“Painting definitely contains a therapeutic aspect”
Bernhard Martin on Philip Guston, Comics, and Loneliness in the Studio

Bernard Martin was recently awarded the Fred Thieler Prize for his “conceptual, yet narrative approach to the medium of painting.” Martin’s excessive paintings don’t aim for an individual signature, but search out the appropriate style for each theme he addresses. As a result, his paintings contain a variety of references ranging from Renaissance painting to Picasso and Bacon. Philip Guston is also one of the artists revered by Martin, many of whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. On the occasion of the major Guston show on view at the beginning of the year at the Schirn in Frankfurt, he talked with curator Ingrid Pfeiffer about the American painter’s controversial late work—a conversation that also reveals much about Bernhard Martin’s own artistic work.
Ingrid Pfeiffer: Why do some many painters I meet—whether in Europe or in the USA—say Guston is their great hero?

Bernhard Martin: I’m sorry to say that I’m not necessarily one of them. Other artists are more important to me. But of the Americans of his generation, Guston is my favorite. There are several reasons. First, because he’s a great painter, who made a radical switch from abstraction to figuration. Every artist knows how much chutzpah you need to do that. Secondly, because of the gesture of his painting. The way he applies the paint, his gestures, the spiritual and intuitive aspect—all of this makes him appeal to many other artists.


Ingrid Pfeiffer has been a curator at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt since 2001. She has conceptualized numerous exhibitions including Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors (2002/03), Yves Klein Retrospective (2004/05), James Ensor (2005/06), Barbara Kruger. Circus (2011), and Yoko Ono: Half-A-Wind Show (2013).

Bernhard Martin is among the most willful German artists. Many German and international institutions have devoted solo exhibitions to him, including the Städtische Galerie Wolfsburg (2008/09), the Arario Gallery, Seoul (2006), and MoMA PS1, New York (2001). Bernhard Martin’s works are included in collections such as that of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, and the Deutsche Bank Collection.


IP: That generally applies to his abstract paintings. They are simply very beautiful. His late work, however, is very puzzling—nothing you want to surround yourself with in everyday life. The huge heads, also referred to as Cyclops because all you see is one large eye. The stubbly hair, the nasty feet and shoes which in this collection have something violent about them. These works were associated with war, Vietnam, and the Holocaust. And the titles, such as Cave, Pit, and Tomb. That’s all very disturbing, back then surely more than today.

BM: My perception is completely different. I can’t see the merits of his abstract paintings. They’re much too one-dimensional. But I still find them interesting. You can see how Guston experimented with pastosity. I don’t find his late works ugly or disturbing at all. This morning, I had another look at some photos from Woodstock, where he lived at the time. It’s a very small enclave. You can only achieve a transformation like Guston’s if you withdraw. To the solitude of the studio, surrounded by paint, pots, brushes… If you can’t find a solution for a painting, you sit on the sofa twiddling your thumbs and look down at your feet. Everything that happens in Guston’s paintings is very obvious. Later, he goes beyond the window, to an imaginary view of the city. He doesn’t paint landscapes, probably because he can’t find a solution for them or the style is too kitschy for him. I think that what many people identify as gravestones in his paintings are actually urban vedute.

IP: No, that’s what the works are called. I wouldn’t necessarily call these works violent. I recognize a whimsical humor in them. That’s a very important point. He had a tragic life, he lost his father …

BM: … when he was very young.

IP:
As a small boy he discovered the corpse of his father, who had hung himself. That’s an experience after which anyone might see a psychoanalyst for the rest of his life. Guston had something very poignant to say about this: “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.” That’s a quote from Rilke. According to the most recent brain research, we don’t necessarily have to continually work through bad experiences. We can overcome them by overlaying them with good experiences. Guston layered, as it were, his own world over the traumatic experience of he had when he was a little boy. And this gave rise to the black humor, the grotesque, the bizarre in his work. He overcomes the hardness of the world with a twinkle in his eye.

BM: There’s something very therapeutic about painting. That’s one reason I became a painter.

IP: Do you paint at night too?

BM: I paint at all times of the day and night. I paint when I get the urge. That’s why we spend so much time in the studio. That’s why we perceive objects in our surroundings so incredibly intensely. A sofa takes on a different meaning, or a shoelace, or the cigarette in the ashtray—all of this is very present. This is a very important theme with Guston, I believe. The solitude of the painter in the studio, being all alone.

