Monday, April 28, 2008

Angels and Demons

"I am afraid, if my devils leave me, my angels will take flight as well."
Rainer Maria Rilke
I'm just finishing reading Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston, by his daughter, Musa Mayer. It's a page turner. Guston was an extremely difficult man to live with. He had a tragic history - he was the one who found his father after he hanged himself when Philip was only 10, and he lost his older brother 7 years after that. He was depressive, alcoholic, chain smoking, egotistical, womanizing - also brilliant, charming, talented...
Mayer struggled her whole life to connect with her father who was at times resentful of her and emotionally distant. Her mother, the artist Musa McKim, was a typical codependent and enabler, giving up her art to be a support for her husband. According to Mayer, her father's art always came first, and she relays some pretty sad stories of her emotional (and sometimes physical) abandonment by both parents for the sake of Art.
So many questions come up for me from reading this book, not only about Guston's art and process, but about what makes an artist? Guston was of the generation that handled emotional problems at home and by themselves, usually by burying them with addictions. To enter therapy was a shameful thing. Interestingly and perhaps predictably, Mayer became a therapist. She is a typical ACOA.
So questions that arise, including this old one, does one have to be mentally ill to be an interesting artist? Can art be therapy? What kind of art do people make who are healed and self actualized? (Are there any such folks?) Guston became conscious of his demons and wrestled with them in his purgative paintings from the last decade of his life. It was as if he was coughing stuff up.
Do we separate the artist, the flawed human, from the art? Or do we hold the artist responsible for their behavior? Would art be a BORE if we were all humming OM???
(I can't help but think about an article I read about Carolyn Chute who wrote The Beans of Egypt. She was talking about Christmas decorations here in Maine, and how she loved all the cheesy displays on people's lawns and what a bore it would be if everyone had tasteful white lights and a simple wreath on the front door...)


Showing Up for the Muse said...

Thanks for the tip- I have to read this book!

Don Gray said...

I read Musa Mayer's book quite a few years ago, and I remember how it really modified my image of Guston. The self-image he worked to project was kind of the misunderstood and tragic artist-genius. I do still admire his insistence in following his new direction in the face of almost universal criticism. And I do think he created powerful, moving art.

But his daughter's account gives a more complete perspective on the full man and his deep, even ugly, flaws, doesn't it? Hard to like him much after reading it.

You raise interesting questions. I think of Picasso and his self-absorbed, mysoginistic ways. Or Pollock. The conclusion I finally arrive at is yes, you do have to separate the person and their art to a great extent. Virtually no one lives up to their own mythologies, whether self-created or imposed by others. Real life is always messier, less clear-cut, isn't it?

martha miller said...

Hi Tillie - yes, you will enjoy this book, I think. Alot of it takes place in Woodstock, NY, not too far from you! I just love reading artists' biographies.

martha miller said...

Hi Don

Yes, very hard to like the man after reading this. I also admire how he followed his new direction of personal narrative against all odds and hung his dirty whites out on the line for the world to see. This did take an enormous amount of courage. The images are extremely potent and powerful. The cost to his daughter was huge, though.
Yup, Picasso, Pollock...Gauguin left his wife and 5 children... Woody Allen comes to mind here also as one whose actions in life take a toll on how we see his art...
Yes, Real Life is certainly Messy! But isn't this what art is about? Our struggle? Like Guston said, "I got tired of all that purity..."