I have always marveled at the way in which Abstract Expressionism was able to transform a disparate group of painters, none of whom had shown any particular promise of artistic greatness, into figures of stunning originality. It was as if the movement opened up possibilities for paint never before exploited, and
the artists were lifted by what they discovered onto an entirely new plane of expression. It was a convulsive moment in the history of art, and by the time it was finished, not only was there a new pantheon of artistic heroes but a reconfiguration of the entire complex of practices that defined painting. The Abstract Expressionist canvas had become what Robert Motherwell characterized as “plastic, mysterious, and sublime.” There was even a new style of talking–impulsive, confessional, oracular and grandiose–in which artists attempted to re-enact, on the verbal level, what was taking place on the surface of their canvases. Words like “The Absolute,” not to mention “Nothingness,” “Anxiety,” “Dread” and “Despair,” rose like speech balloons through the smoke-filled air of the Cedar Bar and the Artist’s Club on Eighth Street.
As tightknit as the movement was, Philip Guston was, even then, a figure apart. When he turned to abstraction in the early 1950s, he had achieved considerably greater recognition as an artist than any of his peers. He had won the Prix de Rome in 1948 and, four years earlier, the first prize in “Painting in the United States,” an exhibit sponsored by the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, for a painting called Sentimental Moment, a study of a young woman caught in an introspective mood, holding a locket. That painting made him famous, and was widely reproduced. And when Guston did go abstract, his distinctive abstract style differed from that of any of his peers more widely than any of them differed from one another. His way of laying down paint was not fluid and urgent, like Pollock. It was not slashed and brushy, like de Kooning, or sweeping and calligraphic, like Kline. It did not float translucently, like Rothko. Guston’s strokes fell like short, clustered dabs of pigment into nests and networks of closely harmonized hues, which resembled passages in Impressionist landscapes. The question was even raised whether it was expressionist at all–whether Guston had not originated instead a form of Abstract Impressionism. The distance between what Guston had been, and what he became through Abstract Expressionism, was thus shorter than that traversed by any of the others. There was a certain shimmering quality, a master’s touch, that, if my memory serves me well, Sentimental Moment shared with his great abstractions of the early 1950s.
I have to confess that I had been profoundly affected by Sentimental Moment when I first came across it as a young man; and for a time I kept a picture of it pinned to my wall like an icon, though I never saw the painting itself. So I was disappointed that it was not included in the retrospective exhibition of Guston’s work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (until January 4, 2004), even if it is easy enough to understand why. It really was a sentimental painting, which does not quite go with the edgy image of Guston that the show seeks to project. And beyond that, a retrospective aspires to be a narrative rather than a chronicle of an artist’s life, so far as this is attainable. With that narrative, considerations of whether a piece or even a body of work fits with the story one wants to tell govern one’s choice of what to show. The great dramatic moment of Guston’s career was his return to figuration in the late 1960s, and the debacle exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970. But the figuration to which he returned was at least as dissonant with that of Sentimental Moment as with the vibrant abstractions. So Sentimental Moment was in effect twice repudiated by the artist himself. It would be difficult to imagine a more shocking juxtaposition than setting that soulful young woman, in her nuanced pink blouse, in a roomful of the raucous cartoons through which Guston shocked the sensibilities of the art world in 1970.