor) for Philip the Painter to telephone Philip the Writer. Philip the Writer couldn’t believe his ears when Philip the Painter called. Philip the Writer pretended he wasn’t home when he answered the phone call. 

Philip Guston Untitled 1974
Philip Guston, Untitled, 1974, ink on paper, 36 x 43 cm. Courtesy: Penguin 

The dilemma was overcome when Philip the Writer agreed to visit Philip the Painter a week later for dinner and some talk. With the stern admonition, however, that since Philip the Writer couldn’t telephone Philip the Painter, the appointment had to be firm and definite. This appointment made Philip the Painter more nervous than usual. He never knew from minute to minute how he felt. He couldn’t control his moods, which changed like the shape of clouds. The commitment to a definite time of meeting might mean that he would have to telephone Philip the Writer again in order to change the time of the meeting to a future time. Naturally, this made him even more nervous. 

This story ends happily, however. 

Through a new source of willpower, Philip the Painter overcame his nervousness and was calm as he prepared to entertain his friend, Philip the Writer. This determination was accomplished by the feeling of security that they would spend their evening, during and after dinner, leisurely discussing their mutual nervousness about the time stolen from their work by the world outside. He knew they would exchange their fears of the ringing telephone. Philip the Painter knew that he and Philip the Writer would speak of their miseries and would plan strategies to prevent the frightening theft of time. 


There is no [underlined three times] relationship between my desires, ambitions, and the needs of a dealer! 

The total conformity of painting now that we see is absolutely deadening to my spirits. Its conventionality. Its domesticity. 


De Chirico’s thought was not willed. It was so perfectly balanced that his forms never seem to have been painted. His walls and shadows, his trains and cookies, his manikins, clocks, blackboards, and smoke. They could all disappear. Yet they appeared. They have known each other for centuries. De Chirico drew aside his curtain, revealing what was always there. It had been forgotten. 

Picasso, the builder, re-peopled the earth – inventing new beings. We believe his will. 

Marvelous artists are made of elements which cannot be identified. The alchemy is complete. Their work is strange, and will never become familiar. 

You can wreck your painting that you believe in by overexamining it – dispel its magic – its spell lost. 

Advice to myself: leave it alone. It should be able to live by itself. 


Guston in studio
Philip Guston in his studio with Painter's Hand, 1975. Courtesy: © The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Denise Hare

November 23, 1978 

When I complete a painting that feels real – I think afterwards that I have found a way – a road. And my mind races on – painting pictures in my head. Infinite possibilities. What a delusion this is. All the possibilities – oh, at last I know. These are mere notions – proven to be so when you start painting again. They all tumble down when paint is put on. And again you must learn that there is no road – no way – all you possess is the luck to learn to see each time – freshly. Newly. 

No good to paint in the head – what happens is what happens when you put the paint down – you can only hope that you are alert – ready – to see. What joy it is for paint to become a thing – a being. Believe in this miracle – it is your only hope. To will this transformation is not possible. Only a slow maturation can prepare the hand and eye to become quicker than ever. Ideas about art don’t matter. They collapse anyway in front of the painting. 


December 8, 1978 

American abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit. A mask to mask the fear to reveal oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be. Unwilling to show this badness, this rawness. It is laughable this lie. Anything but this! What a sham! ‘Abstract’ art hides it, hides the lie, a fake! Don’t! Let it show! It is an escape – from the true feelings we have – the ‘raw’ – the primitive feelings about the world – and us in it. In America. 

‘It’ is a game, as if we are all on a softball team on the backyard lot. We all agree, don’t we? On the game rules – ‘Play Ball’. Fit into the crappy lie of advertising art. Fit into the scheme of everything – don’t make waves – be a good boy – live and let live – what shit this is! 

Where are the wooden floors – the lightbulbs – the cigarette smoke – where are the brick walls – where is what we feel – without notions – ideas – good intentions? – No, just conform to the banks – the plazas – monuments to the people who own this country – give everyone the soothing lullaby of ‘art’. 

We all know what this is – don’t we? 

A painting feels lived-out to me, not painted. That’s why one is changed by painting. In a rare magical moment, I never feel myself to be more than a trusting accomplice. So the paintings aren’t pictures, but evidences – maybe documents, along the road you have not chosen, but are on nevertheless. 

New Paintings 

A figure lying in bed, very still, looking at a ball stopped in front of his nose, yet everything around him, windows, boxes, toys, books, are in motion. This just got itself painted. 

A pile of junk between two telephone poles. The itch to kick it, disperse it. 

I really only love strangeness. But here is another pileup of old shoes and rags, in a corner of a brick wall – in front, a sidewalk. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it before, but forgot. 

Green shade above with a chain to pull. Light it up. 

Large wall, a picture, a window. A hanging lightbulb. Not much else. Forms painted out. 

Back view, lying in bed, smoking. 

A head, profile, vomiting out forms or sucking them back in. 

A desolate hill, littered. Forms that got on top of that slope might move on to the other side and be invisible. 

The sun coming up has moved its position on the canvas many times from left to right and back again. Finally, towards dawn, it fixed itself. A very heavy sunrise.

I Paint What I Want to See, published by Penguin Classics, is released in April

This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘Advice to Myself’.

Main image: Studio wall behind drawing table, 1975. Courtesy: © The Estate of Philip Guston and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Denise Hare

Philip Guston (1913-1980) was a Canadian-born American painter, printmaker, muralist and draughtsman. I Paint What I Want to See (2022), published by Penguin Classics, is published in April 2022