I've been dipping in and out of the new book of Philip Guston's collected writings, lectures and conversations, and I loved this exchange between Guston and Clark Coolidge (who edited the book).
PG: Well, there’s something I think I’ll probably constantly keep vacillating or wavering between, movement or no movement. I think it’s true of my whole past, as far as I know my past, to be fascinated by the one and the multitudinous. Sometimes I’ll put a lot of forms into a picture and think: Why do I need all that? I really don’t need this multitudinous feeling of forms. The world is filled with multitudinous forms. I really am looking for one form, a static form, from which the multitudinous forms come anyway. Like that bulging book we’re looking at now. It’s a sculptured book and yet it’s done very simply, in a very minimal way. It’s one of the best books of the series. There’s just something about having a single form which is there in a space. There’s no movement to speak of visually. It’s just there, and yet it’s shaking, like throbbing, or burning or moving, but there’s no sign of its moving. Now that book, I may be reading my things into it that other people don’t see, but I don’t think so.
CC: No, I see what you mean. It’s vibrating.
PG: It vibrates! In other words, it’s like nailing down a butterfly but the damn thing is still moving around. And this seems to be the whole act of art anyway, to nail it down for a minute but not kill it. That’s what I mean. Whereas in the act of painting sometimes, when I don’t feel so all together, and I want to keep in motion, I’ll paint movement. I mean, I’ll just put down a lot of things. And finally that doesn’t satisfy me, and I always wonder why it doesn’t satisfy me. But it doesn’t sum it up for me. There’s no need for it. That is to say, instead of painting all those forms moving around in the pictures—what the hell, I could just as well pull up the shade and look out the window on the street. Why do I have to do it? I don’t have to do it on canvas, but I want to do what nature doesn’t do. I mean, I can look out and see trees blowing, wind moving, and things are happening. I don’t have to duplicate that. But what I don’t see is a single form that’s vibrating away, constantly, forever and ever and ever to keep vibrating. And that seems to be magical as hell, enigmatic as hell, really. Gee, I never said that before, that way. Now that book is really moving.
CC: That goes back to my feeling that we’ve talked about before, that in art you always work between opposites. Between stopping and going, stasis and movement, abstraction and figuration.
PG: Yes, that’s right.
CC: I think it’s like a machine that keeps us going, like electricity.
PG: It’s a tension between the two.
CC: Between gaps, between poles. Which causes a lot of our dissatisfaction, because we go more to one side.
PG: You mean, a necessary dissatisfaction.
CC: Yeah, because at any one time it’s more one or the other.
CC: When we’re toward this, we think maybe that one’s wrong.
PG: That’s right.
CC: But we don’t realize that we’re constantly moving. You never really stop anything, unless you die. Wherever that is.
I love his description of the act of art as being like nailing down a live butterfly for a moment, without killing it. That really is the trick. Ninety percent of the time my butterflies die on the table.