Philip Guston’s Peculiar History Lesson

Philip Guston’s Peculiar History Lesson

Philip Guston’s Peculiar History Lesson

On the painter’s politics of self-questioning.


You might remember that a retrospective of the paintings of Philip Guston was planned to open last June at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and would then have traveled to Houston, London, and Boston. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the museum to close, a new tour schedule was set: The show would open at the Tate Modern in London in February 2021, with dates in Washington, Boston, and Houston to follow.

If all had gone well, I might have flown to London to see that show and write about it. But the Tate is closed again, and I’m not flying anywhere, thank you. Besides, the National Gallery and its sister institutions chose to put off the Guston show until 2024—and then, after an uproar, until 2022. This is not the time or place to thrash out the rights and wrongs of the museums’ decisions and redecisions, or of the objections many of us raised to those decisions. But I wish I had those paintings to look at now. Their disabused self-interrogation seems more necessary than ever these days.

If we can’t see Guston’s work, we can at least read about it. Several new books on the painter were published over the past year. Among them is the catalog for the delayed retrospective, Philip Guston Now, with essays by the four curators (Harry Cooper, Mark Godfrey, Alison de Lima Greene, and Kate Nesin) as well as brief statements by 10 contemporary artists highlighting the ongoing importance of Guston’s work for their own. Two other publications include Poor Richard, a group of satirical drawings Guston made in 1971 on the doings of our president at the time, Richard Nixon and his courtiers such as Spiro Agnew, Henry Kissinger, and John Mitchell, and a brief monograph, simply titled Philip Guston, written by the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer.

The catalog, with its polylogue of viewpoints, is a necessary resource for anyone interested in understanding Guston. But there’s an irreplaceable value to the effort of a single writer to dig deeply into the work of a single artist. Robert Storr has been wrestling with Guston’s oeuvre for a long time. He published a monograph on the artist in 1986, but now he has revisited Guston’s career with the most thorough and deeply thought-out study yet written on him, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting.

The book on Guston that’s still missing, though, is a work of fiction. It’s surprising, really, that there’s never been a potboiling novel written about high school buddies Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston and the diverging courses their lives took. Pollock, who’d been born in Cody, Wyo., had come to Southern California with his mother, brothers, and sisters as a small child. Philip Goldstein, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, was born in Montreal; the family made their way to Los Angeles when he was 6. Storr points out that when both young men were expelled from that city’s Manual Arts High School in 1929 as political troublemakers, “it was Guston who terminated his academic career…whereas Pollock returned to graduate with his tail between his legs.” In other words, “the young Guston was more outgoing than the young Pollock, as well as more daring and rebellious.”

Fast forward to the mid-1940s and things would look different. Pollock was starting to do utterly unprecedented things with painting—things of extraordinary beauty and, yes, daring. He threw himself into his work with headlong impetuousness, and the next day could change directions again just as precipitously. Pollock was also starting to consolidate his reputation as the hard-drinking wild man of modern art, no small accomplishment in an era when what we’d now call hard drinking was par for the course.

By contrast, Guston might have looked like the guy who’d played it safe. He became a protégé of one of Southern California’s more prominent mid-career artists, Lorser Feitelson, who was later to become one of the prime exponents of hard-edged abstraction, a member of the featured in the famous “Four Abstract Classicists” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1959. But in the 1930s, when he and Guston were close, Feitelson was practicing a different kind of classicism altogether—a sort of neoclassical Surrealism based on traditional academic techniques. So it’s not surprising that, according to Storr, Feitelson encouraged Guston to be one of the moderns who “culled the past for useful compositional devices, illusionistic strategies, and ‘timeless’ iconography.” Such, he explains, was “the contrived and fastidious aesthetic Feitelson passed on to Guston.”

Guston eventually made his way to New York and, like many other up-and-coming artists, joined the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, making murals for public buildings around the country. He married a fellow artist, and de-Judaized his name to satisfy his gentile in-laws; following the convention of the time, she gave up her career. Now a family man, the high school expellee took a teaching post at the University of Iowa. This was a period when, he later said, “I didn’t feel strong conviction about the kind of figuration I’d been doing for about eight years. I entered a bad, painful period when I’d lost what I’d had and had nowhere to go. I was in a state of dismantling.” With an income from teaching, he didn’t have to depend for a living on the art he’d come to distrust.

