This painter’s anxiety-ridden images have been a disturbing yet largely ignored presence over nearly a decade now. Seen as contradicting his achievement as an abstractionist, they actually pull together formal and thematic elements from his entire career.
At the age of 64, Philip Guston is almost ten years into the third major phase of his long career. To many people’s discomfort, he has outgrown, outlived and otherwise rendered inoperative the designation of “Abstract Expressionist” by which he has been known since the early ’50s. Guston has abandoned abstraction—some people would prefer the word “betrayed” here—and he has gone back to the image with an undeniable energy, almost amounting to a vengeance. Like others before him (John Graham, Elie Nadelman and Marsden Hartley come to mind), he has pulled back into himself, but also into a broader sense of culture and a longer sense of time, to make art which is as eccentric and personal as it is knowledgeable and historically-inspired. Some may see this as a self-indulgent or regressive move, but in his own reclusive, schizophrenic, fragmented way, Guston is contemporary. His recent output is his most authentic work; it makes fullest use of his knowledge and his personality and, despite its many tie-ins with and quotations from older art, it could only have been made now. Guston’s artistic singularity, his preoccupation with the past and with subject matter, give his work a special relevance in the ’70s, a decade which seems distinguished by its dearth of neatly labeled art movements, by the exhaustion of certain areas of abstraction and by increased attention to older art—and pressure from it—as a source of rejuvenation for artists doing both abstract and figurative work.
Since the late ’60s, Guston has been producing at a rather feverish rate haunting, cartoonish images of swollen, large-scale forms, eerily displaced and pushed up close to us; they are bluntly (even childishly) drawn, but often exquisitely painted and colored. In some early paintings, white-hooded, stogie-toting figures, whose black-slotted, electrical-outlet eyes add a benign joviality to their K.K.K. menace, ride around in cars, survey piles of dismembered legs and feet, look at or make paintings, often under the scrutiny of a large hand which points an accusing finger at them. In others, a lone beach-ball head with a single unblinking eye (in profile, except it has no profile) stares at a pile of shoes or stacks of stretchers, whips itself, lies in bed and puffs a cigarette, floats on a rising tide of paint. In still others, thick inflated canvases, paintings within paintings, lean against other equally architectonic objects from the artist’s studio: clocks, books, irons, railroad spikes (which Guston uses as paper weights), and light bulbs. And in others, single forms—a shoe, a head, a pile of outsize cherries, a hat—sit alone on the horizon.
As an Abstract Expressionist and before that, as a muralist and prize-winning figurative painter, Guston was always a respected participant in some larger artistic endeavor. Now, for the first time in his life, he has become something of an underground artist. His work is admired by a growing number of painters, but ignored by the institutions which contributed to his earlier reputations. No museum and very few collectors have acquired these paintings. Guston’s current invisibility matches the eeriness and eccentricity of his imagery.
In some ways, Guston is not only underground, he is a young artist again—perhaps younger than ever before. His recent paintings have the peculiar cautionless indulgence of someone who has just found his artistic identity and with that, an incredible amount of energy, often indiscriminate and heavy-handed, sometimes even crude and offensive, but just as often right on target. in comparison the figurative work of his youth looks old and academic. At the same time, however, Guston’s recent surfaces look as if they have been made by a man who has spent his life painting, whose experience gives him the freedom and courage to paint whatever image has the most urgency for him, without having to worry about the paint.
It is tempting to say that Guston was not content to repeat a successful formula, and has always changed, pushing himself. taking new risks. But that is only half the story. Guston is a restless, compulsive talent; perhaps he has no choice in the matter. His career has always vacillated between extremes: lyrical vs. grotesque, light vs. dark, representative vs. abstract, complex vs. simple. It’s as if he can’t bear to leave anything untried, as if he has to do everything.
