GUSTON BY THE BOOK:
Solipsistic Riffs, Gonzo Recollections and
Reprobate Ruminations on
Art, Aging, and Late-Life Rebirth
Having grown up in a working class milieu where museum visits were hardly habitual, I got my initial exposure to fine art from books in the New York Public Library. In retrospect, this seems not a bad way to get acquainted with great painting and sculpture, given the intimacy that books afford to look and learn at one's leisure. At very least such solitary perusal of pictures was superior to our occasional school field trips to museums, during which one's encounters with works of art were glancing at best, and were invariably interrupted by the antics of rowdy fellow students and the authoritarian tendencies of teachers.
Actually, only such excursion my first to the Museum of Modern Art stands out in memory. It took place during a period in elementary school when, because my mother was gravely ill and I was unable to concentrate, I was placed temporarily in what they then called the "ungraded class" a euphemism for a repository for misfits even sadder than today's "special education" classes.
It seemed that I alone among my classmates the boy who picked his nose and ate the produce like raisins; the girl who lifted her skirt at regular intervals to show her pretty cotton panties; another kid whose fixed grin had no relation to mirth was aware that something more than our obvious disparities of age and size made us an odd bunch, as we stood transfixed before Pavel Tchelitchew's huge, neon-garish crowd-pleaser "Hide and Seek" (the most popular painting in MoMA's collection before being deemed an embarrassment to the institutional taste and stuck back in storage), in which the veiny heads of children even stranger than ourselves were half-concealed among the branches of a giant gnarled tree that morphed into a claw-like hand and a monumental foot with a fetus for a big toe...
Could this memory, as subliminated as the details in Tchelitchew's kitsch masterpiece until it came back to me just a minute or two ago while writing this, account for the inexplicable sense of unease that sometimes visits me in museums?
In any case, I was conditioned early to experience art most comfortably in reproduction, just as I seem to experience life most comfortably in books. And while I'm certainly not denying the advantages of seeing works in the original, I still take great pleasure in contemplating them in miniature at my own leisure especially now that museum galleries are ever more heavily trafficked with hordes of obligatory culture consumers, led through by intrusively lecturing tour guides, making the conditions for thoughtful contemplation of the works on view hardly ideal.
The way we all too often rush through museums in a half-distracted blur, so eager to take in everything that we miss a great deal, was brought home to me quite literally one day last week, when my wife returned from the post office with a large format paperback called Philip Guston Retrospective, which had been sent to us for possible review by the publisher, Thames & Hudson.
"You've always liked Guston, maybe you could do something on him for the cover of our next issue," said Jeannie, who besides being the love of my life is the pushiest editor I have ever worked with, placing the book on my desk.
"I doubt it," I said, "Robert Storr already did Guston to death."
I don't mention this only because Storr, who also curated the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the MoMA and will direct the 2007 Venice Biennial, wrote recently to tell me how much he had enjoyed my cover story on John Graham in Gallery&Studio (although I certainly don't mind boasting about the caliber of art world professionals who read and respond to the articles in this publication), but because his book Philip Guston, published as part of Abbeville Press's Modern Masters series, is the definitive text on the artist. And since it came out in 1986, six years after Guston's death, it wasn't like there would be new work to write about.
"Well, why don't you look at the book anyway?" Jeannie said, never being one to take no for an answer. "I'm going to make a cup of tea, would you like one?"
It turned out that the book was first published in 2003 as the catalogue for a traveling retrospective that originated at the Modern Art Museum of
Fort Worth, which I saw when it came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. But
as I scanned its numerous color reproductions and skimmed texts by Dore Ashton, Bill Berkson, and Michael Auping, among others whose names I
wasn't as familiar with, it was as though I was
experiencing the show for the first time.
Filled with great pictures, sharp insights, amusing anecdotes, and juicy gossip, the book felt like a good night at the old Cedar Bar, or its 1970s successor, the St. Adrien Company on Lower Broadway, with everybody shouting above the jukebox to be heard. And as my shrewd editor had probably calculated, once caught in the conversational crossfire, I
couldn't resist the urge to add my own garrulous voice to the general hubbub.
