I had mixed feelings when I heard about “Philip Guston Painter 1957-67,” on view from April 29 to July 29 at Hauser & Wirth’s temporary Gallery in the former Roxy Nightclub space. On the one hand, large Guston shows are a rarity, on the other hand, I have long struggled with his works of this period. So, it was with a desire to have it out with them in a battle to the death, over the very generous 3 months it was up, and either, finally, “get” them, or not that I climbed their candy-cane striped stairs to enter a space I had known in it’s previous incarnation.
I am happy to report that July 30th dawned to find me still among the living.
The show is focused on paintings from 1957-1965, 8 of Guston’s most “abstract” years , and drawings dated from 1967-69, at the beginning of his return to “figurative” work. The 1957-65 period of Guston’s paintings is, perhaps, his least known, possibly least loved, (according to one owner- Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer’s, experiences when guests have seen it) 1, and least seen works by this Artist, who Hauser & Wirth calls “the preeminent 20th century American Artist” in their press release.
Really? I am very interested in his work, and have a lot of respect for him, but “the preeminent?” Hmmm…Comparing Artists qualitatively is against my religion, though some other candidates are here2. Still, a group of 35 of these is unheard of, and seems unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
While his early abstractions from 1950-55 are seen regularly and much admired, the works of his next period are very different. Gone were the luminous colors and shimmering qualities of the earlier works replaced by a darkness that feels to be continually encroaching as these 8 years progress.
“What shall I paint but the enigma?”
A revealing quote from Philip Guston in 19693? Possibly. Guston, apparently, mis-translates, or misquotes a translation of the inscription on a “Self Portrait,” from 1911, by Giorgio de Chirico, a major lifelong influence, who he was speaking about when he uttered it. It’s de Chirico’s motto. The original reads- “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?” Most of the translations I’ve seen of it are- ‘What shall I love if not the enigma?’ Maybe it’s Guston’s interpretation of it?
It would, also, seem to be a fitting motto for this show.
Guston came to abstraction very gradually, the end result of a period of consternation over his direction during which his work was gradually leaving figuration behind. In late 1948 he took a break from painting and armed with a Prix de Rome and a grant from the American Academy of Art and Letters, made a trip to Italy to see the works of his early Reinassance heroes, Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. To that point, the dissolution of the figure in his work can be traced through “If This Be Not I,” 1945 (perhaps my favorite work of his), to “The Porch I & II,” 1947, and especially in “The Tormentors,” 1947-48, his last work his trip to Italy. Upon his return, his “Red Painting,”1950, and “White Painting,” 1951, begin his “non-figurative” periods, from which the works on view eventually followed. He said,“The 1950-55 paintings, (see “Painting,” 1954, above), in general, were very diffuse lyrical pictures. About 1956 I began to become very dissatisfied. I began to feel a need for a more solid painting. I began to look at my earliest work with a kind of renewed interest, the solidity of that. I found it a terrific challenging problem, in my own terms, to create forms.” 4
Then, in 1956, right on the cusp of the period in question, he told writer and friend, Dore Ashton, “I’m in love with painting.5” Looking around this show, that was the first thing that struck me- how painterly these paintings are. Guston’s brushwork has never been so nakedly at the forefront, even in the abstractions from 1950-55, as they are in every work here. It feels like it would be possible to follow each and every one in some of these works.
They have a freedom, a rawness, an energy that strikes me as being completely opposite from his earlier abstractions, someone dubbed “abstract impressionism,” a term he hated, works that are calm, subtle, delicate.These seem almost defiantly, perhaps reactionarily, different. They all contain shapes. At first, a mass of them, later individual shapes, and finally one shape, on a murky grey/blue with pink background. After all the depth of field has gone out, which began in his mid 1940’s work, completed from 1950, after the variety of color has gone out. The enigma remains.
“There can be no adequate understanding of Guston’s life work unless we are prepared to go back over the whole road,” Dore Ashton wrote in 1990 6. In the earlier work, the enigma was different. It came with, and in the guise of persons, places and things. Guston’s work begins, as far as public collections go, in 1930. And? Talk about starting with a bang!
Guston was a lifelong creature of habit. Some of those, possibly, led to his early death at 66 in 1980. As a child, he retreated from the world to his closet, where he would read, and even paint, by the light of a single light bulb. He painted hooded KKK guys7, who he actually saw break up strikes. At age 13 he discovered his father, hanging, having committed suicide.(!) At age SEVENTEEN, he created this-
There’s so much going on in this. First, note the figure hanging in the background. Then, the figure in the foreground handling rope. In the 1970’s when these hooded figures8 returned to his work, he said they were self-portraits9 Is this Guston pondering guilt over his father? Look at the abstraction of space- everything is enclosed in a very narrow area, which would reappear in the 1940’s, and again in the late work. The faceless head shapes, the narrow stage, and the brick wall are reminiscent of de Chirico. The angled cross from Piero della Francesca. Many of these elements, along with the single light bulb, his fascination with shoes, as well as many of the lessons he had picked up from his beloved early Renaissance Masters and, de Chirico, we see in the late work of the 1970’s. Also seen in the late work is Guston’s early love of comics. He reacted strongly when someone mentioned this to him, yet, I think it’s undeniable. As I wrote, I wonder what influence R. Crumb may have had on him. Though most of these are not readily apparent in the work in this show, they set me wondering how far away he ever got from them. After returning from Italy, his work shows an ever gradual reduction of elements, especially in his work from 1956-65, until he even stopped painting. Such was the effects of the admitted despair he was in, again, in 1966, as he was stuck before his next direction, which led to the outpouring of his final decade.
Meanwhile, I was in the middle of my struggle with these works. It was on my 3rd visit, sitting in the nicely cavernous space that a key question hit me-
“Exactly HOW ‘abstract’ are these works?”
Look at the titles. “Painter,” “Actor,” “Alchemist,” “Vessel,” and “Portrait I,” among them. Guston commented that the titles were added after the piece had been completed. It’s rare for abstract works of the “New York School” Artists of this period to have such blatantly suggestive titles such as these. They make it impossible to give one’s imagination the completely free reign the usual “Untitled” does. In fact, they force one to attempt to “see” what the title “means” in the work. This brings you back to the way you experience figurative painting. Once this happened to me, I was never able to go back to seeing them as completely abstract again. I began to “suspect” the other works. More titles- “Rite,” “Traveler III,” “Turnabout,” “”The Room,” “Garden of M.” and “Inhabiter.” Without trying very hard, that’s 11 titles of the 36 paintings. Hmmm…
“I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean himself in this environment, in this total situation.’– Guston said in 1960.
The evolution during this period can be seen in this next photo. Note the differences between the works on the left, and those on the right. Color has largely gone out, forms have been reduced. The overall feeling becomes one of darkness and isolation.
This reduction would continue through 1965, until he was left with one dark form against a murky blue/grey over pink background, with (see “Portrait I,” 1965, below), now, the white of the naked canvas encroaches. After these, painting itself, went out. In 1967, he would start all over by drawing. But, he’d quickly come to see that this new direction offered insufficient room to grow. These zen-like drawings (see the 3 photos following “Cabal,” below) were their own end game. Shortly after, he would make yet another new start. Now, pieces of his past were everywhere to be plainly seen. This would see him create his long misunderstood, now quite popular and influential final works, like “Cabal,” below.
While the “figure” went out of his work from 1950-1965 in works that are called “abstract” (a term he loathed), there is much in his work before, and after that is, also, “abstract”- even in his late work, where people and objects return. After all, isn’t this late work, which is called “figurative,” really “abstract?”
When you look closer at this hooded head in the foreground of “Conspirators,” above, with it’s two black eye holes in the white bedsheet, which somehow manage to be quite expressive. I couldn’t help but think about that when I saw this, “Untitled” drawing among those on the final wall at Hauser & Wirth.
Then, again? With an “Untitled” work, the mind is free to go where it may, right?
Revisiting his subsequent later work while looking at the show of the Small Oils Guston did from 1969-73, that was up at the McKee Gallery in 2009, and you can see here, in addition to the hoods, shoes, single light bulb and other elements from his past, cigarettes, books, the modern city, and his wife, Musa, from his present, I suddenly see other connections (hindsight being 20/20). The same murky grey over pink backgrounds appear in a number of his smaller oils (“Cabal” has a dark background, too.). Some of these also have strange forms alone against this background. All of a sudden they don’t look like they were created by an entirely different Artist than the one who created the works in this show. Well, Philip Guston was a different Artist than the one he was in 1957-65, but he’s still Philip Guston. Since there is much that is common between his early and his late works, it makes me wonder about all of his work. That was my initial question before seeing this show- Would what came before, and after be evident here? Using hindsight you can see connections. How he didn’t completely forget this period. Parts of it remained in his work until the end of his life.
