GUSTON & FELDMAN: A DOUBLE VIEW
The 1958 Philip Guston drawing Head – Double View is currently on view in The Big Picture, the fourth-floor installment of MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition. One floor down, in the complementary show Ideas Not Theories: Artists and the Club, 1942-1962, the black-on-white composition appears again, this time on the cover of an album by the American composer Morton Feldman. Feldman—who was friends with many of the artists associated with the New York School, Guston in particular—featured the drawing on the jacket of his 1959 Columbia Masterworks release New Directions in Music 2.
In the liner notes to this album, poet Frank O’Hara wrote about “the inter-involvement of the individual arts with one another” at this moment in downtown New York. The conversation between visual artists and composers is one that Ideas Not Theories seeks to address, and the appearance of a Guston composition on the cover of a Feldman record can be seen as tangible evidence of this larger exchange of ideas.
Like his friend John Cage, Feldman eschewed traditional harmony and rhythm in his compositions, experimenting instead with slowness, silence, and asymmetry. He was interested in the intrinsic qualities of sound in the same way that the New York School painters sought to emphasize the inherent properties of paint. The influence of the Abstract Expressionists on Feldman is evident in the language he used to describe his compositions. Visual metaphors abound in Feldman’s writings—he spoke of experiencing music “as if you’re not listening, but looking something in nature,” and counseled that “the use of the instrument must be as sensitive as the application of paint on canvas.” He valued spontaneity and indeterminacy in his own compositions, and he understood so-called Action painting according to the same terms, noting that it “tries for a less predetermined structure” and is characterized by “the attempt to capture a certain spontaneity always inherent in drawing.”
The drawing that graces Feldman’s album cover, Head – Double View, was of personal importance to Guston; he kept the ink-on-paper work throughout his life, inscribing “NFS” on the reverse side to indicate that it was not for sale. According to the gallerist David McKee, Guston considered the work “the first manifestation of the head,” in his work, and “the beginning of his disaffection with abstraction.” By the 1970s, Guston had wholeheartedly abandoned abstraction and returned to a figurative mode, in which the human head often appeared—see, for example, Four Heads (1974) and Head (1977). But the seeds of his transition from abstraction back to representation were already present in this drawing. Tellingly, Guston originally gave it the content-neutral title of Drawing No. 20, 1958, but later changed it to imply a latent subject matter.
Feldman did not approve of Guston’s return to figuration, and this disagreement caused a rift in their friendship beginning in 1970. Still, each artist paid tribute to the other in subsequent works. Guston’s 1978 painting Friend – To M.F. (in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center) depicts the composer, puffing on a cigarette, in the same cartoonish style Feldman disliked. And Feldman’s 1984 composition For Philip Guston, with its more than four hours of shifting time signatures, was the composer’s tribute to his friend four years after his death.