How could any writer resist the innate drama of an established Abstract Expressionist master suddenly risking everything and alienating friends, collectors, and critical supporters, to pursue a dubious new species of figure painting, especially at a time when those three horsemen of aesthetic compromise Caution, Calculation, and Careerism-were already beginning to rule the American art world? And that Guston had the courage to reinvent himself in his fifty-seventh year even while complaining in a letter to one of the few old friends who stuck by him that "a dominating feeling of getting old puts me in the worst depressive state I've ever been in" made his trajectory all the more inspiring, now that I could no longer look in the mirror without seeing the face of my father at the very age when he appeared most ridiculous to me.
As usual, however, there would be a personal detour or two on the way to the festschrift. For one thing, I would have to go to the bathroom.
* * *
The self consciousness of aging is like puberty in reverse. Not since adolescence has one spent so much time in the mirror. Only now it's spent watching one's hair-line recede, trimming one's graying beard, trying to make a graceful transition from leading man to character actor. (Never mind that one's mate seems forever the ingenue, poised to make an entrance!)
"It is a tradition in Chinese poetry to lament one's gray hair and failing powers, starting from a relatively early age," Burton Watson tells us in The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu, and quotes the following lines as an example: "This year so worn and broken/it really makes you laugh;/hair flecked gray/ashen face ashamed to look at myself!"
One artist, much more recently, took the opposite approach: In the late 80s, John Coplans started exhibiting greatly enlarged Polaroids of his aging body stark naked in order to get in the face of "a culture that hates old people," as he put it. Moved by Coplans' warts and all close-ups of his "sagging chest, fat belly, misshapen feet," art critic Irving Sandler wrote: "there is something tragic but grand about it, in a King Lear sense..."
Only Phillip Lopate, the autumnal dean of personal essayists, is as candid (some might say exhibitionistic) in the title piece of his book "Portrait of My Body" especially in regard to his private parts. After declaring his male equipment "ordinary," Lopate recants, confessing, "Actually my penis does have a peculiarity: it has two peeing holes. They are very close to each other, so that usually only one stream of urine issues, but sometimes a hair gets caught across them, or some such contretemps, and they squirt out in two directions at once."
Having nothing quite as interesting to report about my own aging body, I will stick to my receding hair-line, which probably disturbs me more than it should because hair was such a big deal to my generation, the baby boomers. (Ours, you may recall, was the generation that was never supposed to grow up, much less grow old; the Peter Pan generation whose favorite mantra was "Don't trust anyone over thirty.")
For a man in the 1960s, having long hair was supposed to signify an anti-macho attitude. At least that's what we wanted women (then known as "chicks") to believe. But as so many preening, longhaired rock stars demonstrated ad absurdom, it was actually just another, more insidious form of machismo. What our long hair was saying was that we were so secure in our manhood that we didn't have to settle for being merely handsome we had the balls to be beautiful!
Delusional as that kind of thinking may have been, it was not easy to let go of, even after beauty ceased to be even a remote possibility. So we continued to let our "freak flags fly," to paraphrase one of our many self-congratulatory generational anthems, even after they became as faded and threadbare as the Jolly Roger on a pirate ship that had seen too many battles at sea.
I was reminded of all this recently, when I ran into a fellow dinosaur I had not seen for many years, one of the relatively few African Americans who hung out with the hippies. ("Spadecats" we called them, employing the term with utmost respect for the soulful note of hip legitimacy they brought to the scene but zero awareness of how ironically close it sounded to "spayed" cats.) Anyway, I used to see this dude everywhere: at rock concerts at Fillmore East; cooling it around the fountain with the guitar players and tambourine bangers in Washington Square; tossing a frisbee at the Human Be-ins in the Central Park Sheep Meadow with psychedelic swirls painted on his face and glitter in his huge Afro and Aboriginal beard.
Then I didn't see him for at least thirty years, until we came face to face a few months ago in another park in Chinatown, where he was now gainfully employed as a custodian. It was dusk and he had just finished locking the men's room for the evening. But since we still knew each other by sight, if not by name, he graciously offered to reopen "this brick shithouse," as he described it quite accurately, so I could pee.
While I was in there, standing at the urinal, I noticed a shadowy little room, not much larger than a broom closet, which in fact it may have been, just off the john. The door was ajar and in the semi dark I could make out a narrow cot, a small bookcase, and an old TV propped up on a milk crate. It was clear that he lived in there.
"Man, I gotta keep regular hours in this place or these people would be out here playing mah jong and volley ball till midnight, "he complained when I came back out, gesturing toward all the Chinese, young and old, swarming the park, as though they were unruly children in his charge.
