Reflections on Philip Guston
by Kate Liebman
PHILIP GUSTON Painter, 1957 1967
HAUSER & WIRTH | APRIL 26 – JULY 29, 2016
One of today’s most influential painters is having his first museum-quality, posthumous show at Hauser & Wirth: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. It’s an exhibition that showcases a transitional decade, a gap that links his earlier, acclaimed abstract expressionist pictures and his later figurative, cartoonish works, which continue to resonate with many important artists of our day, including Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, and Katherine Bradford. In the works on view, we see Guston emptying himself. He leaves sumptuous color behind and simplifies his compositions, even temporarily abandoning painting in 1967 to draw. Philip Guston: Painter allows us to focus on the formal: the touch, the color, the composition.
With the knowledge that such moving, significant paintings are around the corner, it is difficult to look at this decade of painting without anticipating what is to come. Guston’s early use of pink, beginning in 1965, will be pushed forward in 1970, the color becoming more corporeal, more atmospheric, and more emotional. He will use it as both the sickly skin color of his figures and the walls behind them. Guston will shape the roughly rectangular, black forms that almost touch in his 1962 painting Untitled into recognizable shapes: shoes, cigarettes, shadows. He will use that same confident, fast, responsive brushwork that is non-referential in this decade to make his figures and their environments. He will tighten the stacking that is just becoming visible in May Sixty-Five or Reverse (both 1965): his paintings will soon feature glasses, people, cars, and shoes resting on tables, beds, streets, and floors.
But what does the viewer lose by understanding these paintings as merely transitional, as I have just done, or by contextualizing them as an attempt to reconcile “gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction,” as the press release does? This rush to find hints of future paintings, or to triangulate them within different art historical genres, distracts from the painterly elements that create the rhythm and energy that make Guston’s work so exciting, so fresh, so contemporary. Without the striking, psychological, and emotionally resonant images that will come to define Guston’s late work, the formal qualities that make Guston’s work so compelling are easier to discern.
Touch: immediate, direct, responsive. He loads a two-inch brush with paint, and seemingly without hesitation, applies the paint with a consistent pressure to create a dense network of marks. In the earlier abstract paintings, (Rite (1957) and Painter (1959)), Guston nestles his forms close together, creating a claustrophobic, Soutine-like space packed with forms made with tight, impasto brushwork. The paintings are structural and architectural. But in the paintings from 1964 – 65, Guston’s brushwork becomes more open. The brush follows the extension of his arm. It registers the movement of his body.
Color: muted, close contrast. Guston insists that he is not a colorist, as Bonnard was, but a tonal painter, in the vein of Rembrandt, Goya, or Zurbarán. As articulate verbally as he was manually, Guston explained his transition to a more controlled color palette in one of the many wonderful excerpts collected in Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition catalogue:
Gray and black seems magnificent to me. And I guess, also, I want to see how much I can do with very little things. Very simple. Just two colors. I mean, white and black. And a brush. My hand. Nothing to paste on. I want to see if there’s anything left to express with the more elementary means. So far, I’ve found it very challenging and inexhaustible.1
For Guston, reduction of means allowed for expanded communication. In Portrait I (1965), his grays are inflected with the reds and pinks underneath, creating a color that feels less like a wall and more like air.
Composition: variations on a theme, awareness of the edge. Guston’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962 proved crucial for his development. Never satisfied to continue thoughtlessly, Guston visited the Guggenheim every Monday, critiquing the nearly 100 abstract paintings that hung in the rotunda. The museum itself became, as he described, “an extension of my studio.” After the show ended he was “more ruthless” in his practice and began emptying the canvas not just of color, but of structured composition. In The Year (1964), he uses white to “erase” his blacks, creating the grays that surround his black forms, which he saw as objects of a kind. Throughout 1964 – 65, Guston repeated these one, two, or three black forms in slightly different places and in different sizes so that one can see the paintings as a continuum, aided by Hauser & Wirth’s installation. The density of these black forms contrasts with the openness of his edges, which he leaves as unpainted canvas, partly as a practical issue—at this point, he paints on unstretched surfaces—but also as a poetic one. The unpainted edges keep his paintings open and unfussy, allowing for breath. But they also complicate the relationship between image and surface: the painting seems to hover in front of the picture plane, but then an awareness of the unpainted edge locks the painting back in place.
Guston empties the canvas of color and compositional complexity so much that he reverts to drawing; more than fifty ink and charcoal works on paper hang on the final wall of the gallery. As fresh as they were in 1967, these drawings register Guston’s transition back to figuration (he was a WPA muralist in the 1940s). Here we see his recognizable hand: confident (indicated by the pressure he exerts on his material), yet wobbly. We see his openness to images, his humor and playfulness, and ultimately, his willingness to experiment his way forward.
- All quotes from exhibition catalogue: Paul Schimmel, Philip Guston: Painter 1957 – 1967, Hauser & Wirth (2016).
KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.