Because of a chance conversation I had with Philip Guston’s New York dealer David McKee in mid-April, I went to San Francisco in August to see Guston’s retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. When I ran into David on 57th Street I asked about the show, which had recently opened in Fort Worth. "Great, great," but David didn’t want to talk about that. It was the version of the show set to open at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in October that had his agitated attention. According to David the Met planned to cut from the show at least half of Guston’s late work chosen by curator Michael Auping. If I wanted the see the show close to its original form I’d best get out to San Francisco, the show’s second stop, and so in mid-August I went.
When I arrived at SFMOMA a half-hour after opening on a Friday, a line ran down the block and turned the corner. Not, I discovered, for Philip’s show on the fourth floor but for a Chagall show advertised across the city. Playing second fiddle to fiddler on the roof would have provoked Philip to amusement and anger. Standing in line with my daughter Arden and a friend, the poet August Kleinzahler, I thought of Philip’s last retrospective twenty-three years ago. It had opened at SFMOMA, then at another location, three weeks before Philip’s death from a heart attack.. In filmmaker Michael Blackwood’s documentary Philip Guston: A Life Lived the show’s curator Henry Hopkins ushers Philip and his wife Musa into a gallery of the late work crowing that it is the show’s "critical mass." From the catalog I expected Auping’s show to declare that Guston became a great painter, one of America’s twentieth century masters, over the last decade of his life.
And this is exactly the point the show made. What surprised and delighted me was Auping’s boldness, the subtlety of the show’s arrangement and how powerfully present Guston’s late images remained to me, who had looked hard and often written about them over the past 23 years. Their life force comprised of density and weight, a palpable heft, had intensified.
The show began in a small room of pre-abstract figurative work where viewers new to Guston learned that he had been a prodigy. He painted the Picassoesque "Mother and Child" at seventeen in 1930 and brought the "Drawing for Conspirators" to a high finish in the same year. Since this drawing depicts a Ku Klux Klansman holding a thick length of rope while behind him a group of Klansman cluster conspiratorially and a hanged black man dangles from a tree above them, it has been used in numerous books and articles on Guston to show that when he embarked on his late work he went back to his past to go forward. It took forty years for the rope, the hooded figures, and the brick wall behind them to return. When they did these images took center stage.
Entering, we looked through this room as all viewers would to the large red abstraction "Painting" from 1954. The transition to this work from his early figuration, so fraught for Guston, so agonized over and so much at the core of his personal myth, was forecast from the start and happened, at the curator’s behest, in the blink of an eye. Since the outcome of Guston’s struggle now looked inevitable, his torturous path seemed less important. In one stroke Auping managed to separate the paintings from the man who painted them. Off to the side hung "Tormentors," a painting that Guston had worked on for over a year. It now seemed less a way into abstraction than an uneasy dismemberment and scattering of images, an attempt to clear his head of demons.
Under Auping’s hand Guston’s abstract period opens out through the delicate storms of the early fifties into the thicker, grouped forms at the end of the decade and on to the blocky black shapes of the early 1960s that, to me at least, have never looked so figurative. Not recognizable but easier to see as raw material, obdurate in their refusal to disclose themselves, Guston called these "the dark paintings," perhaps alluding to the shapes being in the dark, unaware of their next incarnation.
In these first rooms I would have liked more drawings, not only because I love the way Guston’s 1950s drawings gather and disperse in fierce strokes, but because in these years he began to pursue the fusion of drawing and painting. In my view he achieved this ambition, but you wouldn’t know it from this show. Absent also, and a loss, were the "pure" drawings— there was but one— that Guston did before, and then while he first drew books, shoes, and cars. These "pure" drawings are as simple and assured, as spontaneous and right, as breathing. Since these were not on view, what Guston called the "tug of war" between pure abstraction and the recognizable went undramatized. This show was not awed by Guston’s account ,available in many letters, public talks, and in the memories of his friends, of his tumultuous transitions. Interested viewers would have no trouble piecing together this story for themselves, but if they only saw this show they could not read it between the lines.
"By the Window" (1969) introduced Guston’s late work. It was impossible not to see the smoking Klansman’s hand to tilted head as an Oy, Vey! gesture suggesting he is thinking, "You won’t believe what this guy got himself into!" The curator who positioned this painting must have a sense of humor, but he also realized that this Klansman is one of Guston’s brooders. Guston’s bewilderment at what he had painted and his desire to continue to be bewildered are driving forces behind the late work.
