Fathers never know how they’ll be remembered by their scribbling children. Auguste Renoir got off easy in the hands of his son Jean, while John Cheever was exposed by his daughter as a philandering bisexual. Poor William Saroyan: he was vilified by Aram as a compulsive gambler, an exploitative husband, and (Aram knew how to hit where it hurts) a lazy thinker who had never read a book all the way through. Anonymous dads have been vaulted into fame by sensitive sons—Geoffrey Wolff’s father was a no-good con man—while great men have had their names sullied by resentful urchins eager for a little attention. Bertrand Russell may have been a progressive thinker, but not when it came to marriage; his daughter Katharine had nothing but pity for his wives—all four of them. One tends to approach children’s memoirs of their parents in a spirit of caution, for revenge is often their not-so-ulterior motive. Most of these books are poor (and spiteful) country cousins to that classic of filial memoirs, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son.
Musa Mayer has given us a serpent’s tooth of a book in Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by His Daughter. It opens in Woodstock, New York, in July 1980, a month after Guston’s fatal heart attack at age sixty-six, with his daughter sitting alone in his studio, poring over stacks of faded press clippings in an attempt “to learn about my father’s life.” Yet as the book unfolds, Guston’s hardscrabble youth in Los Angeles, his early embrace of social realism, his rise to prominence with the Abstract Expressionists, his controversial return to figuration—all this becomes mere backdrop to the baroque spectacle of Mayer’s struggle for her father’s approval and affection. The point of Night Studio is not to illumine the artist’s achievements but to catalogue the sufferings of Guston fille.
To be sure, Guston was hardly a model papa. Anxious, brooding, preoccupied by his work (what artist isn’t?), he felt uneasy with the burdens of fatherhood and was unwilling to place his daughter’s needs before his own. The prospect of her birth apparently filled him with dread; when his pregnant wife returned home from a shopping trip one day with a batch of new baby clothes, he hurled them into a closet in a fit of disgust. “He didn’t want children,” Musa McKim Guston, the artist’s wife, bluntly tells her only child. “His work, well—you know. It was everything.” Guston’s moodiness only enhanced his daughter’s feelings for him. She grew up longing for invitations to his studio, for quiet moments alone with him. When he won the Prix de Rome in 1948 and set off to Italy for a year, he sent her toy soldiers for Christmas, the only “bright spot in that year,” she recalls.
Coupled with her affection for her father was enormous resentment. Reading Night Studio is like eavesdropping on a marathon therapy session; the author, a counselor by training, finds no hurt too small to dismiss. Once, for instance, her father made her a cookie in the shape of a horse, but refused to let her eat it—instead he hung it up, and admired his own handiwork. On another occasion, when young Musa attempted a still life and asked her father for his opinion of it, Guston told her gently, “I don’t mean to hurt you, darling. . . but that’s simply not painting.” Offenses such as these don’t exactly qualify as acts of child abuse, but Mayer, who’s in her mid-forties, treats them as if they did. “Being a good father certainly was the least of his concerns,” she writes with characteristic self-righteousness. “While being a good daughter was . . . the greatest of mine.”
Guston wasn’t much more dependable as a husband than he was as a father. Night Studio is dedicated to Musa McKim Guston, who’s depicted in its pages as a meek, saintly woman content to spend her hours emptying ashtrays, screening her husband’s phone calls, leaving egg-salad sandwiches and thermoses of black coffee outside his studio door. The quintessential artist’s wife, she gave up her painting career to minister to her husband, only to be rewarded with his depressions, drinking, and habitual womanizing. Twice he ran off with other women, and he stayed away for as long as a year before returning home. Musa, his muse, forgave him for everything. When he died, she found herself fantasizing about the old Hindu custom of suttee, in which a wife lies down beside her husband on his funeral pyre. “I would like to have done that,” she later told her daughter.
