Courtesy McKee Gallery, New York/Morgan Library
If, like in Clement Greenberg’s ’50s, art critics were still considered arbitrators, I would argue that Philip Guston’s art got better as he got older. His transformation late in his career from a successful and comparatively polite Abstract Expressionist into a conjurer of cartoonish tableaux of internal unrest and lowbrow humor garnished with uncomfortable personal admissions was an act of bravery, especially given the public’s lack of enthusiasm for his ribald new direction. As long as he is remembered, Guston’s need to reintroduce concrete subject matter into his art will be his legacy. This is ground firmly trod on by a gaggle of essayists, biographers, critics and friends of the artist; there’s no shortage of recent literature on Guston’s late work that praises it as deliciously, perfectly, bathetic–work that never descends into the flippancy that tends to mar the majority of art that is expressly funny, explicitly political or both.
Honestly, though, it’s difficult for me to think about Guston from an art critic’s perspective. Among the countless explanations of Guston’s return to figuration, the one I most agree with was pronounced by an artist, Willem de Kooning: “It’s about freedom.” Guston’s black humor, his exploitation of the absurd and grotesque, his merger of the political with the personal and his spirit of defiance in the face of complacency and aging is something to be appreciated on a gut level. You get it, or you don’t. I’m not suggesting that Guston’s work is anti-intellectual or even particularly populist. What I’m saying is that Guston’s work–especially from 1970-1980–is borne of intuition and inexorability, qualities that can be alienating as often as they are inspiring.
In a blustery forward to the catalogue of the show “Philip Guston: Works on Paper,” on view through August 31 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Guston is lauded as “one of the most important and most influential artists of the twentieth century.” While he has become a massive figure in contemporary art, this is hyperbole. In reality, mainstream approval of his transformation in the late ’60s is relatively young. Guston began his career as a politically inflected WPA muralist before adopting a quasi-surrealist tack that defined his work in the early and mid-’40s (which is underrated and prescient in relation to his later work). By the latter half of that decade, he had settled into the Abstract Expressionist groove that he would ride out for the next twenty years. If his influence on younger artists like the painter Carroll Dunham (and even younger painters like Dana Schutz and Tala Madani) is now freely acknowledged, it should be remembered that his defection from Abstract Expressionism in the ’60s was radically heretical. Before discussing 1966, the pivotal year of Guston’s career and the one the Morgan exhibition hinges on, it’s worth banging this point home: Guston had been a successful member of the movement still considered to be the pinnacle of American painting.