Neil Welliver, Light in Brook, 1985, oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.
"Doubt is a central factor all the time. There's always the doubt: What the hell am I doing out here in the woods, all alone, painting?" Neil Welliver.
One day last week, while looking at the painting on my work table, I had a powerful physical sensation of the floor dropping out from under me, my head going dizzy and my innards flip-flopping as I thought, like Welliver did (though for me it's not a "central factor"), "what the hell am I doing, making tiny paintings of details of farm machines?" I have written about uncertainty before, in this blog post inspired by seeing the film Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky; the post includes a wonderful statement by de Kooning on artistic uncertainty, the sense that we never really know if what we are doing has quality. For me, doubt goes beyond uncertainty; it is a deeper questioning of my entire artistic enterprise. It's not simply "is this painting any good?"; it's "is my entire project––my subject, my style––just plain bad, or just plain dumb?" I assume we all have these moments.
Philip Guston, Beggar's Joys, 1954-55, oil on canvas, 71 x 68 in.
I thought of Philip Guston while I was in my swoon of doubt. He was a well regarded abstract painter, making canvases full of gorgeous masses of brushstrokes gathered in a luminous field.
Philip Guston, Multiplied, 1972, oil on canvas, 66 x 80 1/2 in.
Philip Guston, Drawing for Conspirators, 1930; graphite, ink, colored pencil and crayon on paper, 22 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.
Guston was going back to the content-rich work of his early years, saying "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories." After the Marlborough show, he spent several months at the American Academy in Rome, painting images, his time there described in this review. I haven't found any quotes from him about this period in his painting life, but is it possible he did not feel massive doubt at times? He continued on with strength and purpose, finally achieving great acclaim for what are remarkable paintings.
Brice Marden is another artist whose work changed abruptly, from subtly colored monochrome panel paintings, lushly austere...
oil on linen (108 1/8 x 144 1/8 in.)
to overall webs of lines inspired by Japanese calligraphy. His new work was highly acclaimed, a very different experience from that of Guston, so it is hard to think of him as having doubts about his way forward. There is an opposite side to doubt, which the work of these two artists brings to mind: exhilaration, the excitement of moving onto a new path however treacherous it might be. My journey has been more gradual, from images of Victorian houses, to agricultural landscape, to abstracted machinery (you can see an overview on my website); happily, my moments of brutal doubt give way to a pleasure in painting. As Bertolt Brecht wrote: "It's all right to hesitate if you then go ahead."
*thanks to the website The Painter's Keys for extensive lists of quotes that can be searched by author and by category.