Guston was not considered a founding member of the Abstract Expressionists, nor does he appear in the famous “Irascibles” photo which defined the movement’s members for many. The Met now lists him among the 14 Artists they group in the first group, along with Lee Krasner (the circle is now complete)! I think that part of the reason he wasn’t initially considered part of the group was that he was moving in that direction slowly from 1945 to 1950 which made him miss the first round of fanfare these works received, and which subsequently “grouped” them as “Abstract Expressionists,” a term Guston loathed10. Rothko, himself had called it “their enterprise 11.” Philip Guston, eternally, followed his own star. Though Jackson Pollock was his closest childhood acquaintance and the two were expelled from Manual Artis High School12 together for calling out the fact that more money was being spent on sports than on the “Arts,” and someone who remained in his life until his death in 1956, Guston was his own man, who’s Art owed more to the early Italian Renaissance and Giorgio de Chirico than it did to Pollock, or Rothko, who he was on friendly terms with.
Philip Guston was never a painter of “realism.” It now appears to me that though the end results look different as his style changed and evolved, he was continually bluring the lines between figuration and abstraction all through his career, in the service of painting images that expressed himself as he evolved in his times and in his environment. It’s obvious that he never forgot his past, or the past masters who’s work he loved. The more I look at his work, from all periods, the more I see the impact of, perhaps, his biggest influence, Piero della Francesca, in it. Piero’s figures have the most inscrutable, almost deadpan expressions. Their faces, often, reveal little to nothing of what they are feeling. They take that crutch of reading a whole image from the face away from us. That feeling stays in my mind when I approach a work of Guston’s now, no matter if there are “figures” or objects in the work or not. (Many, even most, of his figures are hooded, or masked, anyway). “Reading” a Guston is a little like to trying to “read” a Piero (or de Chirico). It’s not the expression on the face, it’s the whole thing- the figure in it’s environment, to paraphrase Guston’s quote, above (in Piero’s case, each one is placed with utmost mathematical precision as part of the whole). Guston’s masks are akin to Piero’s inscrutables. We can’t read the expressions or the feelings of these figures. This makes them “abstract,” in another sense, too. I wonder about them. Since they are hooded, or masked, or a black form in his “Portrait I,” 1965, we’ll never know what they are feeling- like in Piero.
It’s not only his 1957-65 paintings that mystify us.
“You see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.” “Philip Guston Talking” 1978, two years before he passed away.
Yet, he has left clues, along with the enigma.
(This is the third, and final, installment in my cycle of Posts on the recent, concurrent shows of Jackson Pollock, Lee Kranser & Guston- three Artists who’s lives are eternally intertwined, personally, and Artistically.)
*-Soundtrack for this Post is “For Philip Guston,” by his close friend, the brilliant composer Morton Feldman. If you have 4 hours to spare, check this out.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com
- Musa Mayer, “Night Studio,” Da Capo Press, P.102 ↩
- Hopper, Stuart Davis, Pollock, Rothko, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Sheeler, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, insert your own. ↩
- Guston, “Collected Writings,” University of California Press, P.125 ↩
- Schimmel, Exhibition Catalog for this show, P.15 ↩
- Dore Ashton, “Philip Guston,” Grove Press, Inc.,1960 P.49 ↩
- Ashton, “A Critical Study of Philip Guston,” University of California Press, 1990, P.9 ↩
- Ashton points out “At the time Guston was working on this painting it was estimated that there were more than 4.5 million members of the Klan in the United States, a great many of them residing right in Los Angeles, where they burned crosses and raised hell all during Guston’s childhood and youth.” Ashton, “A Critical Study,” P.7 ↩
- Ashton points out that hooded figures “not only recalling the Ku Kluxers of his early paintings but also the artists in the scriptoria of the medieval plague years who donned hooded gowns in the vain hope of avoiding the plague Ashton, A Critical Study, 1990, P.156 ↩
- Guston- “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself being behind a hood. In the new series of “hoods,” my intention is not really to illustrate, to do pictures of the KKK as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me… Guston, “Collected Writings,” P.282 ↩
- Schimmel, Show catalog, P.9 ↩
- Ashton, “Critical Study,” P.79 ↩
- Mayer, “Night Studio,” P.13 ↩