Philip Guston Now—A Personal Meditation
Philip Guston Now
March 2–August 27, 2023
“I’m afraid, if my devils are to leave me, my angels will take flight as well,” said Philip Guston to a psychiatrist who came to examine his mental state while he was in a hospital in Kingston, New York (not far from Woodstock, where the painter had made his home since 1947, as told by his daughter Musa Mayer in her wonderful memoir Night Studio, published in 1988 by Knopf). Devils, of course, are not only personal; they may also be social and political. The recent Trump presidency has made many of us especially aware of this, in the way that it caused an eruption of social and political disequilibrium.
It is good to remind ourselves that for every demagogue, tyrant, or dictator, their most fierce adversaries are the free thinkers, artists, writers, poets, and other creatives. We should also be reminded that painting, being the oldest form of human expression, long before the invention of language, has held an unusual and sustaining power to reflect directly or indirectly our perpetual struggles among ourselves while providing healing agencies through the artists’ inner impulses, guided by their ideals of truth that are opened to constant self-corrections without fear from others. Which is to say that no great work of art ever has any intention either to condescend or to spoon-feed its viewer. This leads us to remember our disappointment and frustration upon hearing the news of the second postponement of Philip Guston Now exhibition (the first was due to COVID-19) because of a profound misunderstanding of what the paintings that are now being shown at the National Gallery of Art are really about. They are the paintings of a fearless truth-teller, and for many years, the truth they depicted was so raw and disturbing that they felt it had to be avoided at all costs. So, the show was postponed for reasons that lay at the very heart of the truth that Guston was insisting on reminding us of to be coped with. To return to this specific curation of Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art, I deeply felt whatever many of us, good and caring citizens of the art community, who had expressed our concerns against the postponement of exhibit through the Open Letter published in The Brooklyn Rail, should all feel relieved that the voice of the artist is now heard loud and clear without any interference in this third installment of the show, brilliantly and thoughtfully curated by Harry Cooper. For he must have observed carefully how to avoid the heavy-handed curation by the team of four curators (including Megan Bernard, Ethan Lasser, Kate Nesin, and Terence Washington), at the inaugural version at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and what to add to the intimate intelligence of what Alison de Lima Greene had organized as a second effort for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The result is a poetic redemption of everything that had derailed Guston’s own power of “negative capability.”
The installation throughout the National Gallery version is perfectly calibrated to each phase of the painter’s evolution. From the start, with the multitudes of insect-like-legs, irregularly assembling themselves as broken radiators with shoe soles facing frontally to the picture plane in the painting Rug (1976), one could only imagine, as a welcoming gesture, that the viewers are surely led to an experience that they will never forget, which is about nothing less than being human, with all of the complexities of our intellectual aspirations and emotional depths. To orchestrate the subtle curatorial attention to essential details, the decision to include the painting Painter’s Table (1973), and the luster pink for the wall text were most thoughtful references to both Robert Storr’s epic monograph Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting (2020) which had the same painting on the cover, and the pink wall—a color that we associate with Guston’s work in his last 14 years.
As one enters slowly while looking at different selections in different rooms, Cooper’s curatorial framing with respect to visual acuity, space, and rhythm becomes increasingly apparent, as is the very well realized intention to present the works without spoon-feeding or condescending to the viewers. For example, at the beginning, while the chronology of Guston’s early works is clearly intended to reveal his deep interests in the works of De Chirico, Surrealism, Picasso, and Beckmann, as well as the Old Masters he admired (including Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello, among others), one is simply astonished by this essentially self-taught artist’s tremendous propensity to absorb and respond to so much of art history in the years from 1930 to 1950. We can clearly see how the familiar iconographies that kept appearing and reappearing throughout his late works were consciously or unconsciously constructed carefully as forms. For example, lightbulbs, stretched canvases, easels, window shades, trash-can lids, and brick-walls, as well as other treatments of interior and exterior scenes that included episodes of human conflicts, prefigure the themes of violence such as lynching, Klansmen with robes, etc. They were ominously present at the outset, as seen in Female Nude with Easel (1935), Nude Philosopher in Space-Time (1935), Bombardment (1937), and Gladiators (1940). Additionally, the adept curatorial selection of the three self-portraits in the first room, Untitled (1968), Self-Portrait (1944), and Untitled (Self-Portrait) (1974), in which the artist’s face is seen in frontal, three-quarter view, and profile, evoke three stages of Guston’s life journey. And the artist’s first three breakthrough abstract paintings The Tormentors (1947-48), Review (1948-49), and Red Painting (1950), wonderfully punctuate the artist’s complex narratives of the first two decades shown in the first two rooms. I should add that these three paintings were painted around the time of the artist’s stay at the American Academy, on a one-year Rome Prize in 1948, from which time Guston must have seen the 79 artists represented in the American Pavilion at the 24th Venice Biennale, including works by regionalists and realists such as Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood alongside those of abstract expressionists like Arshile Gorky, and Mark Rothko. Guston was also being exposed to Morandi’s paintings, along with those of Georges Braque, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Giacomo Manzù, and Mino Maccari—all of whom shared the Grand Prize. As one would imagine, having encountered in flesh the classicism of all the masters he admired, Guston was able to associate with Morandi’s serenity and stillness depicted through the stability of similar bottles sitting on a tabletop in his still-life paintings. And one also detects the equal distribution of positive and negative space with irregular geometric forms mediating their relationship with the cubist grid.
