A Painter Looks at Philip Guston Now
Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC was not just a primer on the evolution of an artist and the tenacity of individual vision over a lifetime. It was also a lesson in the importance of curatorial intelligence as well as empathy. The protests and events surrounding the BLM movement and the murder of George Floyd were unfolding so the exhibition had been postponed because of fears related to the political implications of presenting complex, metaphoric images which confront the dark side of our humanity. There was a concern that, while people were rightfully expressing socio-political views against the machine, Guston’s imagery might be misunderstood in the larger world. Matisse once said that taste is deadly. So is fear. The way to address complex issues is not by postponing them. It is by addressing them. That is precisely what Guston’s work was about throughout his life.
Without climbing too far down rabbit holes concerning the original postponement of this exhibition (it never should have been delayed) as well as the overly protective, written caveats accompanying its first incarnation in Boston, Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art version was an exercise in curatorial brilliance (thank you Harry Cooper). Rather than dumbing it down by posting various cautionary warnings about his images (e.g. the Klan Hoods frequenting his earlier and later works) the DC exhibition demanded effort on the part of the viewer without presenting obvious over-simplifications about the work. There was an expectation that the viewer must make an effort to elevate their own awareness of its intent. That effort is also something that Guston expected of his audience.
The NGA show commenced with a cogent, unapologetic and informative video about the artist and his work for those who might not be fully aware of its roots, history and context. And for those who are more familiar with the artist, there was also Michael Blackwood’s excellent film, presented further into the exhibition, which offered the essence of Guston in his own words. Personally, I prefer ‘the horse’s mouth’ over the interpretations of critics and academics who sometimes burden us with their own agendas.
Guston’s sensibility permeated much of my own experience as a young artist in New York in the 1970’s and 80’s. I had a small studio on the top floor of the New York Studio School on 8th Street in Greenwich Village. A few feet down the hall was a black door with hand-painted letters that read ‘Guston Studio’. He had been involved with the founding of the Studio School and was an old friend of the school’s primary founder Mercedes Matter, who I think of as one of the original ‘9th Street Women’. Behind that black door was small room that had a sink and a twin bed in it. That was where Guston stayed when he traveled regularly from Woodstock to teach at the school from 1967 to 1973. In the late 70’s Mercedes was still the Dean and after my stint as a student she’d hired me to be the School’s Program Director. She was a close friend to ‘Philip’, as was another of my most important mentors at that time, the painter Nicolas Carone. Two decades earlier Carone had organized the Stable Annuals. He was Director of the Stable Gallery, where Guston first began showing, along with most of the New York School at that time. One day in 1980, shortly after Guston had passed away, Nick and I were talking. In a concerned manner he said ‘I’ve watched them change art history before my eyes. And they get it wrong!’ Carone talked about looking backwards from the mature phase of an artist’s evolution. He said that hidden in the layers of the work in retrospect one can almost always find who that artist would ultimately become, long before any obvious signature ‘style’ emerged. That comment was in the front of my mind each time I visited Philip Guston Now.
I mention all of this in order to contextualize the evolution of Guston’s work, the place it occupied then and, as the exhibition’s title states, the place it occupies ‘Now’.
I visited the DC version of the show three times last year. The revelation for me was that, by following Carone’s forty year old admonition to look beyond the layers, one could see that while on the surface Guston’s work changes continually over his lifetime, hidden in those layers, underneath the surface, he was always there, always constant, always Guston. This is one of the places that many academics, historians and critics (with the exceptions of Dore Ashton and Robert Storr) got it wrong.
The generally accepted canon has been that Guston started out painting in a more academic manner. When he received the Prix de Rome his admiration for the transcendence of Piero della Francesca was well evident. After returning from Italy his work grew increasingly abstract. Eventually he became a central figure in what would come to be called the Abstract Expressionist movement (some suggested Guston was really an ‘abstract impressionist’) joining Pollock, de Kooning, Mitchell, Kline, Frankenthaler, Motherwell, Hartigan and the others of that downtown generation, most living within a few blocks of one another, that shifted the center of the art world from Paris to New York after the Second World War. Finally in the late 1960’s there was a breakout moment and the third iteration of Guston appeared with imagery bursting back into his painterly work. But it’s not as easy as that.
