In a 1970 exhibit, Philip Guston abandoned an acclaimed abstract style in favor of paintings crowded with goofy, cartoonish figures. It was one of the most startling transformations in the history of American art. His fellow artists and critics were—with few exceptions—appalled. If the earlier Guston was an elegant, tasty, and subtle Abstract Expressionist, the new Guston seemed to have become a drunken cartoonist. He scrawled clownish caricatures of the Ku Klux Klan. He painted crudely formed shoes, lightbulbs, and disembodied heads. He savaged Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon (giving renewed meaning to the word dickhead). Many younger artists rallied to him, however, and Guston (1913–80) soon became a central figure in the culture wars of the waning twentieth century—a poster boy for the fight over “high” and “low” art. To his detractors, Guston symbolized the regression of American culture, its surrender of serious painterly values to the vulgar sirens of mass culture. To his supporters, he was an artist who awakened painting by drawing upon pop vitality. Today, his disciples can be found throughout the galleries of Chelsea.
Wars are not known for their subtlety. The high-and-low battles typically made a straw man of Guston, oversimplifying his sensibility and obscuring the more significant cultural implications of his famous change. More important, they robbed his paintings of their pungent individuality. With time, the arguments have begun to fade. Perhaps the retrospective that opened last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will mark the point at which Guston finally becomes more of a painter than a symbol or an influence. Curated by Michael Auping for the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, the show at the Met—which Nan Rosenthal has overseen—includes 77 paintings and drawings. It is scaled in a strange way for a retrospective, with the last decade receiving far more emphasis than the earlier work. But there is enough on view to provide a fair sense of Guston’s evolution, and the inclusion of certain drawings is a revealing touch—showing Guston to be more consistent than was once thought.
In the thirties and forties, like many who emerged in the Depression era, Guston became a politically committed artist of the left. More talented than most of his didactic contemporaries, he made pictures with a visual flair in addition to a social message. He was attacking the Ku Klux Klan as early as 1930, and he schooled himself in mural painting, the most ambitious and fashionable genre of the period. In the late forties, though, Guston suddenly joined the powerful new movement in town—Abstract Expressionism.
It would be unfair to call him a painter who jumped on bandwagons, however, for Guston quickly created an authentic abstract style, a gentle, whispering way of painting that seemed the antithesis of blunt political art. With an exquisite sense of touch, Guston knit brushstrokes into loose grids that floated within larger areas of softly brushed color. The grids seemed to intensify, or well up, toward the center. There was something powerfully inchoate in the imagery—as if the concealed truth were about to be revealed, issuing from the painterly fogs of delicacy and indecision.
“Perhaps the Met’s retrospective will mark the point at which Guston finally becomes more of a painter than a symbol or an influence.”
As his abstract style evolved, Guston further intensified this pattern of brushstrokes. A beautiful, poignantly awkward black began to emerge, foreshadowing his coming figurative work. Today, the abstractions look like the gestation period during which the late figurative style slowly ripened. If nothing else, a retrospective like this makes clear that the late style does not represent a fundamental break in his sensibility. As the cartoonish figures emerged, Guston retained the tactile, elegant poetry of his brushstroke, obviously relishing the tension created between the subtlety of his touch and the roughness of his drawing. He never chose “high” or “low” but instead rubbed together the raw and the refined—creating a phantasmagoria in paint that captures something fundamental about the fluxy character of the modern world.
At the outset of his late style, Guston recovered the passions of his younger political self, once more attacking the Klan. But this time, he didn’t adopt a public perspective, the way a muralist or social realist of the thirties would, but depicted evil by entering the world of private nightmares. The Klansmen were spooks who lived among gently hemorrhaging pinks and reds. In the end, however, Guston gave up even those references—becoming, instead, the most nakedly personal of artists. He seemed to plumb the bottom of the well, trying to honor the most basic facts (and horrors) of existence. He relished shoes, bare bulbs, cigarettes, bottles. In one picture, he placed a shoe beside a pyramid—they are roughly the same size and scale—to indicate what he thought of their relative importance.
Many of his late figures appear to be suffering from hangovers. Bloodshot eyeballs nearly pop from scrotal heads. Legs and cheeks are patches of stubble. The body is broken into pieces. (Guston’s crude line has the infinite delicacy of the drunk who tries to pour himself a drink without spilling.) Earlier expressionists turned to tribal art to find the inspiration to distort the body in ways that could convey modern despair and agony. Guston instead tapped the simple look of the comics—but shorn of all cleverness or pride in the punch line. His best pictures have a kind of animal tenderness, easily bruised. You don’t have to admire the late style, but it cannot be forgotten or dismissed. It’s like nothing else.
I can easily imagine a connoisseur of nineteenth-century painting walking into the Guston show and recoiling, aghast, from the raw appearance of the imagery. I’d like to walk with him through Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism, which also recently opened at the Met. In their time, many important Romantic painters were as eccentric in their way as Guston. (The great Géricault—a focus of the exhibition—shares with Guston an interest in severed body parts.) They depicted wild-eyed stallions, blondes about to lose their heads, and harems being put to the sword. Of course, there were quieter Romantics. This show is particularly strong in the work of the English artist Richard Parkes Bonington, a painter of genius who died at 25 and is now one of the great what-ifs of art. But the confusing and impure mishmashing of styles and influence—and the desperate desire to convey a truth beyond ordinary appearances—certainly did not begin in our day.