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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue
ArtSeen

Philip Guston: What Endures

Philip Guston, <em>Relic</em>, 1974. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 85 1/4 inches. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Philip Guston, Relic, 1974. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 85 1/4 inches. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

This virtual show, aptly titled Philip Guston. What Endures, features 13 paintings made between 1971 and 1976, selected by Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter and president of the Guston Foundation. The works capture one significant period in Guston’s multifaceted career (or careers), hinting at the breadth of his artistic and intellectual reach: his association with the distant past—Etruscan Italy, as in Relic (1974), a small painting evoking a pyramid set in a surrealistic de Chirico-esque perspective, his evocation of the Holocaust in stacked and packed limbs and feet with nailed soles, the politics of hooded Klansmen jewel-toned pure abstractions, and, finally, confessional documentation of his life and the tools of his craft.

The show, composed of three virtual viewing rooms, opens with “The Solace of the Past,” small paintings depicting Roman ruins and gardens, created during Guston’s sojourn at the American Academy in Rome. The solid, semi-abstract objects are both more and less than they appear—the fat stone fragments, as in Untitled (Five Forms-Roma) (1971), are heavy and enigmatic and could as easily be vessels on a shelf, tomb stones, or substantial building blocks. Untitled (Foot-Roma) (1971) resembles a giant sculpture’s mighty appendage assuring its permanent place in time. Afloat (1974), a portrayal of the young artist and his wife, Musa, engulfed in blood-red bedclothes, or perhaps sea water, or behind a wall, is mysteriously installed alongside these fragments.

Philip Guston, <em>Four Heads, </em>1975. Oil on canvas, 67 x 114 1/2 inches.  © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.</p>
Philip Guston, Four Heads, 1975. Oil on canvas, 67 x 114 1/2 inches. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.


In the second section, “The Rising Tide,” the fragments take the form of body parts as in Head-Legs-Sea (1975) and Four Heads (1975), the latter depicting the couple aging but enduring, afloat. And finally, in the last section, titled “Deliverance,” is Both (1976), two heads of Musa, one with Kewpie doll eyes, the other with gray hair and furrowed brow.

We could view Guston here as a man of his times—an Existentialist figure of the ’70s who shows how what is, is. Here is his studio, his stuff, his mood, and his habits, offering a truly modern realism. He is doing what comes naturally. Consider his Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973) in which he portrays himself stretched out in bed, his fat cheeks covered in stubble and his cigarette sending out plumes of smoke. We can almost smell him sweating in bed.

Guston may be one of the most culturally comprehensive artists of the 20th century. Embedded throughout his work are politics, literature (Beckett, Gogol, Isaac Babel), art history, and autobiography. He described his most powerful influences–“Etruscan and early Roman painting, Piero, Giotto, Lippi, Baroque architecture, facades, formal gardens, all so exciting and complex, so plastic, so alive…so much to think about, so truly contemporary.”

Philip Guston, <em>Both, </em>1975. Oil on canvas, 78 x 116 inches.  © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Philip Guston, Both, 1975. Oil on canvas, 78 x 116 inches. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

His stacks of objects, body parts pressed together, strewn garbage, cigarette butts, and most poignantly, shoes that no longer serve depicted with perforated lines, dots, stitches, and nails are signature props, measuring time, filling in gaps. And in describing his shift from pure abstraction to figuration and cartoon drawing, he told critics of his last paintings, “Every time I see an abstract painting now I smell mink coats.” 

Among the artists splashing, not drowning, in his wake, are Amy Sillman, David Reed, and Peter Fischli. Quoted in the recently published Philip Guston Now (2020), Dana Schutz writes of loving Guston for “different reasons at different times.”

Guston speaks also to the future as well as to the deep past, to the world of discarded facts and evidence embodied in the virtual. We can almost peer into his gritty, wise, one-eyed Cyclopean head.

The Guston Foundation website was launched in June and includes a catalogue raisonné.

Contributor

Barbara A. MacAdam

Barbara A. MacAdam is a freelance writer and former long-time editor at ARTnews.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues