A show of Philip Guston’s Richard Nixon drawings opened this week at Hauser & Wirth in New York, so we are turning back to the December 1988 issue of ARTnews, in which Eleanor Heartney reviewed a survey of the artist’s drawings at the Museum of Modern Art. Heartney’s review of the MoMA show follows in full below.
“The Drawings of Philip Guston”
Museum of Modern Art
By Eleanor Heartney
In 1930 a 17-year-old Philip Guston produced Drawing for Conspirators, which presents a coven of Ku Klux Klan members presiding over a lynching. In a composition reminiscent of The Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca, whose work the young artist deeply admired, the foreground is dominated by a single Klansman winding a rope through his fingers, while in the distance, above a flurry of pointed hoods, the lynching victim hanging from a tree and a tilted crucifix share a desolate sky.
The exhibition offered this drawing as the starting point for Guston’s lifelong odyssey, a journey that took him from figuration to abstraction and then back to figuration and the Klansman image. The story has been told before—most notably in Guston’s 1980 traveling retrospective, which opened a month before the artist’s death and introduced him to a new generation hungry for tragicomic imagery. However, to see Guston’s development unfold through drawings is to see it in the medium in which he worked through his various shifts in direction. We could see him progress from the images of the early social realist phase, with their debts to Pietro, Max Beckmann, and Picasso, to a far more personal figurative style influenced by Klee and Surrealism, until the images dropped away and meandering lines gravitated together to create dense fields of black marks in a spatially ambiguous field. Then the lines slowly separated again and started to suggest abstract forms.
In the mid-’60s Guston’s drawings oscillated between abstraction and incipient figuration, culminating in a series of very simple drawings comprise of a few black strokes. In 1968 the cartoonlike image of a book appears, and the viewer experiences a sense of shock that the now-familiar lines and abstract marks could be turned to this purpose. The drawings from the last period, in which Guston developed his vocabulary of private symbolism, reveal his struggles with the aging process, his drinking, and his muse. In these works the clutter of everyday life—shoes, bottles, cigarettes, painting paraphernalia—becomes a symbol of both the materials of and the impediments to creation, as the painter assumes such alter egos as the Klansman, the bulbous head, and, finally, the all-seeing bloodshot eyeball.
Guston has been reviled as a turncoat and opportunist and revered as the last genius artist. This exhibition argued his case in the most effective way, by bringing the work before us again and demonstrating its emotional power, honesty, and evidence of authentic struggle.