After a few years in Iowa City, he moved on to another Midwestern teaching job, this time at Washington University in St. Louis, where he remained until 1947. In other words, just as Pollock was “breaking the ice,” as Willem de Kooning later put it, turning New York into the new laboratory for radical painting, Guston was sitting things out in the heartland as an academic. And as his paintings edged away from the monumental, quasi-sculptural figuration he’d been practicing toward a more compressed space derived from Cubism and abstraction, his art still looked academic to metropolitan eyes. Reviewing the 1948 Whitney Annual in The Nation, Clement Greenberg puzzled over Guston’s 1947–48 painting The Tormentors—now widely considered a pinnacle of his early work: “You recognize it immediately as academically modern and as saying nothing new, yet you cannot find a flaw in it. Time, you are sure, will strip the canvas down to its fundamentally empty facility, but meanwhile you have to wait.”

Greenberg, wherever he is, is still waiting. It turns out that facility and academicism were all on the surface, not at the core. He was right to see that they were there—wrong only in the belief that the “worldly success” he backhandedly (and correctly) predicted for Guston would be the whole story. Guston was never that predictable. He lived with uncertainty and self-questioning, but never let it prod him into impetuous gestures or unconsidered tangents. Pollock could douse his insecurity in alcohol; Guston, though a drinker himself, was strong enough to live through his self-doubt as he tried to find his way out of his quandaries. Caution and restraint were his practice—not for their own sake, but for the sake of arriving at a change he could live with at least for a while, no matter how drastic it had to be.

If Guston’s “bad, painful period” of “dismantling” commenced in the early 1940s, it long outlasted that period. It’s only really around 1952, when he was nearly 40, that his art finally seems to breathe freely. The paintings of this period have a reticence that belies their smoldering intensity and a structural solidity that holds fast their chromatic tremulations. Color is typically pale but hot. A work like #5—now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art—with its hovering masses of short, more or less horizontal and vertical marks coalescing as an ovalish cloud in the midst of a plain white field, bears a surprising resemblance to a roughened and half-molten version of one of Piet Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean works from the mid-1910s.

Abstract Expressionism was already going strong—in fact, might already have seen its peak—by the time Guston was doing anything that would have been seen as belonging to that rubric. So it’s no surprise that, as Storr says, “downtown scuttlebutt had pegged him as a johnny-come-lately to the zeitgeist,” and had little sympathy for how “his battle against his own sincere and exceptionally well-informed attachment to the Grand Tradition” meant “giving up almost everything that had defined him as a painter.” Truth be told, most of them had already gone through something similar in the decade before. But while Mondrian’s rectilinear nets show him seeking, as Storr says, “visual stability and spiritual certainty and relief,” Guston was more willing to inhabit a zone of uncertainty. But I don’t see in his works of the 1950s the anxiety that Storr senses there—though admittedly it was a topic of the time—but something closer to what John Keats called negative capability, an achieved ability to withstand doubt and unknowing without succumbing to anxiety.

As the decade went on, Guston loosened up his compositions, permitting more variety in his marks—less and less tied to an implicit grid—and by 1957, when he painted The Clock, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, was allowing them to coagulate into larger forms. Greater tonal contrast was coming into play as well, with darker hues becoming more prominent. It’s as if more substantial volumetric forms were trying to amass out of the vibratory field. Looking at a work like Native’s Return, painted in 1957 and owned by the Phillips Collection, one might almost feel confronted with a patchwork head—but eyeless, the back of the head—amid pale morning light.

Arriving at something a bit more tangible seems to have satisfied a deep need of Guston, and through all its necessary variations, he stuck with this way of working through the mid-’60s. “When a picture takes form, the new structure elates and calms me,” he said. But there was also a lingering disquiet, a sense that something was still amiss. “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself…. But painting is ‘impure.’ It is the adjustment of impurities which forces its continuity.” This was 1960, when his reputation as an abstract painter was at its pinnacle. He took part in the Venice Biennale that year, and in Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and the São Paulo Bienal in Brazil the year before; his 1962 retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum must already have been in the works. Acceptance offered him no reassurance. He was painting his way abstractly through his suspicion of abstraction, you might say, or through his suspicion of its myth. One can see his paintings of this time as having been made by someone who felt that color itself, like the human touch that places it on a canvas, is impure by birth, and the act of painting contained a multitude of adjustments that might allow these imperfections to coexist without losing their idiosyncrasies.