In the ’30s and ’40s, Guston’s nervous energy was spent trying to assimilate his many inspirations, from the Renaissance to Picasso, Cubism and de Chirico, into ambitiously scaled, elaborately composed pictures crowded with figures and architectural fragments, with results which were self-conscious and overworked. The life was squeezed out of these images, although many of their motifs and their haunting, poetic anxiety recur in Guston’s recent work. In the late ’40s, Guston went through a crisis in his art, like many of his friends and colleagues. (He grew up with Jackson Pollock in Los Angeles and while working on the W.P.A. in New York during the late ’30s, met de Kooning, James Brooks and others.) Over a difficult three-year period, he developed his own abstract style and by 1952 was painting the pictures for which he is best known.
The “new Gustons,” as they are generally called, have relegated these “old Gustons”—the shimmering, serene abstractions of the early ’50s most frequently seen in museums—to a strange and uneasy limbo: they look more and more like a momentary hiatus between longer bouts of figurative or semi-figurative work. If so, it was a crucial hiatus, for it was with abstraction that Guston got in touch with the sensuous, spontaneous side of his character and became fully involved with the physical possibilities of his medium and with painting as a direct, unplanned activity. When his loose, fidgety nervousness crept into the very surfaces of his paintings, as it did in the early ’50s, his work finally came to life.
With Motherwell and de Kooning, Guston formed the “secular” branch of Abstract Expressionism. The more “religious” branch—Newman, Rothko, Still and Reinhardt—arrived at absolutes, both formal and philosophical, which they repeated unswervingly. The “secularists,” for better or for worse. continuously dazzle us with the pure skill and pleasure with which they get the stuff on the canvas. Guston in particular presented the paint as pure material. His early ’50s abstractions, static, vibrant thatchings of loosely gridded strokes dominated by close tones (usually white, pink and red). look back to Mondrian’s plus and minus works and forward to the discrete brushstrokes of early Johns and Ryman.
Guston’s most anxiety-ridden, expressionistic painting did not come until the late ’50s and ’60s, when the Abstract Expressionist style was on the wane. These paintings are also latently figurative, for, true to form, no sooner had Guston achieved his “classic” abstractions than his work began to change, pulling back toward figuration. As early as 1956-57, the carefully laid out brushstrokes began to accumulate into shapes and the shapes to pile up, to interact and struggle against each other, already suggesting the piled objects and limbs which would emerge unequivocally over a decade later. And in fact, Guston started many of these works by painting objects around his studio, or the view out his window. The works from these years are predominantly black and became blacker, with crudely painted forms emerging from tangles of fat, murky strokes; they were often given figurative titles, like Painter I and Actor of 1959.
By the early ’60s, some writers predicted a return to figuration for Guston. In Looking, 1964, a mass of black strokes forming a head-and-shoulders silhouette contemplates another small mass of strokes—some kind of object. Guston’s writhing, globby marks seemed to cry out for an image to get them organized. The “black” paintings were shown at the Jewish Museum in 1966; the next year Guston moved back to Woodstock, where he had lived during the late ’40s. There, he went through another crisis in his art, out of which, after two years of mostly drawing, emerged his current figurative style.
When you take Guston’s career as a whole, the new Gustons aren’t the betrayal they may at first seem; they’re a surprisingly consistent summation. In them Guston seems to have revisited all his past successes and failures, touching base again with all areas of his previous development: the Michelangelesque monumentality and Klansmen imagery of his early ’30s fresco studies; the overlapping forms, staring faces, prominent hands and psychological disjointedness of his early ’40s work; the light-filled color and serene horizontal expansiveness of his early ’50s abstractions; the bunching, belligerent confrontations of forms and clumsy, foreboding, parodistic humor of the late ’50s and ’60s black paintings. Omnipresent devices, such as the centered pile (whether strokes. shapes, legs, etc.), and the prominent horizontal (sea, wall, bed, floor) make it apparent that Guston has had a certain vocabulary of arrangements under continuous consideration, but has taken his whole life to get them into balance.
