Published  05/03/2004

The Art of Philip Guston: 1913-1980

The Art of Philip Guston: 1913-1980

Philip Guston is one of America's most important 20th century artists. His work occupies a unique place which the retrospective exhibition now showing at the Royal Academy in London reveals. If one views a painting such as 'Untitled' (Sandwich, 1980), independently of his oeuvre, one might experience a strange contradiction - that of the infusion of authority and strength in an apparently crude caricature of mundane objects. This fine retrospective presents the apparent anomalies of unorthodox Guston's career in such a way that it all makes great sense.

Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969. Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 106.7 cm. Private Collection

Royal Academy, London
24 January-12 April 2004

Philip Guston was a childhood friend of Jackson Pollock. Both became leading artists of the New York School of painters, along with Rothko, Kline, De Kooning, Newman and Motherwell. The most dramatic point in Guston's career was his 1970 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York where he was seen to betray the dominant genre of abstract painting, by moving into a courageously personal and highly charged figuration that acknowledged and paid homage to artists of the past: Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Goya and Cézanne. With knowledge of their work Guston produced searing images of American society, loaded with moral intensity and self-reflection. He presented 20th century life in its most hideous and extreme form.

'The Art of Philip Guston: 1913-1980' is the most comprehensive survey of Guston's work in the UK to date. It contains 138 works including rarely seen drawings from the artist's estate and his daughter, Musa Meyer's, collection. The exhibition was conceived and curated by Michael Auping, Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, where the show began in March 2003 as 'Philip Guston Retrospective'. It travelled then to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The accompanying full colour catalogue (Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth in association with Thames and Hudson and the Royal Academy, London) contains excellent scholarly articles by Dore Ashton, Michael Auping, Bill Berkson, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Joseph Rishel and Michael E. Shapiro as well as Guston himself.

Philip Guston was born Philip Goldstein in Montreal, the youngest child of Russian émigrés who arrived in Canada shortly before his birth in 1913. However, Canada, and later America, failed to fulfil the Goldsteins' dreams of a better life. In Montreal they lived in what friend Morton Feldman described as 'one of the better Jewish ghettoes in North America, but a ghetto nonetheless'.1 In 1920, the family moved to Los Angeles but their fortunes did not improve. Guston's father, Louis, worked as a collector of rubbish and suffered severe depression. This led to his eventual suicide by hanging and it was Philip, aged only ten, who found the body. Philip’s mother, Rachel, was left to care for and support the seven children. Guston survived the trauma of his father's suicide by isolating himself from his immediate family, and by drawing.

His favourite refuge was a large closet illuminated by a single light bulb. Guston spent hours there in isolation, inventing cartoons. The light bulb, a multivalent symbol of Guston's childhood, would show up in many of his later paintings. By the age of 12, Guston had become a serious draftsman, and for his 13th birthday, his mother gave him a year's correspondence course to the Cleveland School of Cartooning.2

Cartoons were of particular importance, not only in the sense that children of Guston's generation read comics as today's children watch TV animation, or play video games, but they also had a political dimension. Political satire through caricature was an important aspect of radical thought. Guston had staunch political views, as examples of his work from the 1960s in particular demonstrate. He was involved in political activity at school (with his friend Pollock) and, in fact, was expelled for publishing and distributing leaflets against the popularity of school sports.

Guston spent a brief spell at art school in LA but found it stifling. Yet his own path was extremely disciplined and he set himself a rigorous study of the Old Masters. He always maintained a strong interest in art history and had a sophisticated and wide-ranging knowledge of the subject. From an early age he sought to bring the past and present together. His early works possess a monumentality and intellectual strength that take one by surprise. Guston’s acquaintance with the work of Picasso and de Chirico, and his interest in politics gave him an intensely focused ambition. He worked as a mural artist, under the influence of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. In 1934, he travelled to Mexico and worked as an assistant to Siqueiros. The social agenda shared by these artists was central to Guston's work in the 1930s.

It was in the early 1930s that Guston had his first encounter with the Ku Klux Klan when some of his paintings were slashed while on display. Guston's image of the hooded figures of the KKK stayed with him and informed many of his later artworks. In 1935, Guston moved to New York to take part in the Federal Arts Project (FAP), part of Roosevelt's 'New Deal Program'. There, he was one of the artists funded to paint murals. Class struggle was sometimes alluded to by the use of children - fundamentally innocent individuals - fighting with homema de swords against a backdrop of Depression poverty. His own tragic childhood surely informed the images of children playing menacing, grown-up games. Surrealism exerted a profound influence on Guston particularly the disquieting spatial compositions of de Chirico.

In New York during this period he met Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Kline, Rothko and Newman. They formed the nucleus of what became the Abstract Expressionist movement. The late 1930s also saw an important shift in Guston's work from mural painting - an essentially co-operative and public enterprise - to private studio work. He taught at various places, including St Louis, and was a charismatic teacher. The Max Beckmann collection was housed in St Louis and introduced Guston to the intense psychological achievements of the modern German master. Beckmann's scepticism of society, his violent moods and the distorted figures were an important source for Guston. Guston, in turn, enlarged the heads and hands of his figures and created an insidious claustrophobic mood.

