The Abstract Impressionist

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 fi


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.”

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.

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