If Guston had detractors like Greenberg or, later, Hilton Kramer, among New York’s critics, he also had staunch supporters, such as ARTnews editor Thomas Hess, and the critics Harold Rosenberg and Dore Ashton. But his most valued comrade was neither a critic nor a fellow painter, but the composer Morton Feldman, who played the same role in his life, he once said, that Theo van Gogh did for his brother, Vincent. “He had to have Theo, his brother. So I had Morty. I need Feldman to tell me I’m not insane.”

It was Feldman who best understood his friend’s attachment to tradition—who understood that, contra Greenberg and perhaps despite earlier appearances, Guston’s stance had never been academic. “Guston is of the Renaissance,” Feldman wrote, but with a caveat: “Instead of being allowed to study with Giorgione, he observed it all from the Ghetto—in the marshes outside of Venice where the old iron works were. I know he was there. Due to circumstances, he brought that art into the diaspora with him. That is why Guston’s painting is the most peculiar history lesson we have ever had.” Guston never believed that he belonged to the tradition he loved, never imagined classical sweetness and light as his birthright. He exercised his fascination from a distance. Bringing the Renaissance into the diaspora meant keeping it alive by making it strange and precarious. And it meant assuming not a universalistic viewpoint but a particular one—painting from what in contemporary parlance we’d probably call his identity: as a Jew, a child of immigrants, a man on the margins.

That’s a history lesson Feldman turned out to be no more able to follow to the end than Greenberg could. Just as Feldman’s essay on Guston was being published in ARTnews in 1966, Guston was preparing another of his slow-building self-transformations. He was feeling stymied by his very success, which threatened to deprive him of the outsiderness he suspected might be the source of his art. For a couple of years he stopped painting, and began drawing intensively. Among the drawings he was making around this time were some of the most abstract, even minimalist works he ever did—often nothing but two or three heavy lines, typically adumbrating a rough, simple shape intersecting the top or bottom of the sheet; at times they resemble the Open series of very spare paintings that Guston’s contemporary Robert Motherwell commenced at around the same time. But les extrêmes se touchent, as the French say: Resolutely nondescriptive, these nondescript forms in their very simplicity tempt the viewer to read them as exceedingly abridged—impoverished, denuded—pictograms for very ordinary things: a head, a window, perhaps a slice of bread. And in fact, at the same time, he was making other drawings (and eventually small paintings on panels) that were of ordinary objects: a book, a nail, a light bulb, a shoe—“iconic abbreviations,” as Storr calls them, in curiously sweetish tones dominated by pink and red. (The painter Amy Sillman points out, in the Philip Guston Now catalog, that in his work, “pink often seems to indicate something menacing.”)

Guston later explained to Ashton that the abstract drawings had come to seem “too thin and exposed, too much ‘art.’” Even too little could be too much, because the very idea of art left the judgment of taste intact as a defense against history—against diasporic identity. By any standard, the image-based paintings that Guston began making around 1968 were just as “exposed” as the most reduced of his drawings. But what was exposed in them could never have been mistaken for the pure idea of art.

What Guston was painting was now unmistakable; why it appeared on the canvas could be mysterious. The mysteries multiplied when, in 1969, a year after he’d ended his two-year break from painting, Guston began painting hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. It might not have seemed so strange to him at the time. The small paintings he’d made the year before had been of single objects—still lifes, more or less—or mere fragments of figures (a hand, the back of a head) offering little sense of personal identity. Now, in paintings with more narrative content, the protagonists remained anonymous. In an image with two or three Klansmen, the viewer can’t distinguish one from another. It’s more like one figure multiplied than a multiplicity of figures. Each is an alter ego of the others. A conversation among Klansmen might as well be one Klansmen parleying with himself, solipsistically.

