On ViewHauser & Wirth
Philip Guston: 1969–1979
September 9 – October 30, 2021
In this extraordinary exhibition, 18 paintings made between 1969 and 1979 are presented in two rooms. In the first room are six paintings from the years 1969 and 1970, the year Philip Guston’s notorious Marlborough Gallery exhibition in New York City declared his turn away from pure abstraction toward a style of figuration that is related to, but very different from, his earlier socially engaged work of the 1930s and 1940s. Blackboard (1969) is one of several paintings on view that has not been shown in New York since it appeared in the negatively received, presumably astonishing, Marlborough show. The painting features, like the other works in this room, hooded figures, a reference to the KKK, along with quotidian objects of the studio, apartment, and urban environs. The hooded figures are ominous in their dumb self-involvement—and a far cry from the reality of the viscous and malignant fraternity of violently racist ideologs that they appear to signify.
In 1967, Guston relocated to Woodstock where he continued to evolve this trajectory. In the second room, the darkness alluded to in paintings from the first part of the 1970s is now unrelenting: it overwhelms the viewer. It is not an overestimation to see these works as connected to the work and thought of Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin. Kafka’s books were on Guston’s bookshelf in Woodstock. Perhaps, Guston and Benjamin sought through Kafka’s work a lexicon with which to evaluate, each in his own time, social, political, and aesthetic realities.
Kafka said: “Everyone carries a room about inside him,” an interior life, and this is Guston’s room that we enter, in looking at his paintings. Kafka’s writing is parabolic, elliptical, enigmatic, and abbreviated just like Guston’s painting: what is presented and repeated, whether it be macabre or mundane, remains unavailable to complete explanation and functions like a parable, not self-expression. Benjamin distrusted a rationalist logical view of the world, and appreciated Kafka’s work, partly because of this, as did, I assume, Guston. I don’t know if Guston studied Kabbalah, but Kafka and Benjamin did in the early 1910s. They certainly all sought an illumination—not in the time of clocks or in the glow of light bulbs represented here as sad, abject, and inadequate. To me, the paintings could be described as Kabbalistic; the oil paint Ein Sof, an original matter, before differentiation. The paint process then illuminating. In all the paintings, it is brushed across the surface back and forth, its rhythm crossing the boundary of form that it reveals, essential, primal, always paint: disclosing in contrasts, subtle or blunt, the everyday objects and body parts that populate each painting. The differentiation of objects in the paintings comes from the painting’s action: they are interruptions in the pure gestures of painting. Take, for example, Entrance (1979), with its mirror-like smeared door, boots, legs, and insects. Like the windows, cigarettes, hands, beds, easels, and tables in other paintings, these everyday objects and human parts are interchangeable. The ontological transformation is not a simile in the images, but actual: the object world becomes subjectivized, the human world, inversely, objectivized. It’s terrifying. It’s the nightmarish warning of Marx in his theory of commodity fetishism, and of course Kafka, in The Metamorphosis. Meyer Schapiro, the great Marxist art historian and close friend of Guston, attempted to reconcile Marxism and modernism but just couldn’t justify “absolute painting” which he regarded as abstraction without content.
As a committed socialist, Guston stuck with forms of Social Realism, participating in the mural painting of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, in the paintings we encounter here from late in his career, Guston, returning to a realism of sorts, finds the solution: pure painting with imagery, and no compromises, either way. The idea that a stable society is the creation of mutual self-interest, rather than a life lived with the underlying fear of death and limitation, is exploded. The consumer capitalist idea of pursuing our desires freely now instead entraps. The modern Western world, in flattering with a sense of technological power and entitlement, is actually focusing on self-preservation alone: individualism veiling animal instinct; we are successfully alienated. Alexandre Kojève, an influential thinker of the French pre-war Left stressed exactly this contemporaneously with the WPA. program and it is exactly this malaise that Guston managed to realize so devastatingly and magnificently. It’s just as relevant today as in the previous decades. Returning to Kafka, “But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.” Was not this Philip Guston’s ambition also, as evidenced in these remarkable paintings?