Witnessing Life

What does it mean to be an artist?

Witnessing Life

I was in London last weekend and Sarah convinced me to go to the Philip Guston exhibition at the Tate with her. I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter as we had to stick together and get the train back to Edinburgh right after, and the tickets were 2 for 1. My attendance was required!

I was able to enjoy the exhibition with zero preconceptions, by which I mean I knew absolutely nothing about Philip Guston. If you are in London, I would certainly recommend the exhibition, and if you're not, I would recommend looking him up online.

The main thing I concluded from the exhibition is that he was an artist that grappled with the weight of the world and if and how that weight should influence his paintings. I suppose that this is quite a common feeling, but it's always welcome to see something relatable articulated well. See this quote (which was featured in the exhibition):

What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?

Philip Guston was in a fury about different things than me, but it is strangely comforting to think that someone who was alive decades before I was even born (1913-1980) was thinking about things that I think about now. And it’s also sad that there is still so much to be in a fury about. How can you make art about what is going on in the world - and how can you justify not making work about it? He found a way to do both, somehow, being a witness to what was going on in his studio and the world outside of it. They overlap in his paintings, evil with a pink background. He said: “Well, that’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this”.

Sarah stood in front of the wall with these small paintings, which show all sorts of objects - the back of a head, a shade, a boot. They are hung in exactly the way they were hung in his studio in Woodstock. While I was contemplating the logistics of this, Sarah told me that she loved them and why: that they are all different sizes; the limited colour palette; the simplicity of each of them; how you can see traces of his earlier abstract work. In the gift shop, they sold prints of these paintings, and Sarah held them up and asked if I would consider putting a couple up in our flat. “I like them”, I said, “but what I would like more is if you made paintings of things from our life”. I suddenly felt very strongly about this. I want our life to be witnessed by us.

I used to write down almost anything that happened to me, for that reason: that I wanted to make sure it had been witnessed. To make it real. The older I get, the more I realise that this obsessive chronicling wasn’t really making me happy - it was quite time consuming and not really getting me anywhere with my work. These days, I just write things down that feel important - but I suppose the question is, how do I know what’s important? Is there a right way to witness?

I’ve been thinking about these quotes all week. About what it means to be an artist. About what kind of woman I am, sitting at home, looking at my phone, going into a frustrated fury about almost everything - and then going onto my computer to adjust a red to a blue.

Thank you for witnessing this newsletter,

L x

Here are a couple of entirely unrelated sketches from today: