Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Waiting for the Returns: Hot dogs with Philip Guston

So you've cast your ballot and you don't know whether to get drunk or watch "Decision '06" with the ghost of Peter Jennings. Here's an alternative: check out a few stray links with us, and then see what my blogging partner has for you. I warn you, he's a real oddball: one of those people you never meet in real life—an artist who has at some time in his life voted Republican. I will refrain from any "I've seen stuff like that on my refrigerator" remarks...

So what's happening around the world? Glad you asked. In Europe, Italians are furiously debating their version of flag desecration: a toilet that plays the national anthem.

And from the numb-leading-the-numb department comes the news of Pastor Ted's savior-therapist, none other than the fun-loving, child-beating fundamentalist freak Jimmy Dobson. You might as well wipe your ass with sandpaper, Ted.

Here's another odd moment, and mark this down: I agree with Tony Blair. Now since Tony appears to have gotten Bush-itis and can't explain himself properly, let me make the point a little more clearly: string up Saddam, and you've given him more power than he's ever had in his pitiful life. He will become a martyr and will spawn terrorism such as we haven't seen yet.

But how do you punish a guy like Saddam? I'd like to start a little contest here: put your own suggestions into the Comments. Nothing is too strange, but you can't kill him—at least not intentionally. Herewith, a couple to get you started:

Give Saddam a job to do...you know, hard time: a page boy in Congress, or Uncle Dick's hunting partner at the quail covey.

Here's a New Age, Kumbaya liberal idea: give him therapy. Dr. Dobson can "treat" the bearded rat with some of the same methods he applies to our children. It would be a nice break for the kids, and Saddam would get an appropriate foretaste of Hell. After all, these fundamentalist preachers are experts on Hell.

All right, enough of that. Let's go over to the art corner and see what reminiscences Terry McKenna has for us...

My story comes from my memory. Yes, it happened but it was a long time ago. I definitely was there, so was my girlfriend, now my wife, so was Eric. Our good friend and fellow grad student, Joe may have been there, but beyond that the details become sketchy. This is after all, just memory. Memory enriches parts and disappears the rest. I’m sure each participant would recall the event somewhat differently.

It was the Spring of 1975.* I was studying for an MFA in painting at the Tyler School of Art, a part of Temple University. Philip Guston, renowned American painter, was scheduled to give a talk. Guston, as that link will show you, is well represented in international museums. At the time, his reputation was under a cloud; he had just committed the sin of apostasy by turning his back on orthodox modernism.

At the time, the art world favored a view that saw current visual art as progressing steadily from the impressionists, through cubists, to abstract expressionism (Guston’s era) through pop and minimalism to the current era. What Guston had done was to reverse course, moving from paintings like the one above, that had no reference to real objects, to paintings like this:

that were suddenly full of recognizable things. Shoes, heads, cigarettes, beds etc. Suddenly infamous, Guston lost his gallery, and from the late ’60s through the mid ‘70s, his reputation. That he is now lionized makes the story even more ironic.

Anyway, it was in the midst of critical ostracism that Guston was invited to speak at Tyler. He was then teaching in Boston, and came down to Philadelphia by train. The school needed someone to pick him up at the station.

This itself was an oddity, for most of the time, a senior faculty member would shepherd the guest the entire time. Our guests (including Guston) were generally far more distinguished than were our faculty. And for the art world, it's much like show biz. Participants are perpetually looking for someone to hire them for the next gig, or to sponsor their next show, or at least include their name in an article in Art Forum. When well-known critic Barbara Rose appeared, she was ushered around by second-rate abstract expressionist, Stephen Greene. After her talk, she was given a tour of the graduate painting studios and we were given the benefit of her caustic remarks. (Her light seems to have dimmed over time, but at the time she was hot shit in the art world). At the time, Guston was on the outs. So, despite having been invited to speak, no one wanted so much as to shake his hand.

So all that the school could get for a driver was a motley crew of students. There was Eric, an undergraduate, my wife, myself and Joe. I think we used Eric’s car – he was from Philly, and knew how best to get to and from the train station.

Anyway, Guston was picked up, gave his lecture, and was unceremoniously rushed home – but that was the fun part. And remember, for us, Guston was the real deal, already included in contemporary art surveys, we were just a bunch of happy kids – eager to get close to a real big name artist. And for Guston, it turns out that we were a relief from the usual escort of faculty or academic types. We were young, with no axe to grind, and had no favors to ask or grant. We had an additional advantage, for it turns out both my wife and I studied under artists who were friends or family - my wife studied under Guston’s son in law. On the drive to the station, Eric skillfully negotiated rush hour traffic. When we reached the train station, we parked and stayed with Guston while we waited for the train. We chatted amiably, and the artist seemed to enjoy being in the presence of a bunch of kids who were just happy to meet him. And then the magic moment. We were, after all, waiting for a train. With time to kill, Guston decided to treat us all to hot dogs. And that was that. Our brief meeting with the sage was over.

Even though we were more or less on the outs, the story got around. It turns out, despite critical ostracism, everyone was envious. So the administration decided to put the kibosh on future assaults on their control. In the future, only selected graduate students would have the honor of picking up the guest – the student would be selected by the dean.

Oh well, we had our chance and took it. And lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place anyway. For the balance of my stay at Tyler, I heard of no similar adventure.

—T. McKenna

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