I nodded sympathetically and considered confiding that in the lifetime or so since we were young and set out to change the world, I too had had to abandon our communal dream of unlocking all the doors forever. But being older, clean and sober, no longer eager to spill the entire contents of my psyche at every opportunity, I thanked him for his hospitality and went on my way.
Still, I was happy to see that he had made a more or less safe landing after all our generation's wild flights, and just as pleased to note that, though his old tie-dyes had been replaced by the olive drab uniform of the Parks Department, his Afro, however white and motheaten, was still Hendrix-electric. For while it had been many moons since long hairhis or minehad any real meaning, political or other-ise, we were still brothers under the skin.
* * *
"I used to dream of having my own strip one day," Philip Guston, who took a correspondence course in cartooning when he was 13 and living with his widowed mother in Los Angeles, told his poet friend Bill Berkson many years later.
Even as an adult, Guston still loved the way Bud Fisher, the creator of Mutt and Jeff, drew those big goofy shoes on his characters. He thought Cliff Sterrett, who drew the Gumps and Polly and Her Pals, "did the best furniture," and he also loved Gasoline Alley for "the backyards, porches, screen doors, litter on the steps, dogs, old cars being fixed, dismantled..."
But his all-time favorite comic strip was George Herriman's Krazy Kat. He was not alone in this: de Kooning was a big Krazy Kat fan, and others among his New York School cronies loved the atmospheric drawing style and poetic invented vernacular. Franz Kline, who shunned the New York Times because it didn't have comics, was also among those who faithfully followed Herriman's existential ink opera about a feline fool hopelessly smitten with a feisty little mouse who routinely repels his romantic overtures by braining him with flying bricks that he takes for tokens of love. The most perceptive painters knew that if comic strips were not dismissed, in Robert Crumb's words, as "cheap amusement for the masses, like vaudeville, early movies, pulp magazines, and so on," Herriman's genius would be seen as at least equal to their own.
But what they probably didn't know and what I didn't know until Michael Auping dropped this bomb in passing in the introduction to the new Guston book was that George Herriman was a light-skinned black man. It isn't mentioned in any of the histories of the comic strip that I've read over the years, not even The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a hefty illustrated tome that is supposed to be definitive. I had to go on the Internet to get more information, and what I learned was that Herriman "was a black man passing himself as white for his entire life" and "years after his death, a marriage certificate of his parents was found, listening their race as 'mulatto.' "
Finding out that Herriman was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, also sent flares up and started bells ringing in my brain, since jazz and the comic strip are often cited in the same breath by cultural historians as the only two art forms native to America. Suddenly the phrase "Krazy Kat" takes on new meaning, making Herriman seem a hipster ikon as heavy as Louis Armstrong. However, even without knowing his background, which it is doubtful any of them did, it still makes sense that Herriman's strip, with its Joycean dialogue and Nighttown setting, would have such vast appeal to members of America's first important fine art movement, most of whom also dug jazz.
So why were some of them so scandalized when Guston switched from Abstract Expressionist canvases to big cartoon-like paintings in which bricks like those flung at Krazy by his rodent love-object were a recurring motif, along with Gasoline Alley jalopies, big clownish shoes, dangling light bulbs, overstuffed easy chairs, overflowing garbage cans, and other funky props of the classic newspaper comic strip? Why, when they appeared in Guston's new paintings, were these things suddenly dismissed as shockingly vulgar and vilified by some of the same people who had once shared his affection for all the popular artifacts of low-rent Americana?
At the vernissage for Philip Guston's exhibition at Marlboro Gallery in 1970, where he unveiled his new paintings publicly for the first time, some guests acted as though they had showed up in a concert hall to hear chamber music, only to have the curtain rise on a raucous rock and roll band. Expecting to see more of the lyrical abstract canvases, composed with sensitive strokes and harmonious hues, which had won the artist a place in modern art history, they were greeted instead by brash images that, as critic Peter Schjeldahl recalls, "seemed a rank indecency, profanation, a joke in the worst conceivable taste."
Hilton Kramer summed the show up even more bluntly in the October 25th 1970 edition of The New York Times with the devastating headline "A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum." Even more wounding than the condemnation of critics, however, was the rejection of the new work by close friends like the avant garde composer Morton Feldman, who later said, "I just couldn't see it. I just felt the abstract work from the fifties was so important and now he abandoned it for the Pop art thing."
