Finished reading Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer this morning. Mayer is the painter Philip Guston’s daughter, so the book is this kind of incredible story of his life from her perspective. I’ve been a fan of Guston’s painting since I was kid trying to redraw some of his klansman works, so it was interesting to learn something about his actual life. The book itself is unusual because it’s not a straight story of Guston so much as a daughter coming to terms with her relationship with her father who happens to be Philip Guston. So there’s quite a lot of Mayer getting insight into her father on those sorts of terms. Certainly it’s worth reading for that angle alone.
But the thing it most makes me think of is the act of looking at a painting and how difficult that is to do. Or, rather, how difficult it can be to “get something” out of that act. When I’ve looked at Guston’s work in the past it’s been pretty much exclusively a surface level view of enjoying the cartoonish imagery (of his late work), which I found accessible when I was young – you could tell what you were looking at for example, rather than something from the world of abstraction or abstract expressionism etc. They’re just enjoyable pictures to look at.
But reading the memoir means that I have all of this extra knowledge (or perhaps perspective is a better word) about Guston’s life, his preoccupations, his additions, and on and on. And those things are in his paintings, rather literally (e.g. bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, …). When you know that alcoholism was (possibly) something the painter was coping with, a big painting of a figure staring hard at a bottle means a lot more than it would otherwise, right? And alongside that the memoir just gives such a sense of personality, but also of having moved and struggled through different approaches and understandings of painting, that any individual painting doesn’t come across as just an image, but as something part of a history and of a grappling with the idea of painting itself.
This is completely aside from broader ideas around knowledge of painting movements or the material involved – just the raw fact of a person behind the painting helps that painting to be more than it would be on its own. And I really appreciate that – I’m less sold on the whole idea of having a deep art historical knowledge (and even less sold on the language), but I do like the idea of knowing more about the person and their life.
It actually connects me a bit to work by Doug Wilson on the idea of “dialogic game design” – the idea that games can be created as conversations between player and design (the game itself, rather than being a focal point, it merely a communications medium). And probably some version of these ideas are true of “personal games” as well, but there’s something I maybe prefer about some ambiguity in the work itself, some work left for the viewer to make connections to the creator – where personal games perhaps tell us more explicitly about the person behind them?
I’m rambling now I think and not sure of what on earth I’m talking about. Read Night Studio. Appreciate Philip Guston. Think about how playing a game is changed by knowing the creator personally. Night.