gall and gumption

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Artist's Daughter

Philip Guston's daughter pays a surprise visit to her father one winter, to introduce him to his new grandson. The baby has had health problems, and her marriage is breaking up. On the second night at the family place in Woodstock, where Guston has his studio, this scene occurs:
"How long were you planning on staying?" Philip asked gruffly the next evening. He was facing away from me, chopping vegetables to make a Chinese dinner for us. Suddenly struggling with tears, I couldn't answer his question. Was he really asking me to leave, so soon? I held the baby in my arms, more tightly, for comfort.

My father turned and looked at me, with that anguished, hooded look of his I dreaded. "Oh God," he said. "I thought you understood by now how I feel about my work." He strode out of the kitchen, onto the back porch, and across to his studio.

When David was asleep again, I slipped out the back door. ....

[Philip] was sitting in his chair, staring at his last painting, a cigarette drooping from his mouth. We argued. I wept. More open about my feelings than I had ever been, I told my father why I'd come, what I wanted from hm. All the time I was talking, a part of me hovered nearby, listening, somewhat aghast at the words that were coming out of my mouth. The rawness and immediacy of my own child's needs, the urgency of his cries to be fed and held, the hospital vigils--all those frantic hours of worry had altered my perspective somehow, made me brave where I hadn't been brave before. I knew what was important now, and it wasn't Art. 

But it didn't matter, really. I could see Philip felt terribly guilty, but that didn't change anything. "I was working when you came, for the first time in weeks," he said. "It's been so hard for me, recently, to do anything, to feel that I--" He stopped and looked at me. He rubbed his lip with his thumb.

I stared back at him. Ordinarily, I'd have been solicitous, eager to hear his troubles.
He sighed. "Look, Ingie. I'm sorry. Really, I am. You don't seem to realize what an interruption this visit is." Then after a pause, relenting. "But I did enjoy last night."

"So did I," I said.

"Yes. Well. Maybe we should go back and finish dinner."

I left the next morning. As the bus pulled away, I felt an enormous sense of relief. And then loss--the terrible loss that accompanies saying at last what you have to say, and not having it matter.

From Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston.