painting and photographic works

Night Studio – a book review

NIGHT STUDIO , A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer

After reading (and greatly enjoying) de Koonig, an American Master the biography of Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Koonig, I was keen to learn more about the movement and other key players. Searching around for other books, one which seemed highly recommended was NIGHT STUDIO, A memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Meyer. I ordered a copy and started reading.

The first thing I discovered was that the author Meyer is Guston’s daughter. Her relation to the painter gave a fascinating layer to this work. Not only do we learn about Guston the painter but we get to know what life was like for his family – his wife and daughter.

At first, the fact that the author was the painter’s daughter and the book was not just a non-subjective biography turned me off. I was expecting to hear just about this great artist: his life, how he thought, his creative process. In retrospect I realize I was hoping for a continuation of the style of the de Kooning biography. An example of what I wasn’t expecting were passages such as this (in chapter 3):

“My daily life was dull by comparison. Third and fourth grades, I went to the West Hurley Elementary School, a white frame schoolhouse about two miles from the Maverick Road. First through fourth grades were in one classroom, fifth through eighth grades in the other. My entire fourth-grade class was left handed– all four of us.”

As I say this wasn’t what I expected to read and my loss of enthusiasm slowed down my progress through the book. I did however persevere and was very glad I did. All these bits of observation and the feelings of the daughter certainly helped paint a true picture of the successful and driven painter.

The book certainly does the job as a biography. We learn that Philip Guston was born Phillip Goldstein, in Montreal in 1913. The family moved to Los Angeles six years later where he grew up. We learn about his upbringing, art education and his decision to change his name. As one of Abstract Expressionist’s, Guston counted as his friend others of the movement such as Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, so these names and anecdotes about them do appear in this book. Another prime character in this story is Guston’s wife, Musa McKim (a writer and one time painter herself) and Meyer relates a fair bit about the sacrifices that McKim made for her husband’s art career.

The book includes 81 black and white photos plus a drawing at the start of each chapter. The photos include a lot of pictures of Guston and his family and some of his art. The book was written in 1988, 8 years after the painters death so it also describes the interesting challenges of managing the painter’s estate and body of work.

Again the daughter’s perspective in the telling of this story provided a unique and often touching perspective – such as this passage near the end:

My mother knelt and, after a long time, set my father’s ashes inside the deep hole. With them we put brushes and paint, tubes of cadmium red, mars black, titanium white. His colors. I knelt beside my mother and we refilled the grave together

Night Studio is a very good book – I do not hesitate to recommend it.

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