IP:
There’s a very impressive painting he did called Bad Habits. It depicts Guston’s bad habits—working late at night, his depression, the greasy food he ate, the alcohol, the cigarettes. Everything is very reduced … the paintbrush, the book, the bottles …  

BM:
Which brings us back to the studio situation. Those are the things he looks at all day long. I can relate completely. I also have phases when I drink alcohol in the studio. Often, they’re very creative phases. Suddenly I have bottles of gin and whisky in the fridge. I can see this very clearly in his paintings. The lonely light bulbs, the bottle—that’s a typical image. When he’s sitting in his studio and doesn’t know what to do. You wait for the moment when you can truly define what you want. I don’t know how much time he spent on his paintings.

IP:
It varied. Sometimes he worked on them for only a very short time, and sometimes for a very long period.

BM: You can tell from the layers. He used very soft oil paints so that he could paint such impastos.

IP:
There are large sections of his paintings that are incredibly picturesque. When you stand in front of the originals, it’s pure painting. Some of the works are three meters wide. And it’s interesting to note that many painters today are painting very large works again. There are a few artists I’m very critical of, because they use this format to show how great they are. In such cases, the large size has something dominant. It’s about overwhelming the viewer. I find this almost …

BM:
… pretentious

IP: And mostly devoid of humor. These artists take themselves incredibly seriously.

BM: A common occurrence in Germany painting.

IP:
Yes. “I’m a great master.” And a master paints large works, a new Rubens …

BM: … a painter prince.

IP: Exactly. But with Guston the large format means the opposite, because he shows his own weakness, as it were, his vulnerability more clearly. The large size is not an expression of inflated self-esteem. He puts his questions on a bigger surface. I find that exciting. Guston is a very subtle, sensitive painter. I see a lot of vulnerability, self-scrutiny, and ruthless candor in his work. He presents the problem, not the solution.   

BM:
That’s the hardest thing, finding yourself, with all your facets and abysses. And that’s the difference—as you pointed out—to the painter princes. But with Guston there’s another interesting aspect, which is one reason why he’s so popular among people in my generation, who grew up with comics. He comes from comics. Guston and Pollock knew each other from early childhood on and made comic drawings at the very beginning, before they studied art. That’s very American. To my mind, Guston was the first figurative painter in the USA. The others didn’t paint. They took other routes. Although he actually comes from Abstract Expressionism—another very American phenomenon—I see him as the first figurative painter the USA ever produced. He’s the most American artist, in my opinion, because he unites three important American phenomena: jazz, comics, and Abstract Expressionism.

IP:
A bold hypothesis!

BM: We have to make hypothesis! Of course I see this through a painter’s glasses.

IP:
Guston is often associated with the epithet “bad painting,” but he surely would have rebuffed this, because at bottom he was a classical artist. I even see him as being very European. He went to Italy umpteen times to view the originals of Renaissance paintings he had admired as young man. He engaged more with Giotto and Piero della Francesca than with the painters of his own era. When “bad painting” emerged in the 1970s, he had already moved out into the country and was doing his own thing—his figurative late work that is so famous today.

BM:
I also took a break. I withdrew for three years to experiment with new things. I realized I had reached a dead end and that if didn’t make a change I’d be doomed to repeat myself.

IP: Very audacious.

BM: You don’t actually acknowledge this—you simply follow your instincts. You realize that it’s reached the point where you aren’t making headway with your old stuff. You have to take a new path. But the repercussions can be more unpleasant than you thought.  

IP:
That’s exactly what happened to Guston. He didn’t expect that people would stop buying his work.

BM: We’re all in the same boat. Which reminds me of something Picasso said: You should always show your old works, never the new ones. He knew this from his own experience, of course. At some point he was too far ahead in terms of his development and the others couldn’t follow him …

IP:Picasso was always breaking new ground. He changed his style continually. But I don’t think Guston ever sold many works. For most of his life, he lived off of money he made from teaching. The art market wasn’t very big at the time. In 1962, he had a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, which he saw as an endpoint. And Abstract Expressionism was on the wane. Pop, Conceptual Art, and Fluxus had arrived, styles he couldn’t relate to. He left his gallery because it embraced Pop. Many of his friends, including Pollock, were dead. Everything was falling apart. In addition, Guston considered the 1960s to be very violent. There was the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, racial unrest. He had had a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan in his youth and was very politically active in the thirties and forties. This all came to a head in the sixties. He experience this period as being steeped in upheaval and didn’t paint at all for two year. In 1966 and 67, he only drew. In the seventies he taught a lot. He was a gifted teacher, he could talk his head off. He was always surrounded by young artists.  

BM:
And we mustn’t forget that artists like Polke and Richter were rediscovered by young artists. In their early 50s, no one gave a hoot about them any more. They were brought back into the ring by their students and ex-students, including Guston.

IP: And it was young people who came to Guston’s openings in New York. He didn’t sell anything, but the galleries were always full of young artists. That’s always a good sign. When other artists like your work, you’ll be successful one day.