It is hard to divide Guston’s output of the 1950s into distinct series as there were no clear breaks in his practice, but one could say that Nile (1958) comes at the end of the second cycle of paintings of the decade. The first cycle was characterised mainly by cadmium red and compositions made from short vertical and horizontal strokes hovering in space, such as Attar (1953) and Painting (1954). The second, beginning with Dial (1956) and including The Clock (1957), The Evidence (1957) and To Fellini (1958), were paintings with clusters of green, red, black, ochre, blue, and sometimes pink strokes, gathering up towards the center of the painting. We know that Nile came towards the end of this group, and was probably made well into 1958, because it was not included in Guston’s solo show at the Sidney Janis gallery in early 1958, and only exhibited in his next Janis show which opened just after Christmas in 1959. This exhibition included The Painter (1959), where gatherings of brush strokes suggest the profile of the titular painter. Such a canvas pointed down the road into the 1960s, and the gradual re-emergence of recognisable forms, heads, and eventually hooded figures in Guston’s art. Nile is particularly interesting because it shows us what Guston was doing just before he began down this road.
One way into Nile is to contrast it with the work of the other artists who had solo shows at the Sidney Janis gallery in 1958 and 1959, such as Guston’s friends and colleagues Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. Guston’s thick application of paint in condensed clusters is obviously far removed from the delicate hovering rectangles of Rothko’s work, but it would be a mistake to align him too closely with the more gestural painters like de Kooning. Exactly in 1958 and 1959, with works like Merritt Parkway, de Kooning was being feted for his ‘full arm sweep’, his use of large brushes, and for the velocity of his painting. With their wide and long strokes, with drips running downwards and upside-down (evidence of rotating the painting as he improvised with its composition), de Kooning’s work exuded confidence. Guston’s work had a totally different feel. Indeed, in Nile, there are no long strokes, and very few drips. Instead, the forms are made with short brushwork, and movement, when it does come, comes from the wrist and its twists, not from the elbow or shoulder.
Over ten years after Guston painted Nile, the composer Morton Feldman wrote a text in Art in America in which he recounted visiting Guston in the studio, probably in the late 1950s. Feldman describes going over to the studio to pick up his friend to go to dinner together. Guston was still working, so Feldman took a nap. ‘I opened my eyes after an hour or so. He was still painting, standing almost on top of the canvas, lost in it, too close really to see it, his only reality the innate feel of the material he was using. As I awoke he made a stroke on the canvas, then turned to me, confused, almost laughing because he was confused, and said with a certain helplessness, ‘Where is it’?’
The reminiscence beautifully conveys what it was like for Guston to make paintings like Nile, and how intuitive and unplanned the process was. Having started the canvas with thinly applied atmospheric blue and pink tones that stretch across its borders, Guston moved towards the center and then stayed there. While the edges of the painting remained at the peripheries of his visual field, he found himself twisting and turning his brush until interlocking shapes emerged. Perhaps in Nile the main shape was red, and on top of it came another in black. Smaller patches of green on either side, and ochre below and above, set off this main red-black interplay. Towards the bottom of the painting is the only section of mixed colour – a patch of pink that would become Guston’s main colour in the years to come. The painting proceeded as a series of cancellations, indecisions, revisions. At a certain point, these shapes cohered and nothing more could be added. Guston could not anticipate when this point would be reached; and he could not break from the work until it did.
One of the effects of Guston’s close-up approach is that it causes the viewer to approach the surface very close too, in order to understand the intimacy of all his moves. You stand exactly where Guston stood. From this vantage point, the patches of black, red, green, ochre and pink in Nile are not recognisable forms, but they are certainly shapes, and if we cannot name them as resembling things in the world, we can still characterise them. Words like ‘anxious’ and ‘nervous’ and ‘unsure’ feel appropriate. In a review in Arts of the Sidney Janis show where Nile was shown, Sidney Tilllim described the ‘restlessness’ of Guston’s style. The blocks of colour are not solid or straight or curved or graceful, but patches which thicken, thin out, and which have holes. These patches interconnect, but it also appears that they cannot really resolve their relationships with each other either – it is as if the black has not figured out whether to conquer or complement the red. This sense of uncertainty, or nervousness, which is there in the brushwork, in the shapes, and in the shapes’ relationships, is what makes Nile so compelling, because the painting through its character tells us about how Guston thought about painting and creation at this time. As he worked so close to the surface, lost in his activity, Guston felt he was creating something that did not previously exist. He was manipulating oil paint – or ‘colored dirt’, as he called it – into forms that were animated and real. The act of painting was not for him about expression or mood, but about this kind of creation. For some artists, creation means boldly inventing, carefully planning, and then precisely executing a new form. For Guston, it was about working close-up, not knowing what he was doing, unsure of what was happening, until suddenly something emerged that in the end felt compelling and necessary.