The earlier figurative works in the exhibition are frequently full of groups of tightly packed figures and objects, fragments of social observation and experience. The content driving these images was rooted in what was happening in the world. His 1937 painting Bombardment is, like one of the seminal works of Picasso, a response to the bombing of the village of Guernica in Spain, replete with floating bodies and dark imagery. His 1947-48 painting The Tormentors contains the residue of the earlier works while the rough drawing and imagery foretell his work from the 60’s and later.
Abstract Expressionism which, as the critic Barbara Rose accurately said ‘was neither abstract nor expressionist’, held dominant sway in the New York art world from the late 1940’s until the emergence of Pop in the 60’s. She meant that it had meaning and content. No matter how much Clement Greenberg exclaimed ‘Paint is paint and surface is surface’ Guston’s work throughout that time frame was loaded with not so obvious, not so superficial content.
In the studio Guston followed his work rather than leading it, but it wasn’t an uninformed path that he took as he tried to stay out of his own way. He was erudite, contemplative, articulate, literate and metaphoric. He was a painter of psyche, not a painter of nature. Some looked at the work most often associated directly with Abstract Expressionism as jumping onto the Ab Ex bandwagon (as several of his contemporaries later expressed to me). Others saw it as non-representational, quasi-impressionistic work, but this also misses the point of the abstract paintings from the 1950’s. His Abstract work is in no way ‘impressionistic’, nor is it about nature, atmosphere or light. As I explored this period of his work in the exhibition I realized that it was about the tightly packed fragments and pieces, just like both the earlier as well as the later works. Sometimes it is about groupings, but more often it’s about the head. The self. They feel like densely packed and sometimes exploding forms, psychologically charged self-portraits of sensate, internalized experience – those moments where the externally experienced becomes internalized, felt, pressurized and is pressing out from the inside instead of illustrating in from the outside. In that sense there is a straight line from the abstract pieces to the final figurative works, to the explosion.
These ‘abstract’ works were a reaction to an exterior world, which mirrored some of his own inner tensions. Those tensions eventually brought about a willingness to let go of the introspective works associated with Abstract Expressionism. In the 1970 Marlborough show, where the late paintings came into public view, he sold only one piece. It was panned mercilessly by many older artists and most critics (save Dore Ashton). But for younger artists who were tired of the reductive nature of minimalism and conceptual art, it started the process of securing his position as a godfather in the return to painting a decade later. Pop Art had supplanted Abstract Expressionism, and then there were years of movement towards the minimal, the banal, the removal of the hand, the conceptual over the material, emptiness, and later what Arthur Danto would call the End of Art. And in the middle of all of this was Philip Guston, going against the grain, unwelcome as an image maker as well as a thinker in the midst of a world where theory had replaced making. The orthodox abstract expressionists were on one side of him. The theoreticians and conceptualists were on the other. In the middle Guston had continued to slosh paint, ask questions through the act of making, allowed his craft to undergo change while his source remained constant in confronting the demons of the self as well as the external world. Yes the late work reflected a shift in terms of the surface look of his work. But the imagery was simply a more external reflection of the psychology he’d been dealing with for decades. The outside of the inside.
Guston asked ‘What would it be like to be evil?’ It’s a prescient question that asks us to look not just in the obvious external places, but also at ourselves. His parents had fled persecution as Jews in Ukraine at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. He’d painted about the bombing of Guernica and witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. He’d seen the assasinations of the Kennedys, King and the Vietnam War. He’d changed his own name from Goldstein to Guston (the story is that he wanted to gain the acceptance of his girlfriend’s parents – but the gnawing inner conflict still existed). So he did paintings with innocuous looking Klansmen. Some of them were painters in hoods painting at an easel, or talking with one another, or looking at paintings. On the surface they appear harmless, cartoonish, almost humorous. They walk through the world like everyday people. He shows them not just among us, but perhaps they are us (he considered some of them to be self-portraits). What would it be like to be evil? He died at the age of 66 in 1980, but like the concerns of his earlier work, his late work is very much about ‘Now’, and in that it finds the transcendence that all great art shares.
Philip Guston Now has completed its run at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It is currently on exhibit at the Tate Modern in London.