Past this a series of small rooms, some holding only four paintings, strung out the late work so that soon the first forty years of Guston’s art seemed long ago and far away. The curator’s subtle humor was obvious in the room just off the entrance to the late work. Therein hung three large paintings and two drawings. To the right "Dawn" with two of the Klansman Guston called "little bastards" out on a drive, their roadster crammed with clubs and victims stacked like cord wood. In the center hung "Courtroom," the long arm of the law delivering its verdict to a cigar smoking Klansman, his sheet spattered with blood, and on the left "Bad Habits," the little bastards at their pleasures, smoking, drinking, and flagellation. On the back wall hung drawings of a group of stick-figure Klansman and a Klansman pointing into a book citing chapter and verse of the law. This juxtaposition emphasized the slapstick of the little bastards’ crimes, history’s horrors repeated as farce. You can’t be entirely at ease when looking at these paintings, but you can laugh out loud at human folly to get past them and through your day. These paintings seemed in conversation, or like the panels of a storyboard outlining the movie Guston abandoned when he moved away from the hooded figures.
As the rooms opened one into another and I stopped before old favorites like "Painter’s Table" with its smoking cigarette parked at the table’s edge, "Painting, Smoking, Eating" first seen in the mid-1970s at Boston University with Philip at my side, "Web" with its mechanical spiders, "Source," "The Street," and "Pyramid and Shoe," I saw that Guston’s art had been lifted out of his life. It now wrote its own biography. By disregarding the "runs" Guston got on when, particularly in the summer, he painted, say, thirty leg paintings, "Green Rug" had much in common with "Sleeping" from his figures in bed run. I saw clearly how much of a whole Guston’s work added up to and how different and related are the frantic sculptural "The Street" and the somber sculptural "Pyramid and Shoe." Guston had indeed made of his private interior world, his fears, panicked imaginings, paint outs, disregard for good taste, desire to see something he had not seen before, stamina, and sustained attention, a myth unfolding.
I also stopped before paintings new to me: the billboard scale "Red Sky" (1978) with its standing brush handles so eager to be picked up that they seemed to be vibrating, and "Large Brush" (1979), another of Guston’s thumb-thick brush handles, this one dipped in red gravy cooked up in a stove pot (I loved its homely call to work and the feeling it gave of painting as physical, material, and specific) and, toward the very end, the ashen already posthumous hand in "The Hand" (1979). Between two fingers it holds a lit cigarette, and there is a watch on the wrist. The hand reaches into or gestures at the darkness underlit in red. Then I noticed the pinky ring, one of its facets winking. The suggestion of vanity in the face of dread and a cheap horror movie theatricality struck me as funny, unsettling, and perfectly Guston. The gorgeously stroked-on paint communicated how much he had loved what he was doing.
As I wrote the above the Sunday New York Times ran a calendar of fall museum shows in and around the city. This announced that the Philip Guston Retrospective opening at the Met on October 27th would consist of eighty works. That is fifty-eight, well over a third less, than the catalog has in its "Checklist to the Exhibition!" In 1980 there were ninety-six works in Guston’s retrospective, sixteen more than will hang in New York this time. This cannot be passed off as editing. Visitors to the Met will see another show. That this is an outrage will be apparent at once to every viewer who glances at the show’s catalog. Since this will almost certainly be the last Guston retrospective for several decades, this outrage will reverberate. The San Francisco show makes clear that in the end Guston’s art will out, but what a blown opportunity! There surely were single paintings comparable in stature to those Guston painted in the 1970s, but no other painter produced anything approaching Guston’s body— what a fit word for once— of work. The loss is to those who love painting and those who like to make up their own minds. See the show and curse your luck that you were not in Fort Worth or San Francisco then purchase the catalog. This will not be enough, but there’s not a damn thing to do about it.
If you can afford $50, buy the hardcover. The paperback has for its cover a detail of a Guston painting. Nothing recognizable, just the paint. This made sense as the cover of last year’s Joan Mitchell catalog, but here it is meaningless. The cover of the hardcover is Arthur Swoger’s c. 1956-57 photograph of Guston in his New York studio, and it is perfect. He stands looking at the camera, his beautifully slender fingers about to take the cigarette from his lips. From the skylight hangs a naked light bulb, and behind Guston’s is a pull shade above an open window, a bed and a simple wood chair. So much of his future there the moment Swoger took his photograph.
WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet who has written books on the painters Philip Guston, Albert York, and Stuart Williams. He directs the small press Pressed Wafer and lives and works in Brooklyn.