Abstract art was reinvented in New York in the 1940s, and became a powerful and dramatic force in art. The fact that an artist like Guston - committed to a social agenda and to the human figure - could be won over to a non-objective art is testament to the power and poignancy of the abstract phenomena. Within his dramatic oeuvre the abstract works are at first anachronistic. Seen in the context of the present retrospective, Guston's abstract works are eloquent and beautiful. In 1960, Guston stated:

There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art - that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually defined its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting's continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.3

Philip Guston made abstract paintings for approximately 16 years, roughly a third of his career.

For Guston, abstraction was still an experiment, involving a careful deconstruction in a search for the internal structure that gives an image its emotional resonance.4

Guston did not subscribe to Clement Greenberg's rigorous formalism, where metaphysical and spiritual themes are eliminated. Guston viewed painting as, 'an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see … I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere'.5

Guston himself drew on a broad range of inspiration and was open to constant change. Abstract shapes enter Guston's pictures such as 'Tormentors', (1947-1948), a masterful and powerful work in which the perpetrators of evil in the Nazi death camps 'were best not literally described, but rather their evil and conflict projected through undefined forms and abstract presences'.6 The relationship between figures and objects never disappeared from Guston's world even though his works were deconstructions of reality. Guston's abstractions bring together aspects of Rothko, Mondrian and Cézanne. Michael Auping describes Guston's unique contribution to Abstract Expressionism as a special immediacy and intimacy, related to touch.

The paintbrush was like a sacred tool to Guston. The nine-inch long wooden shaft and the flattened horsehairs that protruded from its end were like an extension of his fingers. Guston had his pigments ground to create a particularly creamy consistency, and like thick butter applied to a hard surface, each stroke subtly squeezed out at its edges, creating a microsculptural effect.7

Unlike many of the Abstract Expressionists, Guston's abstract works were comparatively small, 'large in scale if not in size'. He preferred art books with black and white reproductions in order to appreciate the structure, the bones of a work of art. When Georg Baselitz saw Guston's work in Berlin in 1959, he believed they were 'not that abstract', but a 'distortion of the abstract, full of concrete forms'. Baselitz was a European 'who appreciated the dynamics of traditional composition and who was sceptical of the sublimity of abstraction'.8

'The Painter' (1959) is a most significant painting, described by Aubing as inhabiting 'exceedingly impure territory'. Here abstraction and figuration meet; he was putting abstraction to the test. A shadowy hooded figure is visible amid the abstract forms. It was not harping back to his 1940s figurative paintings but reaching into the future. In the late 1960s, Guston's work was occupied with the masked figure and with self-portraits. Guston wanted the open-ended nature of abstraction, as opposed to figurative images that could not include illusion and nuance. But, ultimately, abstraction did not satisfy him. The pulling and pushing of the object in Guston's art is one of the most compelling aspects of his work.

By 1960, Guston had established an international reputation; he had taken part in both the Documenta II in Kassel and the Venice Biennale. In 1967, he moved to Woodstock which became his home. Guston's philosophical dialogue is a profound and independent one. His 1960 painting, 'Mirror to S.K' refers to the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. In line with other philosophers of importance in Guston's professional and personal development - Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus - Kierkegaard emphasised the darker side of life and the void lurking beneath. Doubt was a pervading theme in Guston's work which confronted the essence of the human predicament in an intense and innovative manner.

During the 1960s, Guston's doubt was directed towards the art world itself. He rebelled against the prevalent belief of the absolute purity of non-objective form. 'I got sick and tired of all that purity … I wanted to tell stories!'

Drawing underpins all of Guston's work and gives it an elegant structure. His knowledge of art history also informs his work so that a sophisticated dialogue between stylistic formal considerations, political ideas and autobiographical detail are presented in his remarkable pictures. Sophisticated ideas with layers of meaning, numerous references are presented in what at first glance appear to be crude, cartoon-like imagery. His inventory of grotesque objects possesses a menacing but authoritative message about the frailty of human existence.

It was at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970, when Guston was 57 years old, that he effectively reinvented himself as a figurative artist. His new paintings prompted rage and disbelief; acceptance only came very slowly. Hilton Kramer was vitriolic, declaring that a mandarin was pretending to be a stumblebum, a primitive force triumphing over civilization. With hindsight and with the benefit of the intelligent curating of this exhibition and the excellent essays in the catalogue, it is possible to reconcile Guston's radical departure from abstract art. Joseph Rishel describes the phenomena thus:

As understandable as the shock of his return to the figure was in the late sixties, the works from the last decade of his life now rest comfortably with those that preceded them. Which is not to rob or diminish the power or novelty of his creations and their wondrous reflection of a titanic sensibility. The enigma of the artist (like his definition of Piero) who wants to stand completely alone while, at the same time, to find his place in history, should never be undercut, at the cost of missing the dynamic of Guston's work.9

'The Art of Philip Guston: 1913-1980', showing now at the Royal Academy in London, enables us to come to terms with a remarkable career and to see the unique and important place he occupies in the broader context of the history of European and American art.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Auping, M. In: Introduction. Philip Guston Retrospective. New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
2. Ibid, pp.14-15.
3. Auping, M. Impure Thoughts: On Guston’s Abstractions. Ibid, p.37.
4. Ibid, p.38.
5. Ibid, p.37.
6. Ibid, p.38.
7. Ibid, p.41.
8. Ibid, p.45.
9. Rishel, J. The Culture of Painting: Guston and History. ibid, p.80.

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