The Abstract Impressionist
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.
Becoming an abstract painter was not, so far as I can tell, a momentous choice for Guston in the 1950s. He was part of a New York art world in which it was a natural next move for a gifted and ambitious artist; and the particular style that suited Guston drew upon his personal interests in East Asian philosophy. Along with John Cage and the composer Morton Feldman (of whom there is a remarkable portrait in the Metropolitan show), he attended Dr. Suzuki's lectures on Zen Buddhism at Columbia, and he evolved his abstract forms out of the calligraphic doodles he made with quill pen and ink. "My greatest ideal is Chinese painting," he wrote in 1978, "especially Sung painting dating from the tenth or eleventh century." There is a Sung feeling in the quivering abstractions of the 1950s, as if of natural forms shrouded in mist. The decision to abandon abstraction in the late 1960s was of another order altogether, and it went completely against the grain of Guston's art world. Figuration was bad enough, but to paint in the coarse comic-strip style that Guston appropriated for his 1970 show was more than bedding down with the enemy. It was seen as a betrayal of the values of high art with which the New York School identified itself. It was an aesthetic scandal.
True, Abstract Expressionism was petering out as a movement. And there was an exciting alternative to it in Pop Art, which challenged the distinction between high and low art, borrowing its images from advertisements and the comics. But no one would have expected a prince of contemporary abstraction to cross over into a style that even the enthusiasts for Pop would have found raw and smeary, like something splashed on the side of a subway car. The images of Pop belonged to the vocabulary of commercial art. They were sharp and clear and attractive. Guston's belonged to the vocabulary of delinquency. They really were expressions of contempt and rebellion toward what his peers regarded as holy. "Abstract art," he wrote in a notebook at the time, "is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the 'raw' primitive feelings about the world--and us in it."
Guston's transit from abstraction to cartoon was cruelly portrayed by Hilton Kramer in a widely cited review as a passage from "mandarin" to "stumblebum." The term "mandarin" was intended to diminish what had set Guston apart as an abstractionist. The paintings were too dainty, too delicate, too light and airy by contrast with the heavy pigment of the true expressionist to be considered authentic. The new paintings were then seen as an opportunistic bid for that missed authenticity. They were coarse, juvenile and demotic.
I sometimes wonder if Guston himself did not see his previous achievements as "mandarin." The new work was deliberately bad painting, and to this day I am not sure that anyone understands what motivated him to abuse what passed for good taste, both in substance and in style, in what he had to have known would be perceived as an act of aesthetic aggression. Only someone able to paint as exquisitely as Guston could will to paint like a "stumblebum," which falls under a distinction of the kind Plato canvassed in Lesser Hippias. So it was a kind of reverse--or perverse--mandarinism. He once quoted a speech that Isaac Babel, one of the writers he admired most, gave to the Soviet Writers Union in 1934. Babel said: A very important privilege, comrades, has been taken away from you. That of writing badly. Guston added: Doesn't anyone want to paint badly? It was as if he were reclaiming a forfeited privilege in 1970. The freedom to throw aesthetics to the wind. The only painter to recognize this at the Marlborough opening was de Kooning. For the rest of the art world, it was, Guston said, "as though I had left the Church: I was excommunicated for a while."