Philip Guston 1954-1958by John Yau
L&M Arts: January 15 – February 28, 2009
This exhibition of eight paintings that Philip Guston completed between 1954 and 1960 got me thinking about the one or two surprises that I have encountered in nearly all of this artist’s exhibitions that I have seen since his retrospective in 1980, the year he died, and how there is very little explanation or follow-up to them. I am always left tantalized by what else the artist might have been doing around the same time, as well as beset by the feeling that we are always getting a highly refined version of an unruly artist who fought the seductiveness of paint with breathtaking vigorousness, and never settled for the easy solution.
While Willem de Kooning believed that “flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” Guston might have countered that it was because of something much more elemental and dark. Guston, who had the ability to be every bit as seductive in paint as de Kooning (and who else among the Abstract Expressionists could you say this about?), eschews that route over and over. Instead of flesh, Guston took to oil paint like an earthworm slithering in dirt. He preferred congealed and clotted masses, streaks and smears, thick glistening ridges and granular grounds. Even his pinks are smoky and ashen. Nothing feels clean or pristine in a Guston painting. Everything feels like it has absorbed the smoke of a fire.
In his big show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2003-04, the big revelation for me wasn’t the paintings and drawings of Richard Nixon, which I knew about while the artist was alive, but Street II (1977), a painting of a feral dog with an impossibly long tail and a big red tongue, licking the inside of a garbage can in which a tin can, a shoe, and red viscera are visible. Above the dog, and extending down from the top edge, is a row of pedestrians’ feet, one of which is about to step off the curb onto a steaming manhole cover. The dead-on, frontal view suggests that we are at eye-level with the dog, and perhaps we are waiting to see if it leaves anything behind for us. I didn’t know of any other painting that Guston did of an animal, and that alone made it interesting. For one thing, it meant that he hadn’t become content with his lexicon of shoes, bloated, one-eyed heads, hammers, clocks, spider webs, and floods.
In his drawing retrospective at the Morgan Library and Museum (2008), which I reviewed for The Brooklyn Rail (July/August 2008), two untitled works, one circa 1958-59 and the other from 1960, were featured along with the well-documented drawing Celebration (1961). In these drawings the outline of a clock, glasses, shoe, and sole are clearly visible among the more abstract shapes. These works reveal how deeply uncomfortable Guston was with pure abstraction, and how much he struggled to get certain objects, and his underlying preoccupations with them, into his work. Coming to abstraction later than his peers—and befriending Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899-1955), whose work has always flown under the radar, in part because his marks are much more delicate (feminine) than vigorous (masculine)—Guston struggled from the early 1950s to the late 1960s to get his intelligence, imagination, and the mechanics of painting and drawing into sync. When he does, all hell breaks loose.
The earliest of the eight works in this exhibition is the luminous, largely cadmium red Painting (1954), from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and the latest is the smeared, largely dark gray and black Traveller III (1959-60), which begs the question: What do Traveller I and II look like? The titles of the first and last paintings alone tell a story. While we are apt to be familiar with a number of other paintings in the exhibition, most of which have been previously exhibited and reproduced on numerous occasions, I don’t believe Traveller III has been seen for years, and it is certainly not reproduced in any of the catalogs or monographs that I have in my possession.
Traveller III is a squarish painting in which Guston depicts a figural element—a black, flattish oblong shape atop a rod-like body made of feathery strokes of paint and bending slightly back from the picture plane, as if surprised or afraid. The oblong consists of black and red brushstrokes, wet into wet. It’s as if the artist has destroyed a telling feature, leaving behind a smeared, erased surface, a rectangle of scar tissue. Just to the left of it, and pressed up against the picture plane, is a whitish, head-like shape atop a black coat-like shape. A red cape-like form starts at the bottom of the whitish head and runs alongside the black coat. There is almost no distance between the whitish head-like form and the black oblong, though they exist in different spaces. The whitish head shows no sign of moving or backing down, while the black oblong has leaned backward. It is an aggressive encounter of some kind that is impossible to decipher.
Haunted by particular events that he experienced (the suicide of his father, whose body he discovered) and social concerns, as well as deeply in love with art and with life’s simple and often solitary pleasures (eating, smoking, drinking, and reading), Guston’s career is marked by his struggle to enable his imagination and memory to play a role in his painting. He wanted to get his life into his painting, but he didn’t want it to be about him or to become anecdotal. He had to find a way to distance himself from painful things, but always to be able to look at them without blinking. He loved the Classical restraint and highly loaded lexicon of Piero, de Chirico, and Beckmann, as well as the cartoons of George Herriman, but he chose not to emulate them. For them, as for Guston, art had to tell a story, but it didn’t have to be transparent or reach a conclusion. No wonder Guston loved poets and poetry so much. Like them, he understood something that many Americans haven’t caught on to yet, and for which he didn’t need Mel Bochner to tell him: language isn’t transparent.
Isn’t it time a catalogue raisonné of Guston’s paintings and drawings be started? I am convinced that the wildness of this artist’s career, and the odd side paths and brief explorations he made, will be every bit as eye-opening as his groundbreaking exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in 1970.