Philip Guston, The Artist, 1977
In 1970, Marlborough Galleries in New York held an exhibition of new paintings by the renowned Abstract Expressionist painter Philip Guston. A new set of paintings debuted that evening to tense nervous laughter and muffled mutterings of embarrassment according to a memoir by the artist's daughter, Musa Mayer. In 1970, Philip Guston was an institution, a surviving member of the Abstract Expressionists, a boyhood friend of Jackson Pollock (they knew each other in high school in California, and were expelled together), a pioneer of Post-War abstract painting in the USA. And with this latest work, it looked like he lost his mind and threw away a life's work.
Philip Guston on the left at the opening of his Marlborough Gallery exhibition. On the right is Willem de Kooning who loudly and publicly defended this latest phase of Guston's work.
Philip Guston, the "Monet" of Abstract Expressionism famous for the refined delicacy of his paintings, exhibited a gallery full of paintings he made starting in 1967 that were a strange hybrid of street imagery, underground comics, and surrealism. Instead of the Olympian calm or existential anguish expected from an artist of his generation, these paintings were full of humor, sarcasm, anger, disgust, and fear.
Critics were outraged. Hilton Kramer published a blistering review in the New York Times titled "A Mandarin Pretending to Be a Stumblebum." Marlborough Galleries refused to renew Guston's contract. He went without gallery representation for awhile. Art schools and colleges where he did occasional adjunct teaching stopped calling him. Guston withdrew from public life becoming something of a recluse at his home and studio in Woodstock, NY until his death in 1980 at age 66.
The Studio, 1969
These first paintings from this last phase of Guston's work featured the Ku Klux Klan. They are definitely not the knights of White Supremacy in DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation. But neither are they quite the frightening monsters of the Civil Rights era. They are ridiculous figures in patched hoods and sheets spattered with blood smoking cigars with fat stubby hands. They drive around a cartoonish landscape with junk and corpses in their car trunks. Every once in a while, the Law points an equally comic accusing finger at them that they regard indifferently while puffing of their cigars. The Klansman protests his innocence even with the feet of a corpse sticking up out of a trash can behind him. The Klan is crime and corruption seen as something more ludicrous than horrible.
To be sure, Guston in no way is trying to soften the criminality of the KKK. Instead of angry protest, Guston's attitude is contempt and ridicule.
I've been looking a lot lately at these creations of the last phase of his life when Philip Guston was in his 50s and 60s. I think the last work of Guston speaks directly to us at this particular moment in time, addressing the disgust, the anger, and the anxiety that a lot of us feel now.
San Clemente, 1975
This is Guston's only direct comment on a contemporary news event in his painting. He shows post-resignation Richard Nixon in brooding exile at his California home of San Clemente. He strolls along a beach dragging behind his comically grotesque foot swollen with the phlebitis he suffered shortly after his departure from the presidency. Guston loathed Nixon. He transforms Nixon's famous ski-jump nose into a limp penis, and his jowls into hairy testicles. Nixon weeps a tear of bitter self pity as his coat and tie billow in the sea breeze.
Couple in Bed, 1977
Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973
So much of Guston's painting from this period shows the influence of underground comic artists such as R Crumb, but also that of George Herriman who drew the Krazy Kat comic strip in the 1920s. Guston's paintings brought these artists to serious attention by scholars and critics that was long overdue, though artists knew of their work for generations.
Painter's Table, 1973
Ancient Wall, 1976
By the late 1970s, Guston's paintings took on a darker more apocalyptic tone, perhaps showing the influence of one of his longtime heroes, Goya. Black and red begin to dominate the palettes in these paintings.
The Pit, 1976
Painter's Forms II, 1978
Red Sky, 1978
These paintings from 1967 to 1980, far from being an embarrassment, are the culmination of a life's work incorporating all the earlier phases of Guston's career into them. Even the abstract painting that originally made Guston famous informs these paintings. Brushwork and color play just as crucial a role in these paintings as they did in Guston's abstract work of the 1950s. As in the work of Rembrandt and Goya that he admired so much, the fact of painting never really disappears from these pictures no matter how vivid the imagery. As in those earlier artist's work, painterly form plays a supporting role to the narrative instead of the primary role assigned by modern painting.
Guston comes to terms with the entire course of his life in these paintings in a way that purely abstract painting and modernist reductivism did not allow. Guston was born in Montreal in 1913, the son of Jewish refugees from Odessa in Ukraine struggling to make a new life first in Canada, and then soon in the USA in California. His father, deeply traumatized by the persecution he experienced in Europe, troubled by the antisemitism he encountered in the USA, and despairing over his failure to successfully provide for his family, committed suicide in 1923 when Guston was 10. His mother encouraged his new found talent for drawing. Very young Philip Guston liked to draw best in a closet lit by a single hanging lightbulb in his home. Philip Guston went on to become a social realist painter and left wing activist in the 1930s, deeply troubled by racial violence and the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan (Guston's father also obsessed over the Klan and its violent antisemitism). Guston's activism led him into occasional brushes with the law and some first hand experience of its corruption by bribery and intimidation. All these early experiences found their way into his last paintings shaping their form and narrative.
Photo of Guston, Reuben Kadish, and the poet Jules Langsmer in Morelia, Mexico in front of their mural cycle, The Struggle Against Terror, 1934
Bombardment, 1937 - 1938
Conspirators, drawing, 1930
To BWT, 1952
Photo of Guston with art students, Boston University, 1978
Guston's late work influenced generations of younger artists. For them, he pointed a way out of the cul de sac of modernist reductivism and back into a way of engaging once again with lived experience. I too was an art student in 1978 about the same age as the students in the photo above. I certainly knew about the continuing controversy swirling around the work of Guston's final years. But it is only now at this point in history when everything seems so grotesque and loathsome that I can now fully appreciate his work and his legacy.
"There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden. " --Philip Guston