“For Philip Guston”

One of the towering friendships of the 20h century was the artistic and intellectual interaction between the indeterminacy composer Morton Feldman (1926-87) and the abstract caricaturist Philip Guston (1913-88).  They met in 1950 in Carnegie Hall, where they had gone to hear Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct Anton Webern’s twelve-tone Symphony.  At intermission they both left to escape hearing Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”  Feldman asked the stranger:  “Wasn’t that beautiful?”  This is how great male friendships are born.

Between 1950-67 Guston and Feldman stayed in almost daily contact, visiting each other’s studio, attending each other’s exhibitions and concerts, exchanging ideas, experimenting with forms.  They were inseparable.  Their friendship was legend.  However, during the political upheavals of 1967-72, both men were urged by various friends to contribute to social struggles.  Feldman, who was exclusively devoted to art as religion, declared that his only project was to become “the first great composer that is Jewish.”  Guston, on the other hand, abandoned his abstract style for a politically committed figurative art and at that point he forbade his friend to visit his studio and discuss his latest paintings, as they always did.  His fear was that Feldman might consider his cartoonish figures as populist, so he shielded them from his opinion.

Guston first exhibited his new paintings in 1970.  Feldman was of course there.  As he was looking at works that he had not seen before in his friend’s studio, the painter approached him and asked:  “What do you think?”  The composer responded:  “Well, let me look at it for another minute.”  Feldman meant it literally, since this was the first time he encountered his friend’s artistic turn, but Guston took it as sarcasm.  Starting that very moment, Guston punished his best friend by never talking to him again.  They continued to live in the same city, share numerous friends, and frequent the some circles but for the next seventeen years he chose to reject everything they had created together to take revenge for a comment that his best friend never made.  This is how great male friendships are suspended.  But they never end.

Such great friendships may be suspended but they never die because they are inexhaustible and continue to produce works of tremendous integrity and resonance.  In 1982 Morton Feldman composed a trio for flute, percussion, and piano/celesta. It lasts 4 ¾ hours and is performed without a stop.  Alex Ross has compared it to Mahler’s 8th.  In it, nothing happens:  there is no development, no progress, no patterns.  Chords hover, consonance and dissonance dissolve.  Two friends contemplate the sky and listen to the music of their celestial friendship, as in Caspar Friedrich’s painting.  The trio is called “For Philip Guston.”

July 30, 2014

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