In entering the next two larger rooms, one is immediately immersed in an altogether new spatial experience. As the forms in his paintings loosen up from their previous geometric structures, they became more gestural while populating from the center outward. Whatever Guston had meditated on, as a potential synthesis of his two simultaneous conditions—a massive anxiety on one side, and a desire for calmness on other—it’s all laid bare in the slowness of his brushwork, or shall we say his speed of execution. It is seen, for example, in the more gestural mark-making, yet muted palette of Guston’s pictorial response to John Cage’s theory of silence and chance operation, starting with White Painting I (1951), which then gradually yielded to the ambrosial tickling of the plus-and-minus formation, predominantly in the keys of red, pink, green, blue, black and grey—colors which depended on the needs of a particular painted image, and also on the specific surrounding climate. It is also seen in the last painting installed at the tail end of the third room, Passage (1957-58), which is painted with a considerable physical density, and with a strongly visible interplay between hues and lightness as a whole. Curiously, as one may expect at this point, Guston’s relentless nature compels him to constantly shift the evolution of his forms, as evidenced in The Return (1956-58), the first painting in the fourth room, from which a key of smoker’s grey color seems to have emerged as a canceling tool at the service of broadening the spontaneous fusing between the drawing and painting processes. Again, in this body of works, especially in Painter (1959), we see what will perhaps be the last rectilinear forms he will employ, quite reminiscent of those that appeared in The Tormentors, Review, and Red Painting. Otherwise, what subsequently follows, including Painter III (1963), Painter IV (1963), Smoker (1963), for example, were famously known as one-shot paintings with the artist’s whole body making the painting against the canvas, which at the point of stepping back would be declared finished. Here, one is reminded of Guston’s monumental contradictory impulse, which at times is revealed in its extremity, between the lightness of doubt in White Painting I and brevity of doubt in Head I (1965), painted with one black form hovering in a field of smoker’s grey with tinted pink, and a slight touch of blue.
Coming to another turn of an enormous consequence, which reminds us that every new beginning comes at another beginning’s end, or simply how this recognition depends upon what is considered to be, or to become, between 1966 to 68, Guston focused solely on making drawings. For however much he may have had issues with conceptual and minimalist art, Guston did not hesitate to deploy the clear thinking and the elemental reduction, the use of repetition in both by starting from A to Z so to speak, hence generating his own alphabet system. It’s as though he was conscious of restraining his own emotional history for the sake of growth. Having witnessed, as a Jew, the KKK’s aggression against African Americans in the US, then the rise of the Nazis in Germany, of Fascism in Italy, the Communists in Russia, and the war in Spain—all of which led to the outbreak of WWII; and having followed post-war US policies, the birth of civil rights, and the war in Vietnam, among other social unrests, Guston’s self-conscious decision to question every possible realm of human existence is understandable. This includes not just spiritual, social, and political metaphors, but also of everyday events, routines that involve our relationship with things, and objects that are made to perform certain functions. The first selections of ten untitled ink drawings, for example, still verge on abstraction, made with one line, sometimes two lines, and other times three, four, five lines. Whereas in the eight charcoal drawings installed on the same wall, they’re indeed recognizable images, from a group of hooded Klansmen standing below three large windows at the corner of a room, a book, a book on a table, an ink bottle, and a quilt.