Night Studio has an undeniable vividness. After I finished it, I kept thinking of Guston sitting up all night at his kitchen table, chain-smoking Camels, his bloodshot eyes ringed in darkness. Mayer makes you feel for Guston, and for herself and her mother, too. Yet a major problem with the book is that it offers little more than snapshots of distress. We don’t learn anything about Guston’s career beyond the most skeletal details, and divorced from his achievements, Guston could be anyone; he comes across as a generic suffering artist. When Mayer ventures away from home turf and tries to capture the New York art scene, she’s not in control of her subject. In 1963 she attended a Christmas party at Mark and Mel Rothko’s Manhattan town house: “They seemed to have everything, I remember thinking .... But then, seven years later, Mark Rothko shot himself.” Rothko didn’t shoot himself; he slit his wrists. It’s hard to know which is more offensive—this misstatement or the way the author slyly saved it for the last line of a chapter, squeezing every possible ounce of melodrama out of Rothko’s death.
For all its obvious limitations, Night Studio is the first book to offer a glimpse at Guston’s private life. He’s always been known, compared to the other Abstract Expressionists, as a model of sanity: a warm, enthusiastic teacher held in high esteem by his students, a sensitive intellectual who hung out with poets and whom Philip Roth once dedicated a novel to. (If you don’t think that’s a telling detail, just try to imagine Roth dedicating a novel to Jackson Pollock.) Reading Night Studio, you realize that Guston was as haunted as anyone. In matters of self-destruction, he had few rivals; he continued drinking, and smoking sixty cigarettes a day, even after a first heart attack nearly killed him.
Knowing this, you begin to understand why Guston’s abstractions never really satisfied him, and why he eventually stopped working in that vein. Painting, a large, pink-hued Guston in the Museum of Modern Art, from 1954, consists of thousands of short, stubby strokes clustered densely together. These strokes gravitate toward the center of the painting, like shreds of colored iron pulled by a magnet. A central image threatens to erupt, but never does; you sense that the artist was looking for a core, for something solid—a form, a form of expression—only to have his efforts reduced to so many broken, disconnected gestures. Guston couldn’t find what he was looking for, not through abstraction anyway, and that’s probably why the bundles of strokes in the middle of the painting are painted a deep, violent red. It’s almost as if he was depending on color to do his work for him, to endow the painting with the emotional force he was obviously striving for, but that he couldn’t achieve through gesture alone.
Musa Mayer was going through her father’s desk one day when she came across something he once wrote in the Seventies:
American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit. A mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be ... . What a sham! Abstract art hides it, hides the lie, a fake! Don’t! Let it show! It is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the “raw,” primitive feelings about the world—and us in it. In America.
Where are the wooden floors—the light bulbs—the cigarette smoke? Where are the brick walls? Where is what we feel—without notions—ideas—good intentions? No, just conform to the banks—the plazas—monuments to the people who own this country— give everyone the soothing lullaby of “art.”
This is a rather amazing statement. At first, it smacks of rank philistinism, of the kind of suspicion of abstract art often voiced in the Fifties by critics like Emily Genauer, who thought of abstraction as so much empty pattern. Guston didn’t really hate abstract art. What he hated was that he lacked the gift for formal invention that could have allowed him to discover in his work—his abstract work, that is—the emotional authenticity he admired, and perhaps envied, in the work of Pollock or de Kooning. It must have bothered him to hear his abstractions described as minor; it bothered him because it was true.
And so, in 1968, he stopped painting abstract pictures and returned to figuration. He eventually created a circus of cartoon freaks: hooded Klansmen, creepy black spiders, decapitated heads with gargantuan eyes and stubbly chins. Sometimes these heads are shown staring at empty bottles, or drowning in black waves, or recumbent on a hospital bed, puffing a cigarette. Clearly, there’s a strong autobiographical element in these paintings; and while one is almost reluctant to draw any parallels between Guston’s life and work at a time when speculation about artists’ lives (particularly Picasso’s) is threatening to reduce art history to a branch of the gossip industry, there can be no denying that Guston’s work was motivated by an instinct for confession.
