Every once in a while a work of art splits across your consciousness like a cracked egg. That happened in late December—with two paintings, actually—at the McKee Gallery’s exhibition of small figurative panels by Philip Guston dating from 1969 to 1973, presented here as a group for the first time. They were hanging side by side, both untitled. Glaring swatches of green and orange jolted them from the fields of dirty pink and grayed-out blue that dominated the other paintings. Beyond the color differences, these two works, particularly the one featuring a green and orange coffin-like shape sporting three black dots, felt virtually abstract in the context of the show.
On ViewMcKee Gallery
November 5 – December 31, 2009
The two paintings included a few recognizable forms—a brick wall and a ball in one panel, a block of wood and what may or may not have been a row of bricks in the other—but that was it. The rest of the shapes were mostly vertical oddities, as inquisitive as Guston’s surrogate self-portrait eyeballs one moment and as clueless as his hooded Klansmen in the next. They could be still life objects, pieces of a cityscape or anthropomorphized geometric solids. Whatever they are, they test the limits of the language we use to categorize art forms. Their distinct articulation and near-resemblance to commonplace items make them not so much abstract as unnamable, to cite Samuel Beckett, one of Guston’s most important literary influences.
Immediately after the Gustons at McKee, I visited the exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s recent full-smear abstractions at Marian Goodman. The standout of this very large show was a group of small panels from 2005 that evinced an authenticity rarely felt in the artist’s work since the Baader-Meinhof series of 1988. They weren’t much of a departure in technique from his previous rolled-on paintings, but unlike those works, they didn’t feel arbitrary or simplistic. Their colors were less garish and more organic, and the randomness of their surface manipulation, rather than offhandedly at odds with itself, added up to a freewheeling, spontaneous syntax.
What was most surprising, however, was the improbable connection I felt between these Richters and the two Gustons described above. The latter works were reminders that, above all, Guston made his paintings out of paint—a tautology that makes sense perhaps only to painters. These two panels derived their meaning not from psychological or cultural associations (such as the artist’s startling image of the back of a man’s head, or his many pictures of shoes, cigars, and paintings-within-paintings) but from the pure interaction of line, color, and texture. They were tangentially pictures of something, but they were foremost material responses to a visceral urge.
This distinction also points to the split I felt between Richter’s past and current practice. These were paintings about paint, while his previous abstractions, underscored by their tandem relationship to his photorealist pictures, were paintings about painting, a self-conscious critique of the authority of style. The earlier work looked abstract but was rooted in a conceptual agenda, which now appears to have been discarded; the new works seem to spring solely from their medium.
Such a reframing sheds a different light on Guston as well. It suggests that his break with abstraction wasn’t so hard and fast, perhaps closer to Willem de Kooning’s Women than generally considered. Guston made both his abstract and figurative paintings out of paint, but compounded the latter with reifications of the cravings, regrets, and stupidities of the human animal.
For those who are unaware of the importance of this exhibition, these are the paintings that Guston was making during his transition from abstraction to figuration, a period punctuated by his notorious Marlborough show of 1970, which unleashed a critical shit-storm on his head. Following standard prophetic procedure, he has since become a touchstone for generations of painters seeking to inject extra-visual meaning into a modernist or postmodernist context. But perhaps the strength of my reaction to the most ambiguous of these paintings is an indication that the focus on content in a lot of current art has tipped the scales too far in the other direction; we see much of Guston’s funkiness but little of his facture.
The same is probably true of my response to the Richters. I’m willing to concede that a conceptual agenda could be as much at work here as in his earlier abstractions, but it has been eclipsed, in my perception at least, by his paint qua paint. Such are the tricks of the zeitgeist. Richter’s practice is certainly more multidimensional than the this-equals-that framework of much contemporary neo-conceptualism (two recent examples being most of the art in the New Museum’s Generational show and Jonathan Horowitz: And/Or at P.S.1)—allowing us, up to a point, to see what we wish to see. But given all that, the work at Marian Goodman still feels like a decisive swing toward pure painting.
De Kooning famously declared that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented. You can’t really argue with that, but the connotations of that statement extend beyond the imitative properties of the glazing techniques developed during the golden age of Dutch and Flemish art. While fresco painting, which was controlled for the most part by the Catholic hierarchy, embedded its pigments into the walls of a church, oil painting was a portable commodity. Its metaphor was not the solidity of orthodoxy but the fluidity of the emergent mercantile economy. And the beauty and sensuality it lent to the representation of corporeal, corruptible existence acknowledged an unspoken acceptance that the visual splendor and physical pleasure of this world is the only heaven we’ll ever know.
We live in a cultural moment in which certainties are risible, perceptions are suspect and intentions are discounted—and our art must follow suit. The density of the Richters mirrors the layered, contradictory, and impenetrable currents flowing through our isolated but interlaced existence—a matrix as unknowable as St. Augustine’s God. The Gustons point in a diametrically opposite direction. They find a way to be simultaneously blatant and obscure, a pairing as anxiety-provoking for us as his abandonment of abstraction must have been for him. Cognition is sparked but immediately suspended, leaving us with little of significance beyond the painting’s paint. But that is all we need—meaning extracted from the artist’s means; apprehension that sidesteps comprehension; beauty resplendent in its self-containment.
It is a measure of Guston’s profundity that the essences coiled inside his post-Abstract Expressionism can, with a shift of the tide, spring unbound into post-expressionist abstraction. Like all great artists, he is in two places at once—his own time and ours. In her landmark study of Guston’s life and work, Yes, But… (1976), Dore Ashton writes of the artist’s return to figuration: “Can matter alone carry expressive meaning? He says no…paint alone is not enough.” That might have been true for Guston, but we—unmoored and adrift—may have no other choice.