David Sylvester on painting

`It’s order as well as its subject matter can be evolved in the act of painting, for the ultimate reality of painting lies in painting.’ ~ David Sylvester


The choice between being figurative and abstract



KAZIMIR MALEVICH, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915

“The choice between being figurative and abstract is really so instinctive that it scarcely is a choice. Making abstract art is an ascetic activity, a way of testing oneself as to what one can do with limited means: it’s like fighting with one hand behind one’s back or being a vegetarian cook. Making a figurative art is an inclusive activity, a way of testing oneself as to how many things one can handle simultaneously. Mondrian and Malevich were afraid of having too much to work with. Braque and Picasso were afraid of too little.” ~ David Sylvester, (To be as real as the real thing’ in the Independent on Sunday Review for 15th December 1996)


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David Sylvester on Philip Guston’s paintings (Circa 1963)

“Guston’s paintings, indeed, have little immediate impact, apart from that of the sheer prettiness of those of 1947-55. They are intensely withdrawn and private, with the privacy of the dark not of the ivory tower. They are the acting-out of long uneasy meditations that have to end in doubt. At one level the uneasiness and doubt are obviously about painting itself, what it can do, should do, should not do, to be authentic. The very indulgence in the wealth of painting’s possibilities serves to extend the area of doubt. In the later works there is doubt above all about the degree in which paint on canvas can allude to the reality of nature without loss of it’s own intrinsic reality, its own autonomy and vitality and eloquence……….
Are the doubt and anguish related only to the responsibilities and trials of painting itself or do they embrace something more – are they ‘about life’ as well as about art? The question is unanswerable and beside the point. What matters is that these paintings are palpably about a man’s struggle with himself and reflect its reality and urgency. What matters still more is that in their very doubt and desperation they become affirmative. They are intensely private and self-enclosed and yet they exist there on the wall as rather large canvases, statements on a public scale, and they fit that scale. Again, the more recent works (which seem to me the finest) are so packed with doubts and denials as to have gone far beyond the brink of what we think of as coherence and to be just about the messiest pieces of painting ever to be exhibited as works of art. And yet these muddy colours glow with something of the refulgence of the Venetians.” ~ David Sylvester, Guston, 1963 (this is from a review of a retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery which appeared, entitled ‘Luxurious’, in the New Statesman, 15th Feb 1963).

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