Visual Moment | The Subversive Art of Philip Guston

By | Sep 28, 2022

The painting, executed in acrylics and ink, shows a mound of cherries outlined in black contours and linear hatching. Look at it once and you might see a hastily drawn homage to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the great French chronicler of 18th-century domestic life, and his Basket of Wild Strawberries. But look again, and the heroic pyramid of cherries with woody stems turns out to be a pile of painted cherry bombs with ignition fuses. The artist, Philip Guston, who was born in Montreal in 1913 to Russian Jewish immigrants and died in Woodstock, New York in 1980, was like that, often aspiring to blow things up.

Although his artistic “pantheon” was comprised of famous Italian artists—Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, Tiepolo and de Chirico—Guston was also an avid fan of early-20th-century cartoons such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which spotlighted American perpetual motion and the ambiguities of modern identity. “Why is Lenguage?” asks the credulous but thoughtful cat, wondering whether his friend Ignatz, the anarchist mouse, could understand the words spoken by Finns, Laplanders or Oshkoshers. Answering his own question, he observes, “I would say lenguage is, that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.” Guston’s heart was sincere and rapturous, filled with enthusiasms like Krazy’s, but his conscience resembled that of Ignatz, who was always on the attack and throwing bricks.

“How do you get from there to here?” That was the question asked in 1967 when Guston shifted from the abstract work that had made him famous and returned to figuration. Artists and intellectuals, many of them his closest friends, accused him of betraying the aesthetic values of their generation. Critic Hilton Kramer excoriated him in a 1970 New York Times article. Why had he abandoned the flickering, layered and indeterminate style of his New York School paintings, which had brought him success in the 1950s and early 1960s? And why had he turned to a parodic, comic-book technique—Kramer called it “appealing to a taste for something funky, clumsy and demotic”—repeatedly making an inventory of legs and shoes, flatirons, books, clocks and trash-can lids?

Dial, 1956 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) is one of the New York School paintings that marked Guston’s transition from figuration to Abstract Expressionism. (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

And that was the question again, in 2020, when four museum directors decided to postpone a blockbuster Guston retrospective scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC before traveling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This time the concern was not about style but about content—specifically, the content of a group of large figurative paintings from the late 1960s and 1970s that cartoonishly and outlandishly depicted priapic-looking, candy-colored Ku Klux Klansmen wearing pointy hoods while smoking cigars, painting, driving and nonchalantly living Philip Guston’s life.

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The joint statement by the four museums explained their decision: “The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.” But the museums’ delay caused a flurry of controversy, with many people incensed that Guston’s highly charged work was being misconstrued since he had intended the preposterous but energetic KKK figures to lacerate liberal insouciance, even his own. In fact, in 1969, commenting on how he had turned away from abstraction, Guston talked about the privilege and money that was connected to that art world: “Every time I see an abstract painting now I smell mink coats.”

Untitled, 1980 (Private Collection); (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

After a pause of two years, the exhibition opened in Boston in the spring of 2022 and will be in Houston from October 23, 2022, through January 16, 2023, before traveling to DC and then to London. Big, bulky and supercharged, the show links recurrent themes and preoccupations spanning Guston’s five-decade career, framing his development from the social realism of his early work to his ribald satire of Nixon in his “Poor Richard” series of the 1970s to his anguished Odessa paintings, with their references to the violence of the pogroms in Russia. But the transitions in style also reflect the restlessness, discontent and self-doubt of an artist who was often “feeling split” between the deep satisfaction of being a painter and his scathing social conscience. “What kind of man am I?” he famously asked when America was in the middle of the Vietnam War and race riots. “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

Open Window, 1969 (Private Collection); (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The exhibition includes Guston’s early figurative paintings, which grew out of the work he did during the Depression for the Works Progress Administration. The most outstanding of these, If This Be Not I, is a poetic and mysterious mise-en-scène. Part dream, part memory, it shows a group of street children with paper hats and crowns, masks, musical instruments, rags, rope and splintered lumber. Surrounded by the debris, the children exude the fragmented loneliness of Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques. But in the late 1940s, during one of his depressions, when painting seemed “like an act of impossibility,” he began to slowly condense his compositions, stripping them down to the most elemental components, dismantling recognizable images and shapes. As he put it, “I wanted to come to the canvas and see what would happen if I just put on paint.” You can feel the tensions as he approached the point where the image could vanish. When, finally, he scraped away any remnants of figuration and was left with just the layers of paint, he arrived at amorphous and beautiful compositions hovering as if they were pinned in space. Beggar’s Joys and Dial, both paintings from 1956, are consummate examples of this. Then, feeling “a kind of war between the moment and the pull of memory,” he made the transition back to objects and figures, but this time using cartoonish, caustic, crudely abbreviated and painfully disquieting imagery.

