Being in a room full of Philip Guston’s paintings is like time traveling—back to both the artist’s own era in which the work was made, and to my first attempts to make abstract work, when I was in my early twenties. My relationship to Guston feels more personal, and hence more difficult to objectively write about, than with other artists. I think this might be a predicament that I share with other painters who fall in and out of love with abstraction like clockwork but remain faithful to the medium.
The show at Hauser & Wirth, Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967, gave me some clues as to why Guston remains evergreen. The paintings display a charged materiality unmoored from specific emotions, sensations, or psychological states, but still radiate meaning. The exhibit is dominated by a series of gray paintings made in 1964-65, and famously shown in the artist’s survey at the Jewish Museum in 1966. In the quicksilver mud of these abstract paintings I have a persistent desire to see something—A head! Three people!—and to piece together a narrative. The black blobs sometimes resemble profiles and the titles (Looking, Portrait 1, Stranger, May Sixty-Five) allude to people and experiences. The paint is a fact, applied with a thick brush I can easily envision in the artist’s hand. The visual pleasure is found in the displacement of the viewer into Guston’s shoes, his paint strokes and decisions are palpable, exact, and hard-won. For me, these works are the mottled darkness before the shocking light that burst open a few years later with the artist’s return to “the real” in all its eccentric manifestations: spiky cherries, Klansmen in cars, fat heads, and droopy clocks, and paint brushes.
It is interesting to compare these “gray paintings” with Jasper Johns’s work from the same period, such as Fool’s House (1964) and No (1961). The gray is lush, like the color of thought itself, and both artists take on the studio as their subject matter—Johns with an allegorical approach, and Guston more obliquely through dreamy translation and material play. Another idea I took away from the show was about subjectivity and the private life. Is it possible today to have the same kind of private life that Guston had when he made these paintings in the mid ’60s, and would this even be desirable now? In stark comparison to the late ’60s and 1970s work, there is nothing ironic about these paintings, and unlike the artist’s eloquent and clear writings from the same period, the paintings seem painfully yoked to a personal struggle. I see a paradox here: the work is gorgeously painted, but it is not visually appealing. The canvases have a dissonant quality comparable to feedback from an electric guitar; the notes are impressively energetic, but moody atmosphere is dominant over content.
What is most exciting to me about the show at Hauser & Wirth is not what the paintings looklike, but rather the alchemical studio energy that the artist has put into them. Speaking to poet Bill Berkson in 1964 Guston said, “I’m not finished if I’m still burdened with the evidence of my will, hopes, or desires. All of that is a preparation for that moment when my thinking is simultaneous with what I am doing.” I can think of no better description of a perfect day in the studio.