My wife and I had spent a good bit of time at the opening of “Philip Guston: Painter, 1957–1967,” the current exhibition (through July 29) at the Chelsea-docked starship that is the downtown Manhattan branch of the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Just as we were about to leave, I said, “Wait a minute—let’s not go just yet. I want to see something.” I’d noticed David McKee walking in, and I wanted to get a sense, if I could, of what the exhibition would look like reflected in his eyes.
McKee was Guston’s dealer from 1974 until the painter’s death in 1980, and afterward continued to represent his estate. In 1967, McKee was working at Guston’s previous gallery, Marlborough, just when Guston was producing the extraordinary array of drawings that cap the current show. In an interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, McKee explained that when he started working for Marlborough, Guston “was reluctant to have me visit, [saying:] ‘Well, it’s not going to be the sort of work that you’re expecting. My work has shifted.’” When McKee finally did visit the studio, he found it full of drawings of meager, abstract lines, like the ones now at Hauser & Wirth. Stark and powerful for all their obliquity, they seem oddly confident in their reduction of the Abstract Expressionist gesture to nearly zero. McKee saw something similar in the studio of another of Marlborough’s heavy hitters, Robert Motherwell, although his line, by contrast, was “extremely tentative.” McKee realized that both artists “had come to the conclusion that they’d exhausted the possibilities of their fifties and early sixties period. And were now curious about taking their work into other directions…. I never told the other what the other was doing. I couldn’t. It was like a secret that I held.”
Those drawings really were the end of something. When Guston took up painting again in 1968, he was making figurative work for the first time in nearly two decades. He had changed course completely. ( Well, maybe not completely: One of the first of the new figurative paintings, Paw, shows an animal appendage, rather than a human hand, drawing a stark horizontal line that might well be one of those in his 1967 drawings.) Raw and confrontational rather than cool and flashy, the new works showed the influence of comics but not of Pop. Instead of being shiny and new and void of the past, they were populated by Ku Klux Klansmen (a subject that Guston had painted years earlier, as a social realist in the 1930s) and haunting echoes of precursors from Piero della Francesca to Giorgio di Chirico by way of Krazy Kat. Fellow artists at the time responded coldly: They thought Guston had betrayed the cause of abstraction for which they had sacrificed so much. Guston had succeeded in scandalizing not the bourgeoisie, but the self-defined avant-garde. The critics were even crueler: Hilton Kramer’s verdict in The New York Times—that this was the work of “a mandarin masquerading as a stumblebum”—was only the most quotable censure. Guston’s contract with Marlborough was not renewed. Four years later, his new painting show inaugurated the McKee Gallery.