two painted hands...
two paintings of a single hand that i have been somewhat obsessed with for the last 25 years. the bottom image is of course, by philip guston, a painting called "talking" from 1979; while the painting on top is an early painting by george baselitz called "the hand of god" from 1964/65.
i discovered the guston painting in 1982 in a whitechapel gallery exhibition catalog - the same year i graduated high school and started art school. i remember my painting teacher telling us to bring a catalog to class of a painter whose work we liked, and when i showed her this catalog of guston's work from 1969-80, she became very angry with me, telling me his late paintings were "delusional paintings of an old man". i had discovered guston's work 4 or 5 years earlier on a visit to SFMOMA, and the combination of cartoons and violence were very appealing to a budding punk rocker.
i discovered the baselitz image in a catalog of early works, published by anthony d'offay gallery in 1985. i don't believe is saw this exhibition, but i was living in paris at the time, and must've picked it up at a bookstore. i do remember not being much of a fan of baselitz's mid-1980's upside down neo-expressionist figure paintings. for some reason i had little interest in them at the time, feeling they were too formulaic and too consistent - although it is more likely that my disinterest was rooted in the fact that the teacher who bashed guston kept saying how genius the baselitz's were because they were painted upside down. i have to admit at the time, i wasn't much of a fan of 80's figurative painting, particularly artists like sandro chia; and even though i wasn't a fan of baselitz either, i found the early works to be truly strange, off putting, and pretty interesting... they somehow felt sincere.
like baselitz's early work, guston's late work also seemed out of sync and out of place. neither artist's work seemed to be outsider in relation to the artworld's take on the term (both were educated and participating), but both were making works that seemed, at least to me, a bit outside of what was going on in the artworld's center at the time. more than anything else, i couldn't find resolve in either artist's work, and i was very interested in how they felt like stories but revealed very little "facts" - how they suggested narrative, but there was really no trajectory. the works of these specific periods of each artist seemed full of life, yet seemed somehow mute - which made them feel uncanny. but regardless of all of this, the truth about why i bought the baselitz catalog in the first place was because it had the painting "the hand of god" on the cover, and it instantly reminded me of guston's "talking".
i hadn't thought much about either painting recently, but a few days ago i was dealing with some flooding in my studio (no damage except to a few boxes, but not contents), where i discovered a sketchbook/diary from 1985, and in it i found a mention of these two hand paintings. when i went to the disaster that is my bookshelves this evening to see if i could lay my hands on either of the books, i found them next to each other - as if they'd always been together, not just in my mind, but physically in the world.
there's something about the composition of both - one against darkness and one against light; as well as how each hand seems a world or a site. both have things flowing away from them - one birds, and the other smoke - although birds going up, and smoke going down. baselitz's hand seems an offering, gentle as if quoting rilke: "hands must be simple and good to accept the offering", while guston's is angular, geometric, almost like a crude wooden cross. baselitz holds the world inside the palm of his hand, while guston's radiates smoke as if it were on fire. (and if guston's was decidedly more comforting and less ominous, it could be a heaven in relation to baselitz's earth... or one could see guston's smoke as a hell in relation to baselitz's muddied palm, which would need a bit of a cleansing before it could be seen as a heaven...)
in terms of paint they both seem to have been painted out of necessity, with a bit of struggle - baselitz to bring out form, and guston to flatten out form. both hands have pinks and reds, but baselitz also has yellow/brown. both hands are bordered in black, guston's graphically through a black field, and baselitz's by softened ethereal lines. both hands also point to a place between 2 and 3 o'clock.
in terms of lasting influence, it wasn't either artist's work that fueled inspiration towards my own practice as much as the 9 page transcription of a talk guston gave that is reproduced in the whitechapel catalog (which doesn't cite the date or place). in it he speaks a lot about his own struggles as a painter, as well as how dissatisfied he had become with an artworld filled with works that were "official" and "against risking". for many years i used the text as a reference point for my own work, not in terms of what or how guston painted, but for the bigger things he speaks about in terms of practice - an ethical, questioning, and rigorous approach to being an artist. guston illustrates one of his points with a quote from isaac babel (one of the "two writers he admired most for years" - the other was kafka):
"isaac babel gave a lovely ironic speech to the soviet writers union. it was 1934. he ended his talk with the following remark:
"the party and the government have given us everything, but have deprived us of one privilege. a very important privilege, comrades, has been taken away from you. that of writing badly".
"isn't that beautiful?... doesn't anyone want to paint badly?"