There it was in a nutshell: the Pop art thing! There could be no worse betrayal, as far as some members of The New York School were concerned than for one of their own to jump onto the gaudy bandwagon of the movement that had upstaged Abstract Expressionism in the sixties, selling out to the media's crass commercialism.
Even assuming, however, that Guston was secretly encouraged by the sudden fad for low imagery in high art (something he never could have admitted without giving even greater offense to his old crowd), his approach differed significantly from that of the Pop artists. For rather than parodying cartoons from a cool campy distance, ala Lichtenstein and Warhol, he adopted their language unambiguously, for its honest expressive possibilities. Yet the turncoat stigma stuck anyway.
"Why did you have to go and ruin everything?" one fellow painter asked angrily at the Marlboro reception, according to "The Night Studio," a memoir by Guston's daughter, Musa Mayer, published by Knopf in 1988. Mayer also quotes an entry from her mother's diary, noting that Lee Krasner, fellow painter and widow of Jackson Pollock, didn't speak to Guston at the reception and " told someone that the work was 'embarrassing.'"
De Kooning's "Women" paintings had also been regarded as heresy when he showed them at the Sidney Janis Gallery almost two decades earlier, the formalist Clement Greenberg mocking his "nostalgia for traditions." But the reaction had not been anywhere near as hostile. Repugnant as their imagery may have been to some abstract purists, at least de Kooning's paintings were all about gesture the very crux of Abstract Expressionism rather than the kind of louche subjects Guston depicted. Yet de Kooning embraced Guston at the opening and said, "You know, Philip, what your real subject is? It's freedom!"
It was just like de Kooning to see everything in purely painterly terms; in the old days, if Guston seemed in good humor when he strode into the Cedar bar, Bill would greet him with, "You must have made good strokes today!" But, as much as Guston appreciated de Kooning's support, these new paintings were about more than the freedom to paint a certain waya battle that had been won long ago, anyway, when they were all united under the Ab-Ex banner.
"When the Sixties came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic," Guston explained to Bill Berkson. "The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. 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...I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid...I wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt."
But Morton Feldman (perhaps still smarting from a portrait Guston had made of him after their falling out: a big, fat head turning away) speculated that the real reason for Guston's change of style was that "The Book was out and he wasn't included." What Feldman was implying was that Guston had switched styles because he was embittered about not being rated as highly in the Abstract Expressionist canon as Pollock and de Kooning. And, admittedly, there is a slight whiff of sour grapes in some of Guston's more extreme statements around that time, such as when he complained in one of his notebooks that "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."
When he goes on for several more sentences in this mode, it is clearly an emotional rant, written in disappointment over the rejection of his new work, rather than the reasoned assessment of a man who once argued just as vehemently for abstraction, telling the critic Harold Rosenberg "The trouble with recognizable art is that it excludes too much...I want my work to include more."
Much has been made of the political content of some of Guston's late paintings but it is nowhere near as overt as it was in his social realist period of the Thirties and Forties. In fact, the only time his imagery falls flat is when he descends to the obvious level of the editorial cartoon in a series of drawings lampooning the too easy target of Richard Nixon, turning Tricky Dick's nose into a flaccid penis, his shadowed jowls into dangling testicles; for to say that the man was a putz is merely to state the obvious.
Far superior are those drawings and paintings in which Guston turns from public moralizing to private musing on mortality and his own vices, showing a fatheaded painter surrounded not only by the tools of his trade, such as clogged brushes, canvases and easels, but also by reprobate props like cigarette butts and empty whiskey bottles. Robert Storr commented that Guston's "queasy but unflinching self-portraits remove the cosmetic veil that obscures our view of the painter's world. Together they belie the hope of all but the most conditional transcendence of life through art."
Indeed, in its own way, Guston's treatment of himself is as unforgiving as his WOA-period pictures of sinisterly shaded Klu Klux Klansmen. The only difference is that, in contrast to the realism of that early work, the cartoon style of the later work made Klansmen in the paintings Guston showed at Marlboro Gallery in 1970 appear absurd and hapless, like George Lincoln Rockwell's bumbling little band of American Nazi Party sadsacks, who had to seek police protection whenever they tried to grab media attention with their pathetic public rallies. Still, the artist hinted that these hooded clowns had a deeper personal meaning when he said, "They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood."