The son of a Russian immigrant, he was born Phillip Goldstein, and reportedly changed his name early on to make himself more acceptable to his non-Jewish wife and her family. He always felt ashamed of having changed his name, and his guilt was no doubt bound up with the memory of his father’s suicide; when Guston was around ten, he walked into a shed and found his father, Leib Goldstein, hanging from a rope. It is a measure of the artist’s self-loathing that he later depicted himself as a Klansman; The Studio shows a cartoon Klansman seated at an easel. In other paintings, dense tangles of human legs hang over brick walls, or hang out of the sky. Discarded shoes are piled up everywhere. Naked light bulbs dangle from ropes. These images evoke Nazi death camps, interrogation rooms, a hanging man. It was in his late paintings, which are surely his most profound, that Guston finally reconciled the violence of memory with his warm, slow, glowing way with paint.
Guston first exhibited his late figure paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970, and they didn’t go over well. Within the ranks of Abstract Expressionism, he was denounced as a Judas, a cynical defector to the crude style and vernacular spirit of Pop art and comic strips. After the opening, his wife jotted in her diary: “P. said Lee Krasner hadn’t spoken to him at the gallery; had told someone that the work was ‘embarrassing.’” Guston was hurt by the reaction to his show. Once, his daughter relates, he accepted a ride home from a party with a woman who made the mistake of telling him, while she was driving, that she preferred his abstractions to his later work. “Stop the car!” Guston shouted, jumping out in the middle of a highway.
It wasn’t until after Guston’s death that his late figure paintings finally won recognition. The other day, I received a press release from the Museum of Modern Art, where a show of Guston’s drawings opens this month,1 and read that Guston was “a singularly vital and formative influence on many of the young generation of artists working in a Neo-figurative idiom.” It’s a claim we’ve heard quite often lately, but it misses the point. It’s like saying we should admire Michelangelo because he spawned Pontormo and the Mannerists.
About six pages into her memoir, Musa Mayer recounts a “pilgrimage” she made to California a few years ago to learn about her father’s past. Guston had never introduced his daughter to any of his brothers or sisters; he had severed all relations with his family after moving to New York. In Los Angeles, Mayer tracked down a cousin who knew her father as a child. “Philip always had a pencil in his hand,” this cousin recalled, going on to say that Guston started drawing seriously after his father’s death, as if line alone could somehow transport him away from his sorrow. It took him a whole lifetime to come to terms with his troubled past, and it’s taken his daughter that long, too, though Night Studio is a sore reminder that it takes more than dark memories to produce art.
Eleanor Munro, like Musa Mayer, grew up in the shadow of an accomplished father. He wasn’t famous, but Thomas Munro, a writer and art educator, couldn’t have loomed larger in his daughter’s imagination had he been Zeus. She perceived him as a figure of daunting erudition and refinement, a colossus of culture who spoke flawless French, loved opera, and could recite Kipling and Longfellow from memory. Family evenings in Cleveland, Ohio, were spent listening to records from her father’s encyclopedic collection—Bach, Chinese flutes, readings of Whitman and Shakespeare. When Munro and her family went for a hike, her father would have them march in step to the names of heroes: “U...lys...ses... Pro...metheus... We walk in their tracks.”
All this passed for the stuff of greatness in the eyes of the young Eleanor Munro, who grew up both revering her father and resenting his powerful hold on her. Her Memoir of a Modernist’s Daughter, which is described on the dust jacket as a “pilgrimage toward self-liberation,” is intended as the story of how she broke free of her father’s influence. As long as she continued to idolize him, she felt diminished, unable to gauge her own talents or act on them. “My ignorance,” she tells us, . . felt bottomless.” The task she set for herself in writing her memoir was to knock the pedestal from beneath her father and bring him down to size.
Who was this Thomas Munro? For a while he worked in the education department of the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he instituted Saturday-morning art classes for schoolchildren, “model programs copied across the nation,” according to his daughter. Later he edited a publication called The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, “setting up a worldwide network of estheticians which extended even behind the Iron Curtain.” He also wrote several books on aesthetics, which were “monumental, plain-spoken, near-universal in detail.” To be sure, Thomas Munro, a disciple of John Dewey who viewed the arts as a vehicle for social improvement, was respected in his time as the author of The Arts and Their Interrelations (1949); yet his daughter’s stardust descriptions of his works do little to help us understand why. Adulation takes the place of analysis on virtually every page of her book.