But painting Klansmen had to be something more than a formal device—more than a way of getting back to figurative painting without quite having to paint people. Back around 1930, as a young artist and activist, he had painted scenes of Klan violence as a gesture of protest. But this was something different. In 1969, a painting like The Studio, which shows a Klansman as a painter like Guston himself, presented a more ambiguous image. Storr makes a canny proposal: To paint the Klansman was, for Guston, “a coded emblem of his coming to terms with his Jewish heritage and the vexing problems of assimilation.” As Guston said: “I perceive myself as being behind a hood.” He also drew a parallel with one of his favorite writers, Isaac Babel, who in the 1920s had ridden with a band of violently anti-Semitic Cossack cavalrymen and written about them. Guston spoke of imagining himself among the Klansman. “What would it be like to be evil?”

Whatever the self-accusation embedded in Guston’s Klan imagery, it was surpassed by the rejection he experienced when, in 1970, he exhibited his new figurative work for the first time—not so much because of the Klan imagery (though in Time magazine Robert Hughes opined, too optimistically, that it was “a little late in the century to mount an entire exhibition on the Ku Klux Klan”) as because he had betrayed the cause of abstraction for which his friends (and he himself) had sacrificed so much. Among those who could not accept this conversion was Feldman, the brother figure whose responsiveness, he’d said, kept him sane.

By 1971, Guston was mostly finished with painting Klansmen. The hood with two slits would sometimes be replaced with a grotesque, grizzled head with a single huge eye. The world Guston painted until his death in 1980 remained, to a great extent, a world of things. The people stranded among this flotsam of objects may always be taken as avatars of the man who painted them—or if female, as they rarely are, of his wife, Musa McKim—but I only know of one true self-portrait among the paintings of Guston’s last decade. It’s from 1976 and called, naturally enough, The Painter. A red brick wall seals off the bottom half of the canvas; its upper register is mainly a heavy black sky. Toward the middle, a head rises up from behind the wall, peeking out, bloodshot eyes looking with fear and fascination toward… what? The future, perhaps—the one where we find ourselves.

Anyone who’s seen just a couple of photographs of Guston can recognize those eyes. This at last is the painter in person. On the left, a bottle and a glass sit on the wall; on the right, his hand, part of the same darkness as the nocturnal background, holds a lit cigarette—in other words, his emblemata are the symbols of his vices, drinking and smoking, rather than of his art. No matter: His art presents itself on every square of the canvas. But he remains as hidden as he can be, revealing only as much of himself as it takes for him to see what he needs to see.

Allow me to return, for a moment, to my imaginary novel about the diverging fates of Guston and Pollock. To have a conventional ending, there would have to be a final confrontation ending either in reconciliation or open conflict. That never happened. Maybe that’s why the novel was never written. And Pollock’s untimely death is not the only reason for this lack of denouement. Guston was apparently content to have ceded to Pollock the role of daredevil while he studied things warily. “Pollock was audacious. I’m not that way,” Guston said in a talk in 1972, and went on to make a curious comparison: Pollock, he said, is like a spider that “throws out a secretion, no? And he follows. I mean, Pollock had the temperament to throw this thing out like a lasso and…follow wherever it went.” And yet one went as far into the unknown as the other, each at his own speed. Pollock’s audacity, if that’s what it was, was impelled by what equally motivated Guston’s wariness: doubt. Neither one ever believed that there was a formal solution to the problems he faced in his art. Neither one ever felt he had arrived. Their art stayed impure. But it was only Guston, among all his contemporaries, as Storr points out, who “continued to think and work from a core that was political in the broadest sense of the word.”

The politics of Guston’s mature work are not a matter of taking a stand for or against a certain policy or group. Even the ruthless caricatures of Nixon and his gang harbor a surprising pity. Guston’s is a politics of self-questioning. That’s what makes his work timely in a way that Pollock’s, for the moment, is not. That’s also what makes it uniquely vulnerable. In the Philip Guston Now catalog, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija sums up Guston’s lesson: “that artists should consistently question their pasts and their reasons for being.” Feldman compared Guston to “an ancient Talmudist” who “endeavors to find out within his conscience the why of its perpetual undoing.” The answers to such questions will hardly be comforting. What’s untimely in Guston is his freedom from the urge, so common today, to seek reassurance of one’s own goodness by accusing others of wrongdoing. I keep thinking of a line in the Italian poet Franco Fortini’s poem “Translating Brecht”: “Among the enemy names / write also your own,” Fortini instructed himself. Like that poet, Guston knew that his penchant for self-incrimination would not absolve him of guilt.

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