With a Philip Guston show currently on view at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia, we turn back to the May 1965 issue of ARTnews, in which Guston himself mused on the work of the 15th-century Italian painter Piero della Francesca. Noting della Francesca’s taste for dream-like compositions, Guston praised the “different fervor, grave and delicate” in each of the artist’s canvases. Guston’s article follows in full below.
“Piero della Francesca: The impossibility of painting”
By Philip Guston
Philip Guston has pinned postcards of these two masterpieces by Piero della Francesca to the kitchen walls of his life for years, and in the past 18 months has been working on the text that follows in order to formulate something of what they mean to him and to his crisis-bound vision of modern art. The ideas are perforce incomplete, but they not only illuminate the master, they demonstrate the high seriousness of the writer. One point to modern American painting is its radical challenge to all art dogma and corollary revitalization of the past in the light of present anxieties and achievements. This task continues, beyond the fads and enterprises of press-agentry. And so does the artists’ production.
A certain anxiety persists in the painting of Piero della Francesca. What we see is the wonder of what it is that is being seen. Perhaps it is the anxiety of painting itself.
Where can everything be located, and in what condition can everything exist? In The Baptism of Christ, we are suspended between the order we see and an apprehension that everything may again move. And yet not. It is an extreme point of the “impossibility” of painting. Or its possibility. Its frustration. Its continuity.
He is so remote from other masters; without their “completeness” of personality. A different fervor, grave and delicate, moves in the daylight of his pictures. Without our familiar passions, he is like a visitor to the earth, reflecting on distances, gravity and positions of essential forms.
In the Baptism, as though opening his eyes for the first time, trees, bodies, sky and water are represented without manner. The painting is nowhere a fraction more than the balance of his thought. His eye. One cannot determine if the rhythm of his spaces substitute themselves as forms, or the forms as rhythms. In The Flagellation, his thought is diffuse. Everything is fully exposed. The play has been set in motion. The architectural box is opened by the large block of the discoursers to the right, as if a door were slid aside to reveal its contents: the flagellation of Christ, the only “disturbance” in the painting, but placed in the rear, as if a memory. The picture is sliced almost in half, yet both parts act on each other, repel and attract, absorb and enlarge, one another. At times, there seems to be no structure at all. No direction. We can move spatially everywhere, as in life.
Possibly it is not a “picture” we see, but the presence of a necessary and generous law.
Is the painting a vast precaution to avoid total immobility, a wisdom which can include the partial doubt of the final destiny of its forms? It may be this doubt which moves and locates everything.