In the next two years, from 1968 to 1970, it seems as though the artist, from having entered a promised land, began another epic journey. This resulted in a constellation of thirty small paintings, all installed here on one wall in a side room. Each of these was painted with a singular image of an object, such as a lightbulb, a book, a painting, a nail, a hooded Klansman, a shoe. A few were painted with a cluster of two or three images together, as in Untitled (Two Hoods), where one finds two hooded Klansmen facing each other in profile with a group of buildings behind them. Whatever promised land the birth of these new works was propagating, it was also for Guston a hard-won unity, a mental tug of war—which vividly reflected what was happening in the real world in 1968, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, and of Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, also especially the spectacle of National Guardsmen attacking civilians—all of this rushed back Guston’s old memory of the LAPD attacking his teenage anti-Klan mural. As Guston stated during this period, “The [Vietnam] war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything—and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” One can imagine Guston’s full exploration of his own mining as an equivalence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of history as the constant assembling of reminders—and this despite his own trepidation about how his new work would be perceived. Here, the most joyous highlight of this retrospective is the re-creation (featuring nearly half of the original works) of the infamous exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in October and November of 1970, in which the artist’s hard-won unity was in full blossom. It seems his entire life spent painting through lived experiences, from reading books on philosophy, and novels, and poetry, and attending musical and dance performances, plays, and movies, to contemplating human nature through art history, especially with painting culture, all of which were laid bare in both uncensored pleasure and complete vulnerability. One suspects that any sensitive viewer, if given a prolonged viewing experience, will recognize the painter’s exquisite ability to pictorialize different concepts of piling up meaning. At times, one sees a filmic production of the transitory with painted images, taken from the previous alphabet paintings—such as clocks, hooded Klansmen, bricks, books, shoes, hands with pointing fingers in profile—all found their places in Flatlands (1970). At other times, things, objects were precariously piled up, as seen on the left side of Tower (1970), while on the right of the painting what once was an image of a hooded Klansman had painted over with an empty space—except for the red hand with a pointing finger to the left, along with a painting hung above it. The same can be said of Courtroom (1970), an unusual painting in its extended horizontal format, for which scale creates a greater sense of spatial disorientation. On one hand, one sees a huge hand with a figure pointing horizontally to a hooded Klansman on its left, whose smaller hand is holding a cigarette vertically as the image is painted slightly off the central axis of the canvas. Behind him, on the other hand, there are things, objects being tossed in the trash can, as there were presumably paintings hung on the wall, indicating an interior with a window, a tabletop, and so on.
At this point, while looking at the profiles of the three-hooded Klansmen in Blackboard (1969), I wonder if they were mere images appearing in an invisible rear-view mirror of the other three hooded Klansmen driving in a car in City Limits (1969). In all truth, after having experienced the massive failure of his infamous Marlborough exhibition of 1970, Guston had to restore his faith through his love of the Old Masters, as lovingly painted in Pantheon (1973). All he needed was a hung lightbulb, a blank canvas on an easel, along with the consolation of Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, Tiepolo, and De Chirico to go on making painting in the last decade of his life, from 1970 to 1980. Whatever the psychological condition was of intense doubt about human nature, as of his own, the physical nausea of throwing up intimate objects of his daily practice and consumption was the most expressive means of the artist’s inner pain: a cigarette, shoes, a wine bottle, a fragment of an easel, his painted initials on a painting palette—all being spit out from a half-painted profile with an open mouth, presumably a self-portrait in Painter’s Forms (1972). By contrast, in Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973), one of Guston’s most memorable paintings, all of the verbs are subjected to indiscriminate consumption. As the tug of war continues, while violence erupts outside, as portrayed in The Street (1977), and inside of the artist’s domestic life, as in say Couple in Bed (1977), in his studio in Balance (1979), as well as on some occasions with painted biblical images such as Black Sea (1977), The Line (1978), The Ladder (1978), Deluge (1979), his work increasingly reflects a profound predicament of how to cope with everything in-between stages of being and becoming. Before leaving the exhibition, after having spent nearly two hours, I decided to return to the beginning of the show. And there, it was If This Be Not I (1945) that caught my eye again. As Alison de Lima Greene has insightfully pointed out in Who Then May It Be, Guston’s fascination with masking and unmasking throughout his career had been perceived as “an essential signifier of self and a metaphor for the enigma of art.” As I walked away, I was reminded of a chilling passage from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”