The praise has flowed in for Hauser & Wirth’s first Philip Guston show since it opened in April and so, with only two days left in its run, I am here merely to beseech you not to miss it, to beg you if necessary. Treat yourself. Take an extra long lunch break or cut out early. It is a glorious affair. You will regret not making the trip.
It has become clear since Guston’s death in 1980, at the age of only 66, that he was not only one of the great Abstract Expressionists, not only one of the defining painters of the 20th century, but one of the rare, exemplary models for how to be a contemporary artist, right now, in 2016. He questioned everything endlessly, continually casting off established styles and comfortable success in search of something new.
His story is, by now, legendary: an early period making politically engaged artworks, a conversion to abstraction mid-century, a mode he would hone into shimmering, beguiling paintings, and a radical, unexpected return to representation in the late 1960s, with depictions, both luscious and filled with dread, of hooded Klansmen, cherries, shoes, and other stuff of the world.
This show, “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967,” is set right before his radical, final transfiguration, as recognizable imagery was just barely beginning to coalesce in his work, somewhere within his halting, tangled grays, blues, lilacs, reds, pinks, and white marks. Beginning in the early 1960s, those brushstrokes became uniformly thick, enough so that they look distinctly un-arty, unlike anything else in the Ab-Ex sphere—all the more so because Guston often stays far back from the edge of the canvas, leaving exposed swaths of fabric. The images look tender and provisional, as if they might slide away at any minute.
The key to these paintings, particularly the pivotal ones from the mid-1960s, presented here in tour-de-force groupings, are the black blobs or clouds hovering in them. You sense, rather than see, real things in those abstract forms. You know they are there. They are faintly menacing, bringing to mind Ted Hugh’s “Ghost Crabs” poem, which was published in 1967, just as Guston was working on the last of these paintings. It reads in part: “They emerge/An invisible disgorging of the sea’s cold/Over the man who strolls along the sands./They spill inland, into the smoking purples/Of our woods and towns—a bristling surge.”
A few weeks ago, an artist friend repeated an argument to me that had been put to him by a colleague, to the effect that, if Guston had not finally gone back to figuration, people would not have been so impressed by the transitional work at Hauser & Wirth. It is, of course, an opinion that is impossible to prove: he did. For what it’s worth, though, I think a lot of these ‘60s works stun, especially the super spare ones, when they are nothing more than gray fields floating over pink, looking like representatives of some alien form of Minimalism, an alternate version of the style that contains so many still-to-be-explored possibilities.
But to engage a bit more with that argument, knowing the artist’s later work, yes, we do have the privilege of seeing these paintings as catalysts for his final, grand change, maybe even as “paintings beside themselves,” to borrow art historian David Joselit’s formulation. Guston was mapping out where he wanted to go—and, to be sure, building up the courage to set out for that place. He was doing something that we all do at certain points in our lives, with various degrees of trepidation, excitement, and hope—he was walking the line.