Harry Cooper, Mark Godfrey, et al., Philip Guston Now, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, and New York, D.A.P., 2020; 280 pages, $60 hardcover.
Philip Guston, Poor Richard, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, and New York, D.A.P., 2020; 96 pages, $14.95.
“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?” As we hunker in lockdown, chafing at the restrictions imposed by a pandemic whose effects have been magnified by the incompetence of our leaders, this comment by Philip Guston hits a nerve. What should art be when the world seems to be collapsing around us? Is it ethically and morally responsible to try to escape the madness by withdrawing into the solace of aesthetic pleasure?
When Guston spoke these words, he was nearing the end of a life that had spanned some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century, among them the Depression, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the struggle for civil rights, the debacle of the Vietnam War, and the duplicity of Richard Nixon. His response to these events was full of rich ambiguity. He famously careened from early Social Realist figuration to Abstract Expressionism and finally to the darkly humorous Neo-Expressionism that earned him the enmity of his contemporaries and the passionate embrace of younger artists. Guston was never simply a political commentator, but his work is permeated with a sense of unease rooted in an awareness of his own and society’s complicity in evil. Since his death in 1980, his late paintings, with their jumbles of shoes and bottles, bare bulbs, bloodshot eyeballs, and cigarette-smoking Klansmen have continued to electrify and influence successive generations of artists.
Philip Guston Now is the catalogue for a traveling exhibition that was supposed to open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this summer. Though that may yet happen, what we have for now is a lushly illustrated book with scholarly essays on various aspects of Guston’s work by that exhibition’s four curators. It is accompanied by Poor Richard, a slim volume containing a selection of Guston’s satirical drawings of Richard Nixon, created in the summer of 1971, two years before Watergate; this publication honors the promised gift of the Poor Richard drawings by the Guston Foundation to the National Gallery of Art. Together, the two books emphasize Guston’s intense involvement in the world outside the studio. In the main catalogue, the National Gallery’s Harry Cooper provides an overview that stresses the political undercurrents in the work and the thematic continuities between the two figurative periods. Mark Godfrey, from Tate Modern in London, teases out the Jewish themes that permeate the late work. Alison de Lima Greene, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, focuses on the early work, discovering an ongoing preoccupation with masks that extends beyond the Klan figures to images of clowns, children, musicians, and commedia dell’arte characters. And Kate Nesin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, provides a more formal analysis, with a detailed study of the role of space and horizons in the artist’s late work.
Poor Richard, meanwhile, lets the work speak for itself. In a brief afterward, Cooper—the sole commentator in this volume—notes that Guston arranged these seventy-three (out of 164) Nixon drawings to evoke a wordless narrative in the manner of a graphic novel. The book introduces the future president as a young boy, sleepless in bed as a belching freight train passes his window. The subsequent pages take him to adulthood and his political career, touching on real events like Nixon’s overtures to China and his role as part of an unholy trinity that included Henry Kissinger and Vice President Spiro Agnew. Among the images, which are included separately in the exhibition, are fantasy tableaux showing the trio outfitted in Klan hoods or peering into bleak landscapes scattered with the rubble and artifacts familiar from Guston’s late paintings. As Cooper remarks, the similarities suggest Guston’s equation of the self-identified Artist in the paintings with the darker aspects of Nixon’s soul.
But as Cooper argues in the main catalogue, “perhaps the best commentary has been the work of other artists, who picked up on Guston’s late work long before most critics, curators, and collectors did.” In keeping with this idea, interspersed within the curators’ texts are statements by ten contemporary artists who reflect on Guston’s diverse output in light of their own concerns. These practitioners offer some of the most thought-provoking takes on the midcentury artist and his creations.
Trenton Doyle Hancock and Glenn Ligon zero in on the Klan theme that appears first in the 1930s and then reappears in the 1970s. Hancock offers a perceptive analysis of an early drawing for a lost 1930 painting called Conspirators; the drawing foregrounds an apparently dejected Klansman as a group of his cohorts huddle under a lynching and a crucifixion. Hancock notes that this work inspired his own painting narrative, which pits his alter ego against a threatening Klan figure. He remarks, “Guston often spoke of ‘ghosts’ in the studio, voices of predecessors requiring exorcisms. At some point you have to stop the chase and confront those voices.” Ligon expands on the same 1930 Klan figures and their later reincarnations. He contends that this motif enabled Guston to “dive into the muck and mire of the American experience, allowing him to tell the truth of what it meant to be a citizen reckoning with a particularly turbulent moment in the nation’s history.”
Other artists concentrate on the more subjective qualities in Guston’s work. Amy Sillman waxes lyrical about the quotidian imagery in late Guston’s self-portraits, remarking, “the worried guy in Guston’s pictures, smoking, eating, and watching, is a guy who both reveals and repudiates time; doubt regenerates him.” David Reed recalls the advice Guston proffered his art class during a student crit: “To live in the world as painters, we had to go into the life we were living and find what disturbed us.” Dana Schutz echoes those sentiments in an assessment that stresses Guston’s empathy even for the most unredeemable of his characters: “More than any other artist, Guston renders the messy contradictions and heartbreaking ambiguity of what it is to be a person.”
For other contributors, Guston’s work offers affirmations of their own often idiosyncratic paths. William Kentridge analyzes Guston’s hooded self-portrait as “an example of the work of the studio, which is to take the fragments of the world, rearrange and transform them, and send them back out into the world (here as a painting).” Art Spiegelman notes how Guston’s willingness to cross the high/low divide empowered a generation of comics artists like himself. Both Tacita Dean and Rirkrit Tiravanija celebrate the freedom that erupted when Guston turned his back on the approval of his peers. Dean celebrates his embrace of the company of writers and cartoonists, while Tiravanija admits to being more interested in the stories of Guston’s rejection by the art world than in his formal innovations. And Peter Fischli confesses that his fascination with Guston stems from the great difference in their world views: Guston, as a modernist, embraced the drama of the artist’s struggle in the studio; Fischli, as a postmodernist, implies the absurdity of that struggle.
These commentaries help us see why Guston persists when the work of so many of his contemporaries is now tinged with the musty odor of art history. Guston’s enduring appeal rests in the permissions he offers artists. He encourages them to drastically change their work in midstream, to examine their personal relationship to evil, to embrace discredited styles and genres, and to accept and even revel in their own ambivalence about the meaning of art. Their responses vindicate the renegade modernist who declared in 1970: “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! Wanted to tell Stories!”