Generally speaking, the new work depicts the old Abstract Expressionist content as narrative imagery, the peculiar surreality of which has many sources (de Chirico, Piero, the bumptiousness of American comic strips) but which nonetheless retains an emphasis on painterliness and scale that is, again, Abstract Expressionist. It seems that Guston’s restless agitation, always implicit in his touch, gradually subverted his abstraction; his perpetual anxiety about himself, his painting. society, came into full bloom as the literal subject of his art. Consistent with Harold Rosenberg’s definition of Action Painting. Guston’s canvas is an arena in which the artist confronts his deepest feelings about himself, his estrangement from society and the possibilities of making art. But like a Surrealist, when Guston paints from the unconscious, nonrational side of himself, it comes out in images. He uses de Chirico-like displacement—floating forms, harsh light, unexpected shadows, abrupt scale shifts—to give his images that extra heightened reality of dreams and imagination. But he also gets his own special reality from paint itself: as in classic Abstract Expressionism, his best images seem to have been discovered as they were painted; we never lose our awareness that they have no reality except as paint on canvas.
Guston has shown his new figurative work four times: in 1970 at Marlborough, and in 1974, 1976 and 1977 (the latter a two-part show last spring) at David McKee. Each show has marked a shift in theme, mood, brushwork and color—although it is dangerous to generalize since Guston is producing much more than he is exhibiting.
At first, Guston was preoccupied with “society.” The 1969-70 paintings—motivated in part by his outrage at watching the 1968 Democratic Convention on TV—reintroduced the K.K.K. hoods. Crime is implied by their red-splattered sheets, the piles of limbs, the pointing fingers and explicitly sinister titles (Caught, Evidence, Courtroom, Bad Times, Bad Habits). Since then, Guston’s imagery has come to focus on a more private struggle concerned with making art, and a more universal, generalized sense of disaster or desperation.
In his first works shown at McKee, instead of the hoods there is often only a single spherical head, a self-portrait of the artist staring from his bed at assorted paint jars and a pile of shoes which, less gruesome without the legs, have now become the painter’s subject. In Painting, Smoking, Eating (the three basic activities of Guston’s life), this out-size head, bodiless or at least immobilized beneath the sheets (like Lazarus), represents the artist not at work, but rather sweating it out, waiting for inspiration to strike. Guston is painting his own anguish, (and perhaps his own discomfort at being haunted by such a strange image), but he also might be caricaturing the mythical Abstract Expressionist brooding before his blank or unfinished canvas. In Cave and certain other paintings from this period, this guilty, driven tension takes a more agitated form: the head, hooded again, whips itself. But if this parodies the problems of making art, the way these works are painted attests to the possibility of inspiration. All the 1973-74 paintings that were shown have the elegant, economic brushwork and pink palette of the early ’50s abstractions, both of which serve to integrate the forms into diffuse, light-filled surfaces. These are among the strongest work Guston has ever painted.
The clarity with which the different elements of Guston’s paintings exist is particularly apparent here. Drawing (the outlining and describing of shapes) remains distinct from, less elegant and more cartoonish than, the overall painted surface; both these aspects remain separate from the imagery. Guston uses all this to maintain his dual stance, both ironic and passionate, about painting. He also uses these distinctions to suggest different levels of reality within his painting. Sometimes forms are only outlined, like the shoes and paint jars in Painting, Smoking, Eating, so we wonder whether this pile is next to the artist, in one of his paintings, or a ghost or dream. In Blue Light, in Guston’s next show at McKee (1976), a red sea engulfs some substantial painting stretchers in the foreground, as well as ghostly shoes and a head, outlined in white against black. Meanwhile the unpainted section at lower right reveals a pink ground and the artist’s signature, attesting to the artifice of the whole thing.