Munro’s real subject, she tells us in the preface, is the difficulty of growing up “in the shadow of an intellectually confident father rooted in ideology.” Yet we never really learn what ideology she’s referring to. Munro is much less interested in defining her father’s ideas than in simply celebrating “the breadth and richness of his mind.” She’s proud of how cultured he was. He worked in an “enormous” office, “surrounded by thousands of volumes on all the works of man, with eighteenth-century music on the phonograph.” Once, as a youth, he and some friends were attending a garden party in Greenwich Village when it started to rain: “They all stripped off their clothes . . . and danced in the wet grass .... To be naked was exalting and brought to mind the noble shapes of Phidias and Rubens.” Culture is everywhere and nowhere in this book, alluded to a thousand times but never probed or pondered.
In 1952, Munro settled in New York and found herself a job as an editorial assistant at Art News magazine. There she met Alfred Frankfurter, the editor and publisher. The last third of Munro’s Memoir, a chronicle of her short marriage to Frankfurter (he died in 1965), is supposed to reveal how Munro’s feelings for her father trapped her into marriage with a man just like him, one she found brilliant despite his old-fashioned ideas about women. (And he was old-fashioned. Before they were married, Frankfurter once wrote her in a love letter, “I want, I really want, to delegate you to our home, its decoration, the shape of our social life . . . .“) Yet, here again, Munro has not sufficiently distanced herself from her subject to endow it with interest. After all these years, she seems to be still in awe of Frankfurter, and the claims she makes on behalf of his reputation are rather grandiose:
Under his direction, Art News had been a catapult lifting the Abstract Expressionists to fame .... The role Art News played in those events has been almost entirely passed over by today’s art historians and even, to their discredit, by some who lived through them .... [Thomas B.] Hess, whose reputation would soar in later decades, was the angel behind the new movement, but he was backed up and goaded on by Frankfurter, whose tough expertise and roots in the wider art world were critical to the movement’s success.
It’s hardly a secret that Art News, under Frankfurter’s direction, was notoriously hostile to the Abstract Expressionists until the late 1940s, when Hess joined the staff. Hess was indeed an ardent champion of the Abstract Expressionists, a collector of their work, and he wrote the first book about them, in 1951. Nevertheless, it wasn’t Art News that first introduced the painters to the public; it was Clement Greenberg, writing in The Nation and Partisan Review; it was Life and Time, responding to Greenberg’s articles. Art News was a latecomer. For Munro to claim that Frankfurter not only elevated the Abstract Expressionists to fame, but that the movement as a whole could not have succeeded without him—this is simply rubbish.
Munro, who’s around sixty, writes like a wide-eyed schoolgirl bedazzled by the big outside world. Part of her realizes that neither her father nor Frankfurter were model human beings; her father, she concedes, was a narrow-minded thinker who opposed integration of the public schools and bristled at the notion of her marriage to a Jew. Frankfurter, by comparison, was a tireless opportunist who often used his writing to win social influence with people like the Rothschilds and the Sitwells. Yet for all the shortcomings of these two men, Munro in the end can’t help being seduced by the illusion of security—and cultural superiority—they afforded her. “Our father’s work and taste set us apart,” she smugly notes, speaking for herself and her siblings. Eleven pages later, she visits the home of a high-school classmate in Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb. The fathers there, compared to her own, “did not come down hard on ideas they disagreed with, having none of their own.” This is an offensive statement, and it reminded me of something Delmore Schwartz once said: there’s nothing so great about ideas; taxi drivers have them, too.
In the preface to her Memoir, Munro states that her book is intended as a female equivalent of Gosse’s Father and Son. There’s a wonderful moment in that book when the young Gosse, who was warned by his parents never to worship anyone or anything but God, puts their religious beliefs to a test. After waiting for his parents to safely leave the house, he places a chair on a table, kneels down before it, and says his daily prayer, addressing it to “O Chair” instead of to God. Then he waits nervously for something bad to happen. But nothing does. It was a tiny act of defiance, but it shook his faith in his father forever. Perhaps Eleanor Munro needs to get down on her knees and say an “O Chair.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 1, on page 72
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