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.
Guston died in 1980; the last ten years of his life were often characterized by manic output, despite his being racked by anxiety. His re-engagement of figuration (Guston’s style in the ’40s was somewhat De Chirico-like) in a 1970 show at the Marlborough Gallery was followed by bafflement, wrath and, in some circles, excommunication. A recent article in The Economist on Guston tags him as “the man who changed his mind,” but this is misleading. The unnervingly specific symbols that characterize late Guston–shoe soles, clocks, hoods, heads seen from behind–also float through his abstract and anxious drawings from the late ’50s and early ’60s. What the man changed was his style.
By 1966, Guston concluded he wasn’t being honest with himself. In a somewhat monastic move of back-to-basics purification, he stopped painting for two years, focusing only on drawing. Those tepid steps back into the realm of figuration during 1966-68 make for some of the most fascinating work in the Morgan show. Radical simplicity characterizes the works from this period: an untitled piece from 1967 is a single vertical hatch mark centered near the top of the page in Guston’s iconic, hamfisted hand. Air, a drawing from the same year, uses the same type of mark but multiplies it into a cluster–a clumsy, comedic evocation of movement. Prague, a barred cellblock window hovering near the top of an otherwise blank page, prefigures the psychological, Kafkaesque drama of Guston’s work a decade to come. If this body of work could be seen as maintaining a fundamental relationship to abstraction, Guston erased that when he simultaneously began drawing in a definitively figurative style. Around 1967 he began producing images of the hooded, ostensibly KKK-affiliated figures that had haunted his paintings from the ’30s. (Guston has said the KKK was a powerful presence in Los Angeles, where he lived until 1935.) By 1970 the cigarettes, pointing fingers, boots, light bulbs, detritus and various other “crapola” that would be his subject matter until his death had more than creeped into his work–it was his work.
Crapola was Guston and Philip Roth’s term for the junky underside of American culture they both documented with such delirium: trash heaps, bestubbled thugs roving in ominous packs, two-by-fours laden with craggy nails and–most obviously–Richard Nixon. If there’s a curatorial problem with the Morgan show, it’s the bizarre elision of what may go down as Guston’s most enduring series of drawings: the “Poor Richard” series, cranked out in a fervent burst in 1971 amid conversations with the equally caustic Roth. In these drawings, Guston aimed his satirical venom on Nixon and his cabinet instead of himself, as he increasingly would throughout the remainder of the decade. In these, and in the works that would follow them, everything is a little soft and a bit hirsute–qualities that smack of the pathetic brand of comedy that would become gloriously Gustonian. Guston’s father, as many have noted in the frequent psychoanalyzing of his art, was a junkman who committed suicide early in Guston’s life. Guston gave junk an iconicity, the same type of wretched glory with which Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert chronicled kitsch Americana in Lolita.
Arranged chronologically, and in thematic bunches, Guston’s late work in the Morgan show is subtitled “The Despairing Years.” If there’s anything Guston hated, it was a moralist who contradicted himself (see: Nixon), yet his final years seem consumed by self-destruction and self-punishment. While he worked actively, his faltering confidence led to a withdrawal from the art world and failing health. Food, cigarettes and alcohol bottles make frequent appearances in his late art, potentially symbols of guilt, possibly the passive acceptance of his most basic necessities. It’s debatable whether Guston’s late aesthetic should be considered negative. Self-portraits like Smoking in Bed and an untitled work showing a massive ball of bundled junk contain as much humor and winking sarcasm as they do negativity. To me, Guston’s triumph was his ability to continue being critical of his work until he died. If most artists’ views of existence become increasingly intractable as they age, Guston’s became less so, and it enabled his best work. That, as De Kooning called it, is what freedom is about.