The Abstract Impressionist
In any case, it was not simply a matter of reclaiming the right to produce images. Nor was it, I think, an oblique way of protesting the Vietnam War, though he was troubled by "the brutality of the world" and though his images expressed a concern with political evil, particularly the broadly rendered Ku Klux Klan figures, tooting through empty urban streets like Mutt and Jeff in open jalopies, wearing patched hoods, carrying spiked two-by-fours. Guston had, in fact, painted Klan figures in the 1930s, when he was a teenage labor activist involved in a strike. The Klan had been used by the police as strikebreakers, and they even removed Guston's paintings from a show he held in a bookstore. One of these paintings, Drawing for Conspirators, is in the Metropolitan show, and one can understand its presence there: It contributes to an image of a politically engaged artist, as does the scary painting of Richard Nixon with a swollen leg in a painting Guston did in 1975, San Clemente. That work goes with the brilliant series of Guston's Nixon caricatures that were assembled by Debra Bricker-Balken in her book Poor Richard and exhibited at the David McKee Gallery in September of 2001. These demonstrate the way a great painter can create powerful images by "painting badly."
But the Klan figures of 1970 were allegorical self-portraits. "I perceive myself as being behind a hood.... The idea of evil fascinated me, and rather like Isaac Babel, who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them and written stories about them, I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot?" Kramer's review was illustrated with The Studio, in which a Klan figure is executing a self-portrait, holding a brush in one hand and a stogie in the other, looking at his picture of himself through eye-slits in his hood. The room is lit with a bare bulb, a clock with one hand hangs on the wall. Like all the Klan paintings, it is an exercise in moral as well as artistic transvestism. Only a good man could wonder what it was like to be evil, just as only a good painter could paint badly on purpose. But there was something deeply satisfying in this new style, and Guston made it his own for the remainder of his life. It turned out to be the ideal means to paint what concerned him as a man. The great comic-strip artists had evolved a vocabulary for treating things everybody knew about in ways that everybody could understand.
Interestingly, something like the transit from mandarin to stumblebum was enacted by Andy Warhol a decade earlier. Warhol's early art, apart from his commercial work, at which he was singularly successful, embodied the aesthetics of swish valentines. He did cute tinted drawings of pussycats, cupids, flowers and ladies' boots, with texts in a kind of ornamental handwriting. For private consumption, he did drawings of very pretty boys with good-looking cocks. And then, for reasons that have never been explained, he began, in 1960, to make his own the kind of boilerplate advertising images that everyone in the culture is familiar with. They were vernacular, familiar and anonymous, drawn from the back pages of blue-collar newspapers, the inside covers of sensationalist tabloids, pulp comics, fan magazines, junk mail, publicity glossies and throwaway advertisements. In 1961, it would have been almost impossible to believe one was looking at art when one saw them. His first show was in April of that year, in the 57th Street windows of Bonwit Teller. One of the works was called Advertisement, a montage of black-and-white newspaper ads: for hair tinting, for acquiring strong arms and broad shoulders, for nose reshaping, for prosthetic aids for rupture and for ("No Finer Drink") Pepsi-Cola. Bonwit's window also included Before and After, advertising the nose you are ashamed of transformed into the nose of your dreams. The remaining paintings are of Superman, the Little King (on an easel) and Popeye. Displayed with the frocks the store was carrying that season, the images would have been thought clever background by such passers-by as noticed them.
Abstract Expressionism revolutionized painting, but what Guston and Warhol did revolutionized art. Their transits were part of a migration of artists that began in the 1960s to cross the bridge that separated art and life. It is one thing to aspire to the sublime. It is another to bring into art the preoccupations of a man with ordinary appetites, who worries about love and eating too much, and how to give up smoking, and not just about being evil but being bad. I love Guston's Painter's Table of 1973. There is the ubiquitous bare light bulb--the window with the green window shade tells us that it is night. Smoke rises from a lit cigarette at the edge of the table. One cannot tell if something is a dish with paint tubes or an ashtray with crushed-out butts. There are a few books and some old shoes, soles up. Are the old-fashioned flatirons improvised paperweights? There is a red painting on the table of a single eye in profile, surely the artist's own. Are the two spikes leftovers from the Ku Klux Klan paintings?
In a painting that one assumes is the head of Guston's wife with big eyes, peers up over the edge of an ambiguous blue shape--is it the edge of a table? Or a blanket? Or the sea? It carries the exceedingly sentimental title Source. The painting could be Sentimental Moment in the style of the 1970s, when Guston did a number of exceedingly intimate paintings, alluding to his marriage and to his concern over his wife's health. Couple in Bed is a marriage portrait with a sick wife. The artist brings his brushes into bed with him, and sleeps with his shoes and wristwatch on. Nothing matches the tenderness of the final small paintings of domestic objects, through which he celebrates the intimacy of the household in a way that bears comparison with Chardin. An artist who leaves us with a painting of a thick salami and cheese sandwich on seeded rye as one of his last works cannot be reduced to a single narrative theme, political or poetic. It wouldn't have hurt to have had Sentimental Moment in the mixture. He was a sentimental man, somewhat given to self-pity, to worry and gluttony, plagued by weakness of will and the need for love, and his last great oeuvre, like Joyce's Ulysses, monumentalizes the wry comedy of everyday feelings.