“I want to paint like the first man.” Philip Guston
At the Tyler School of Art just outside of Philadelphia from 1980-82, I studied with Stephen Greene. My teacher’s teacher was Philip Guston. Stephen Greene was my teacher, but what he gleaned from his master teacher he passed on to me. What did he pass on? Somewhere I read a quote of Philip’s stating about his painting, “I wanted to paint like the first man.” That’s a long time ago. Like 35,000 years ago. What was the “first man” painting about, and why was that so significant for Guston, a well known modern American Abstract Expressionist painter, to say that?
This is a bull from Altamira caves in northern Spain. Red and Black. We get it. We get the feel of it. The accuracy of it. The passion of it. It comes through to us thirty-seven millennium later. Probably one of those “first men” painted it. The ones Guston wanted to paint like. Well, how did they paint? Were they painting their world? Most likely the hunter in them wanted to picture their prey in the most reverential way. They wanted to pay homage to what sustained their life. The herds were a life line to their existence, and this individual bull a player in their cosmology of sacred life giving Source. And they were also painting about their fears, their aspirations, their hopes of a successful hunt, and the very survival of their world.
The First Man Painted His World.
We are no longer hunters in the sense we have to go out and find and kill our meat. We get it from the local Harris Teeter or Whole Foods. Many of us are vegetarians now, and we don’t even grow our own corn and beans. Others do that as well, and we get all the veggies we need at the supermarket too. But we still want to paint our world.
Philip Guston was a friend of Jackson Pollock at the time painters were ditching the need to paint a “representation” of something. They wanted to paint a feeling, or an action, or a gesture of color, or a collision of colors and forms banging into one another on the surface of their canvases. Guston painted this in 1956 and called it “Voyage.”
One could imagine the first man and his delight of applying some smattering of pigment, most likely congealed together with animal fat, scumbled onto the cave wall. This is Guston’s version of scumbling. Titled “Voyage,” it’s a voyage of paint. The red and the green in the middle—is it a remembrance of Christmas? the Italian colors of their flag? Or just a love for compliments? It is certainly a whole set of painted movements that culminate in the explosion of two pure red and green swatches, bursting open our appreciation for those two colors and all their associations in our world.
In 1956, when Guston painted this work, it had been a long voyage for him by now. His parents were Russian Jews from Odessa. Philip was born in 1913 in Montreal, Canada, then his family moved to Los Angeles in 1919. The Ku Klux Klan was very prominent in Los Angeles at that time. DW Griffith had produced the “Birth of a Nation” in Hollywood which promoted the KKK, and was probably the most racially detrimental film made to that date in the USA. And Jews and blacks were the targets of the Klan’s prejudice. Perhaps the pressures of these persecutions, (that were being romanticized by Griffith) and the added financial responsibility of raising a family got the better of his father. When Philip was only ten years old, his dad committed suicide by hanging himself in the shed. The boy found him. That was some impression on his cave wall.
Later in his painting career, Guston would abandon his Abstract Expressionism style and revisit this imagery of the Ku Klux Klan and its hooded racism he experienced in his youth. Sometimes an artist will face his worst fears or his worst “hates” by exploring the very crux of these deep emotional traumas in his paintings.
Earlier in his career Guston was a muralist of Social Realism in the depression years of the 1930s and war years of the 1940s. The break from representational subject matter came in the early 50’s during his association with Jackson Pollock and the New York School. But after the tumult of the 1960’s, three principle assassinations, and a growing tide of racial tension, Guston picked up his “brush of the first man” in a different way again. He scrawled his bloody depiction of surviving this onslaught of the KKK herd, and turned this rumble of racism into some kind of edgy artistic expression on the cave walls of his studio—albeit on panels of canvas. Red and Black—like the bull of Altamira.
“In order to paint a fish you must be a fish,” as the astute Chinese saying for painters goes. So I suppose the chain smoking Philip felt compelled to don the pointed hood of the Klansman to dig into the poignant parody of the fact that racism in America was far from dead. The cave walls of America were peopled with tremendous fear and social divides.
The Hand of God
There is a bit of the Hand of God in everything the painter puts together, whether he is willing to admit it or not. Some kind of working through the dramas of the day, the fashions, and the intrepid eye of the chronicler of his times, the hand of the painter will inevitably reveal the pulse of his period. Guston would live past the 1960s, through the 70s for ten more years. He died in 1980 of a heart attack. He was only 66.
But before he left he made his “mark of the first man.” There is elevation even amidst the apparent parody. Just to make a mark, in this case a line, comes from on high. As if from the nebulous cloud of the creative force, some more specific gesture ensues on the wall of the first man. An artist, more specifically a painter in this case, is born again, and again, and again. There is continuity in mark making and brushing, blowing, slapping or scumbling some paint on a surface. One cannot escape the yearnings of the first man. So why pretend to be otherwise?
The More Refined Nature of a Student
Stephen Greene was my teacher. I was his student. He was Philip Guston’s student. He was also Frank Stella’s teacher at Princeton. The painting lineage looked something like this: Philip Guston ➔ Stephen Greene ➔ Frank Stella and me. Our work does not physically resemble each other’s at all, but perhaps the passion for painting does, like that of the First Man who Painted.