The confession is made explicit in Guston's 1969 canvas "The Studio," depicting a hooded Klansman at an easel, painting a self-portrait. In her memoir of her father, Musa Mayer makes intimate meanings no critic could be privy to when, going through her father's studio after his death, she comes across an old canvas signed "Philip Goldstein, 1935," and remembers how her father had always regretted changing his name to one he hoped would make him more acceptable as a future son-in-law to the Christian parents of her mother, Musa McKim. Her father had always regarded this as "a shameful, cowardly act," she writes, "especially after the Second World War, when it became crucial to him to reclaim his Jewish identity..."
After Mayer speculates that Guston's ostensibly comic Klansmen hoods, may express "the anguish and shame my father felt about changing his name," it's not much of a stretch to see his paintings of skinny legs, entangled like strands of limp spaghetti, as not mere products of a grotesque imagination, like cartoonist Jack Cole's rubbery comicbook character "Plastic Man." Rather, they evoke those horrific photos of naked, piled cadavers at Auschwitz. Perhaps the most poignant example is the 1976 canvas "Ancient Wall," in which the limbs dangle over a red brick wall, while a single large eye in the lower right corner of the large canvasthe guilty eye of the of the Jewish painter who took a goyische name? looks on dispassionately.
Bricks borrowed from Krazy Kat go all the way back to the slummy urban settings of his allegorical figure paintings of the 1930s and 40s and first reappear in the 1970 work "The Wall," parodying "over-all" painting by covering the entire canvas, and perhaps also symbolizing the dead-end to which abstract painting had brought the artist, necessitating a radical change.
Six years later, bricks again appear prominently in "The Painter" showing the upper half of a head with tousled hair and bloodshot eyes peering, like Kilroy, over a wall on which rests a bottle and a glass. Also visible over the wall is one hand waving a cigarette as though it were either an anarchist's bomb or a miniature white flag of surrender. It is a painting to make one recall the British poet Stevie Smith's chilling lines "I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning."
* * *
In another large oil, "Couple in Bed, 1976," the two figures are almost completely swaddled in sheets, except for the tops of their heads, a pair of hairy male legs, and a hand clutching a bunch of paint brushes. That the brushes, with their colorful tips, resemble a bouquet makes one think of a note that Guston, who painted at night while his wife slept, once left on the kitchen table for her to find when she woke in the morning, according to his daughter's memoir: "Sweetheartperhaps I am making love to you this wayby creationIt is so difficult for me to be in this world..."
This by way of apology, one supposes, for the artist's neglect of those who love him, his selfishness, as he sacrifices intimacy for the solitude his work requires. Both mother and daughter share the name Musa. But only the mother is the painter's Muse. All through childhood, the daughter feels neglected. Yet, rather than anger or resentment, she feels pity toward the mother for the sacrifices she must make to fulfill her dubiously exalted role. Once a promising artist who painted one panel of a post office mural while her husband painted another, she stopped painting long ago and now contents herself with the less competitive outlet of writing poems (some of which he pays her the tribute of illuminating in the manner that seems a cross between Blake and Crumb). But Musa's own creative efforts are limited to when she is not too busy trying to moderate her husband's smoking and drinking (three packs of unfiltered Camels a day and great quantities of booze), or leaving egg salad sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper and lovingly tied with white string, outside his closed studio door like offerings to some distant god.
Her efforts to save him are to no avail. And the final truth of their relationship is perhaps most poignantly encapsulated in Guston's large canvas "The Night," painted in 1977, the year that Musa, the selfless helpmate, suffered a stroke. One of the darkest works of Guston's darkest period, it shows the couple huddled together, almost completely submerged in brackish water, under a black sky. Robert Storr wrote of it: "One must look to Rembrandt to find a comparably moving or candid portrait of a marriage lived in the shadow of age and loss."
* * *
My favorite photograph in the new Guston book shows the artist talking with a group of students at Boston University in 1978. Hirsute, decked out in their generational grunge, they cluster around the artist in a semicircle, leaning forward, rapt, hanging on his every word. Guston appears paunchy and worn out. His face has the baggy melancholy of a weary old hound. Obviously, coping with Musa's stroke has taken its toll on him. Having already been hospitalized for exhaustion in the past two years, he is a man familiar with the indignities of aging, and more are on their way. A year after this photo is taken he will again be hospitalized, this time with a massive heart attack, and when his daughter visits him in the coronary care unit, she will find him "sitting on a bedside potty, glowering."