If This Be Not I, 1945 (Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis), from Guston’s early figurative period. (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Like many of his contemporaries, Guston strode into the mid-20th century as a self-invented man. He had made a sharp break with his past, leaving home when he was barely 20. As far back as 1935, he began using the name Guston rather than the family name Goldstein. This was a decision he came to regret, because he didn’t want people to think he was embarrassed about being Jewish. As his friend the critic and novelist Ross Feld put it, “With Yiddish habitually and liberally thrown into his speech, he had no problem seeing as well as presenting himself as a doubt-ridden cerebral Jew painter.” He was also an autodidact, having dropped out of both high school and the Otis Art Institute. Brilliant and forceful, he was a dynamic personality and frenzied conversationalist. Another close friend, Philip Roth, described Guston’s vitality when he hosted dinners at his house in Woodstock: “…wearing those baggy-bottomed, low-slung khaki trousers of his, with a white cotton shirt open over his burly chest and the sleeves still turned up from working in the studio, he looked like the Old Guard Israeli politicians in whom imperiousness and informality spring from an unassailable core of confidence.” But, as is often the case, such buoyancy came at a price, since the other side of his forcefulness was the plague of debilitating depression.

Philip Guston drawing with a reed pen in his Woodstock, New York studio, 1970. (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Guston was the youngest of seven children in a family that left Russia just after the turn of the century, settling first in Montreal, where the three youngest siblings were born, and in 1920 moving to Los Angeles. Whether they originated in Odessa, as Guston recalled (but which art historians question), is not as important as the fact that his family accepted the stories of the 1905 Odessa pogrom as part of its narrative. Like so many Jewish-Russian immigrants, they experienced the tug-of-war between the ways of the past and modern life. Guston’s mother sent the children to heder and kept a kosher home, but his father turned away from the old customs. Guston’s first professional drawing, a cartoon, appeared in the “Junior Times Club,” the children’s section of The Los Angeles Times, on his 13th birthday. As a present, his mother gave him money for a correspondence course in cartooning. Although he only took three lessons, Guston published additional cartoons during the following two years, inventing a minstrel character named Snowball who quoted lyrics by Jewish Tin Pan Alley writers.

The family had more than their share of misery. In Canada, Guston’s father, originally a blacksmith, worked as a boilermaker for the Canadian railroad, but in Los Angeles he was a junkman. When Philip was ten years old, his father committed suicide, hanging himself with what Guston described as “a rope as thick as a hawser.” The shock of that grisly event was followed by another set of traumas. Sometime in 1932 his brother Nat was in a freak accident, and his crushed and mangled legs had to be amputated. He died in the hospital of gangrene. At about the same time as his brother’s death, Guston and a group of friends who were connected to one of the Communist John Reed Clubs painted murals commemorating the trial and conviction of the teenage African-American Scottsboro Boys. Just a few months later, a gang of vigilantes, armed with guns and lead pipes, destroyed the murals in an early morning raid. Guston has described the desecration of his artwork, the eyes and genitals of the painted images being shot out, and, although scholars have again questioned the veracity of these details, he carried the shock of that encounter with white racists for the rest of his life.

Cellar, 1970 (Collection of Ann and Graham Gund). When Guston returned to figuration in the late 1960s and 1970s, he employed cartoonish, abbreviated and disquieting images, such as this junk heap of severed legs. (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Images of rope, hoods and severed legs circulate in his Neo-romantic paintings of the 1940s. It’s possible that the long period when he later experimented with abstraction helped to tamp down some of the pain and anxiety of those memories, but in 1966, after a large solo show at New York’s Jewish Museum, Guston experienced a major depression and for a short period left his devoted wife, Musa, a painter and poet who had been by his side since the early 1930s. When he returned to her and to his work, his painting completely changed. Using the jaunty linear technique of the cartoonists he had loved since childhood, he left abstraction behind and achieved a new artistic freedom, combining and repurposing the images that obsessed him, using them to tell his personal story. In these new paintings, the hanging rope appears as a cord that pulls down the shade for a studio window or supports a dangling light bulb, and severed legs and shoes are heaped in the junk pile of a cellar. When the wacky Klansmen migrate into his paintings, they are abbreviations or metaphors for Guston himself, “a hooded thug” who “slips into his studio for a quiet afternoon of painting,” as he once put it. Through their clownishness, they expose his bad habits, self-hatred and guilty feelings toward his wife and daughter, from whom he had withdrawn to devote himself to his work. When these figures disappear, they’re replaced by the smoking and gluttonous Cyclops you see in Painting, Smoking, Eating or the unshaven grotesque Cyclops in Web.

When you think about Guston’s agonies, it seems surprising that museum administrators were concerned about this art, given that it sprang out of painful upheaval and was intended to offend complacency. On the other hand, looking back to the near-collapse we were facing two years ago, the exhausting first months of the pandemic and the raw feelings stirred up after the murder of George Floyd, it’s not impossible to see their point of view. Guston, after all, was not just a master of high jinks, he was subversive. And reading his pictures is not easy. They call for imagination and hard work. It’s not difficult, as Krazy says, to “mis-unda-stend.”

“Philip Guston Now”— Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas (October 23, 2022 – January 16, 2023); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (February 26, 2023 – August 27, 2023); Tate Modern, London, England (October 5, 2023 – February 25, 2024).

Opening picture: Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973 (Collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam); (Photo credit: All images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

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