Stephen was more refined. He painted with the finesse of delicate gestures, not the more blocky brushstrokes of Guston, or the calculated constructions of Stella.
I would call Stephen’s work “lyrical abstraction.” There is a real music in it. It is refined and delicate. He may be beaconing to a bone or a moulding compost of a luscious lament of color, but he brings us to an uplifting moment. There is a light at the end of a very long dark. There is a yellow green hope in the middle of a gray cloud of despair. He was still of the Guston generation that lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression, but he was removed enough into the Joy of a new day that he could grow up into the garden of an earthly delight.
Somewhere in Between I Fell
There was an attraction for me with the hand. I wanted to “paint like the first man” as well. It was in my genes. It came through my hands. I fell somewhere between the gutsy, cartoony, recalcitrant rejection of authority and the lyrical musings of a painter in the Garden of Eden. The tools that hit the ground running and kept me afloat after art school were also the themes of a kind of existential assertion of an angry pilgrim headed for the doldrums of discontent.
“Primordial Hatchet” was actually purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1984. It is a charcoal drawing that won first place in the Cheltenham Art competition. With that accolade, I suppose, the Museum bought it. It was prickly and stoney and adequately Neanderthal, somewhere with the head of a Rubik’s Cube.
It was not until Rebirthing in 1985-7 that I realized I was stuck in the mindset of rebellion and the crucifixion theme, totally forgetting there was a brighter side of life. I had somehow lost my joie de vivre of earlier color works and made some stand in the caves of the first man. Where was the light at the end of this long tunnel? Was I willing to give up my “tragic sense of life?” Once I started reading A Course in Miracles in 1985 my obsession with Guston’s “hands of the first man” and my old primordial ways became more and more obsolete. There was a resurrection taking place in my Self and in my art life.
I would always be kind of edgy. The atmospheric swatches of cloudy grays broken by a bolt of brilliant color would not be my way, as it was with Stephen Greene. But neither would the hands of a primordial caveman be the ones guiding my brush. Somewhere I fell through the cracks of my own academia into a world redeemed and free to rise again into my own newness.
A Resurrection of Sorts
A person makes their own iconography. You can look all you want at the subject matter of other painters, but at some point you have to claim your own in the formation of an artistic character. I am not a minimalist, nor am I a realist. I don’t draw like Caravaggio. Nor am I thrown into the amorphous muddle of paint just caked, baked, slaked or raked. My painting is more than just paint on a surface, even if elegantly applied. We could babble away with sounds of vowels and consonants, but eventually we would want them linked into words and phrases. I looked literally toward God for the Hand I needed to employ.
“Heaven on Earth” was one of my best works from this period. I superimposed the Star of David on top of the symbol for Allah. When I read about Islam and discovered Muhammad had descended from Abraham and his son Ishmael (that he had with his maid and concubine), then it was very clear the whole conflict in the Middle East is one of simple sibling rivalry. What the hell? God is God and Peace and Joy are Peace and Joy. We have to just get over it. And there you have “Heaven on Earth.” The “two” become “one.” Om Namah Shivay! It is up to us to choose Heaven on Earth. It is that simple.
I was having a resurrection of sorts. Art should uplift and liberate, not put our face in the primordial conflicts and imagery of death and destruction. No matter how “alive” one makes a Klansman’s hood of hidden hate, the hand of the first man goes way back before the age of Altamira 35,000 years ago. The hands of Light Beings in the time of Creation could only render Eden, from the Hand of God that created this Eden. And this was my job now. The first man collected in the hands and faces of Saints and Sages of time immemorial. My subject was becoming more clear.
Babaji and the Holy Masters
Sondra Ray took me to Herakhan, Babaji’s ashram in the Himalayas, in 1987 and 1989. I met my Spiritual Teacher, Tara Singh, in 1989. The time for regression to some primordial state of life threatening drama was over. The age of Self-Identity was upon me. Heaven is the decision I was faced to make. This became my responsibility. I found it somewhere in the face. The face of Spiritual Masters. I began to paint them.
Could it be that the image of the Holy Face of a Spiritual Master painted with the same reverence and intensity of the “hand of the first painter” for the bulls and bison of the prehistoric caves could invoke the same power of presence? This was my job to prove it could.
Ten Years of Icon Painting
I have spent over ten years now painting Icons. I was not trying to retrieve some worn out genre of the past, but rather paint the discoveries I was making spiritually inside myself. It just so happened that the Spiritual Masters, starting with my teacher, Tara Singh, came very much to the forefront of my thoughts, and painting devotions.
I still want to paint like the first man, but this goes far more into the ancient past than this era. The Vedic Scriptures speak of “Light Beings” who came to earth and held the space for Heaven to cover the planet in a Divine Blessing. This is the function of man on earth. This is the function of all great art. This is my function.
I hope the Hand of God will be guiding my brushes in every expression that comes forth out of me in the rest of my time on earth. I pray that I have the strength to continue for another whole painting life, at 66. I pray I am good for another 66, en route to painting immortality. In that year of 66, Philip Guston, one strongly in my artistic lineage, decided to leave his world of hooded shooters and heavy footed heads of cigar smoking caricatures for the legacy of a different time and order. My legacy has just begun, it seems, now that I am free of all past associations. Even the ones I have concocted in my first 66 years of painting like the first man.