But for now, the future mercifully unknown, here he is, the collar of his shirt-jacket jauntily turned up, it's bottom button carefully fastened over his sagging belly, basking in the adulation of the young as only a vain older man can. Straddling a chair, a cigarette in one hand, jabbing a finger in the air with the other in a gesture reminiscent of the meaty pointing paws in his paintings, his gaze aimed loftily over the heads of his audience, he reminds one of Sinatra launching into "My Way."
* * *
It had to be a comfort to Guston to be discovered by the young, as the end of his decade of changeand his life drew near. In 1979, his work was included in the Whitney Biennial, as well as in another major exhibition in London, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain, along with that of much younger artists, such as Jake Berthot, Ross Bleckner, and Elizabeth Murray, called "New Painting/ New York." As the title of the latter show implies, Guston was being paid the ultimate compliment that the fickle New York art world can bestow: Although his early work was entombed in museums, where it belonged, with that of the best of his generation, his new stuff was breathing the fresh air of the present. While the names of the twin monoliths, Pollock and de Kooning, still blazed bigger and brighter on the marquee of art history, Guston was afforded an unprecedented rebirth in the contemporary arena. He alone, among his old Cedar Bar cronies, was exerting an influence on the postmodern scene, and by 1980, the year he suffered his final, fatal heart attack in the middle of dinner with his doctor and their respective wives in Woodstock, there must have been nearly as many little gustons as cockroaches scurrying around the East Village.
Yet just as some critics had misunderstood his earlier work, calling him an "abstract impressionist" (not only an incongruous term to apply to an artist who painted at night but one that made his work seem a quirky, European-inflected footnote to the movement that put American art on the map), the substance of his late paintings is again being misconstrued by even his most ardent admirers.
For while Guston might not mind being a progenitor of the New Image school, the mandarin in him would surely have recoiled at being lumped with so-called Bad Painting, an ironically named mini-movement, promoted in an exhibition at the New Museum of the Contemporary Art, which attempted to make a virtue of the kind of deliberately crude paint handling he had never slopped onto a canvas.
One can only wonder what he might have thought of Jerry Saltz's recent assertion in the Village Voice that Amy Sillman "traverses the gap between Philip Guston's early abstraction and his later 'stumblebum' figuration." Not only is it unseemly to apply Hilton Kramer's facile insult as a generic term to Guston's late work, but utterly wrongheaded to imply that such a "gap" requires traversing. It would have been more accurate to point out that the difference between painters like Sillman and Guston is as deep as the gulf between irony and tragicomedy.
Given the shockproof climate his late work helped to create, it seems safe to say that painting will never again be as risky as when Guston's new pictures struck critics and friends alike as the aesthetic equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Yet, for all the
nostalgia some had for the early "lyrical" Guston, it is for those crass and powerful later works that he will surely be best remembered. For as Michael Auping so aptly puts it, "If Pollock pioneered the way into Abstract Expressionism, it was Guston who was most suited to lead the way out."
* * *
Here I sit in my cave of a workroom on the top floor of a corner tenement in Yorkville, in the shadow of the wrecking ball, as shiny new condo towers creep closer and closer. Five stories below the two windows that wrap around me like a backwards shawl, the tireless conveyer belt of the avenue winds the tinker toy traffic around and around. Directly across the way, workmen are busy building another one of those incongruous penthouses that have replaced pigeon coops on the tops of tenements since real estate values have shot skyhigh in the city that never sleeps. Its tenements and towers, flocks of pigeons, and knots of writhing pedestrians are mirrored in the crazy-quilt collages of my drawings, remnants of ambition past, crucified to the wall opposite my desk. Also tacked up are two slogans in headline type on yellowed newsprint, their sources long forgotten but their sentiments still apropos: "Where Conformity Rules, Misfits Thrive" and "I prefer crap to the sanctimonious kitsch that's embraced as high art by an audience of suburban morons."
So what's the verdict? Has the promising young rebel ripened into a cranky old eccentric, his bohemian ideals reduced to simple squalor, his stubborn belief in antimaterialism and intellectual purity rendered irrelevant by an era that has taken all the dignity out of voluntary poverty?
As a kid I longed not for conventional riches, but for the interesting experiences of a beatnik. Well, as Truman Capote once warned, beware of answered prayers. Yet life is good. The voices in my head still entertain me. I have closed the new Guston book and placed it on the sagging shelf, with all the other volumes that grin like a mouth of lunatic teeth and speak beguilingly of many things. My wife brings me a cup of tea.
* * *