In this group of work, the subject matter is further internalized, personalized and made more mysterious. The artist as mediator between the viewer and the rest of the picture often disappears and we are left alone with crazy dream-images. The paint now seems hot, smoothed out like butter. Red and black are in new abundance, pink is cut with yellow and blue; the surfaces are worked beyond the light, airy integration of the previous works into a plane that is flattened, continuous and congealed. In several paintings, the sea becomes a flood which engulfs the painter. Similarly nightmarish is Driver, where a figure with his back to us crouches over a steering wheel, looking toward a solid red expanse and mottled sky. The abrupt transitions between planes, the isolation of the figure, the flat artificiality of the red versus the almost descriptive threatening openness of the sky, give this painting a harsh, hallucinatory intensity. Guston isolates an action, sets a drama in one image, where before he usually set an entire stage.
Guston’s show last spring had two parts to accommodate the tremendous amount of work he had just produced (45 paintings in nine months). In the first part, piles of legs recurred repeatedly, often depicted with a vehemence that exceeds the grotesqueries of the first K.K.K. paintings. Pit sums up, with particular awfulness, Guston’s main themes; it may be a heavy-handed metaphor for the artist’s life as Hell: a ferocious head of the artist and the tangled legs (symbolizing both society and the painter’s subject, here?) are tumbled together in a cavernous hole, while on the horizon, Art (coming to the rescue or outlasting the artist’s suffering?) in the form of a meaty little framed painting, parts the flames. Elsewhere the legs proceed with knee-bent regimentation, like a macabre chorus line, sometimes threatened by a billy club or whip. Guston’s palette has gone dark again: black backgrounds, red or ocher floors, legs bristling red and orange. His paint handling is oppressive and overfinished, recalling the illustrative tightness of his mid-’40s images. This emphasizes that Guston’s great facility compels constant change, because his paintings lose their freshness when he becomes too familiar with a motif.
But the metamorphosis of the legs is not over. They began as a symbol of society’s criminality, or life’s chaos; as these works develop, they become something of a signatory image for Guston, and he adapts them to different situations. They appear in front of a seductively painted white wall in paintings like The Rug, and before an artist’s drape in Red Cloth. They also abandon darkness for broad daylight in Monument, inflating to a stately sculptural mass. In the refreshingly pale Mesa, the legs and shoes recede to a distant horizon where they read like portals, architectural in scale and form.
An emphatic horizon dominates some works of another kind, many of which were in the show’s second part, where Guston pursues a simplified, centered image. The paintings are slightly bigger (up to 124 inches across) and their opened-up expanses add to their scale; here, Guston often uses a chalky Italian-fresco palette of salmon pinks, sky blues and spring greens. But the surfaces aren’t dry; their thick looseness seems occasionally to be on the verge of swallowing the images into solid planes of paint. What these images might mean is not always very clear, but it is never very complicated either: they hold us merely by their audacious combination of simple (and very modern) bigness, their eccentrically animated subjects and the large-scale intimacy of their brushwork. They are unusually endearing for Guston and reveal a soft. placid, non-violent side of him we don’t often see. In Frame, Art, having parted the flames in Pit, now surmounts the flood, and shines optimistically on the sea. In Ocean, only the sea remains: an expanse of red striated with white lines and crossed by a rhythmic Ionic scroll of stylized green waves. And in this group of work, for the first time, heads are presented straight are, although still fragmentary, with nose and mouth below the horizon. In Source, perhaps a blown-up and cropped quotation from Piero’s pregnant Madonna del Parto, a dopey, colossal haloed head looks appreciatively heavenward, an image of dazed, lethargic joy.
Nothing is final with Guston. He isn’t after an exalted, ultimate statement in his art. In that way he lacks the Olympian greatness of some of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, whose careers often seem to be the end of something, no matter how grand. Guston is great in a more plebeian, accessible way. He can be coarse and obvious, is seldom completely serious, but his painting has a solid earthy grandeur. His career gives you a working knowledge of what it means to spend your life as a painter: the self-obsession and ego, the love of other art, the day-by-day building-up of knowledge and experience, the need for both isolation and community, indulgence and discipline, the continual growth of one’s imagination and personality. Guston makes it clear that all this will continue and that painting still is and probably will always be possible.
This article originally appeared in the January–February 1978 issue, pp. 100–105.