On the offensive figures of Philip Guston
The decision by four major museums to delay the retrospective of painter Philip Guston has generated renewed interest in his controversial life. Perhaps because he is still often ranked with American abstract expressionist painters that many were flustered when museum directors deemed his images unfit for public consumption, due in large part to 29 drawings and paintings of hooded figures that might aggravate a political climate of surging racial justice protests. As many critics have mined his biography to aid in educating people about his politics, it would also be useful to decode the mystique that hovers over Guston’s depictions of mundane subjects in his figurative works. What is the unconscious behind his figures and how do they connect with his troubled life and foray into abstraction?
Born in 1913, Guston had an uneasy childhood. His parents Rachel and Louis were Russian Jews who had fled to Montreal to escape the pogroms in their home city of Odessa. When he was six years old, the family moved to Los Angeles. Like many other immigrants, Guston’s father found it hard to make a living and the only job he could find was in garbage collection with a horse-drawn truck. He was ashamed of his job which bred a deep depression that seeped into his son’s consciousness.
Painter’s Forms No. 2, 1978
In his paintings, Philip Guston would suppress all these unhappy memories until he came to the great outpouring of his later pictures. This probably explains the proliferation of horseshoes, empty bottles, disembodied legs and “crapola,” as he liked to call the quotidian junk in his compositions. These were the remnants of a garbage collector’s life. Guston’s father became very depressed at the difficulty of providing for his large family. When Guston was 10 or 11 years old, his father committed suicide by hanging, and he was the one who found his body.
The Studio, 1969
This deep trauma pushed the young Guston to bouts of solitude, which he filled by reading comics and drawing his own cartoons. He hid in the closet and it was literally in his hideyhole that he learned to paint. This urge to be apart and alone would characterize his behavior throughout his adult life. And during particular moments of crisis in his painting career, Guston would treat the studio almost like an isolation chamber, somewhere that he could develop his ideas in total seclusion.
Mother and Child, 1930
There’s a strong surrealist flavor to an early treatment of “Mother and child.” Guston painted this striking picture in 1930 when he was just 17 years old. Around the same time he was painting this picture, he dropped out of high school and dreamed of an art capable of commenting on the injustices of the world. He painted a work depicting the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan but it was destroyed by the police. This early impulse to paint the extremist violence of the Klan seems to have remained in the artist’s unconscious, resurfacing as the hooded figures in his later works.
Philip Guston, et al., The Struggle against Fascism, 1934–35.
Just as he was finding his feet as a young artist, his older brother, Nate, with whom he was very close, was tragically killed following an automobile accident. He sustained serious leg injury and died. The twin tragedies—his father’s suicide and and Nate’s death—were what led him to leave Los Angeles.
Pollock urged Guston to come and join him in New York. President Roosevelt’s New Deal included the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired armies of painters to create uplifting public art. Guston painted “Gladiators” in a social-realist style favored by many left-leaning artists in the 1930s, a style that reflected in part the political and aesthetic influence of the Mexican muralist movement. He went on a pilgrimage to New Hampshire with Pollock when Orozco finished “The Epic of American Civilization” (1932-34), a large fresco commissioned by Dartmouth College in 1936 which contained several hooded figures symbolizing imperialist violence and fascist authority. Guston’s encounter with Orozco apparently had a lasting impact which would manifest in his immediate involvement with Works Progress Administration (WPA). He traveled to Mexico with fellow artists where they completed the mural “The Struggle Against Fasciscm” (1934-35). In 1939, Guston was commissioned to paint the subject, “Work and Play” for the community center of the Queensbridge housing project in New York. Government inspectors took issue with a small detail in his work (a dog’s tail) that they claimed bore too much of a resemblance with a hammer and sickle. The enquiry blew over but these were troubled times for Guston. War was brewing and the left was losing ground. Anti-semitism was virulent in Europe and there were fears that it would spread to America.
Until this point in his life Philip Guston had always used the name he’d been born with: Phillip Goldstein but his situation had altered. He dropped his Jewish surname to try and win the approval of his wife’s parents, which he later regretted.
The Tormentors, 1947–48
In the late 40s while American artists embraced Abstract Expressionism, Guston destroyed much of his work. One of the few that remained of this period was “Tormentors” (1947-48). Guston has not yet completely given up the figurative subject in this dense composition. Even in his deep abstract painting period, he never really trusted the semi-unconscious gesture. He made an effort to avoid random structures and preferred to deliver compositions that have a beginning and an end, a center and a periphery, and a harmonious color effect.
In 1948, he left his young family to go to Europe, where psychic spontaneity was the dictum of the new art which sought to reflect both the personal reality of the artist and the larger reality of the cosmos. Guston returned to New York revitalized by his time in Europe. After years of self questioning, he abandoned figurative art altogether and reinvented himself as an abstract expressionist.
Guston’s abstract paintings were marked by a light and hesitant touch, and by erasures and false starts, cross-hatched brushstrokes gathering in clusters at the center of the canvas. Some critics called him an “abstract impressionist” and at their most lyrical his works were often compared to Monet’s late water lily paintings.
In the 60s Guston’s was increasingly preoccupied by the political turmoil of the time. Scenes of official brutality in the Vietnam War had left him with a deep sense of the irrelevance of his own activities: “What kind of man am I, sitting at home reading magazines going into a frustrated fury about everything and then going into my studio to just a red to a blue.”
The Year, 1964
In 1966 he left New York and permanently retreated to Woodstock. Guston had no gallery; he stopped painting the year before and didn’t think he’d ever work again. Guston always had a self-destructive streak and had been drinking heavily and having affairs for years. But things spiraled out of control. He left Musa and disappeared for a year.
There’s a fantastic sense of conflict about Guston’s work of the mid-60s. These pictures are austere, painted in gray and black palette. Art historians hint at a lurking desire to return to figuration. You could almost see three heads emerging from “The Year” painted in 1964, but the painting doesn’t quite reach the point of being figurative.
In the 1960s, abstraction was no longer the dominant force that it had been a decade earlier, and for the next two years Guston painted furiously in a new style. He was setting out to demolish what he saw as the false ideals of an era. Guston wrote: “American abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit.” Even before this realization, he had taken to quoting Picasso with admiration, saying “an artist has to be prepared to assassinate himself.”
Guston went on to do just that in the Marlborough gallery in New York in 1970. He revealed his new work in an exhibition that would have a mythic stature in the history of modern American art. Elaine de Kooning walked around the gallery shaking her head saying, “This is embarrassing.” You would think that the extraordinary cartoon-like pictures were rudely exposed, having been there all along underneath the teeming surfaces of his abstract paintings. Guston’s reputation was savaged by critic Hilton Kramer in the New York Times: “The primitive has repeatedly been called upon to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of high art and Mr. Guston is clearly seeking such a rejuvenation in turning to the popular visual slang of the old cartoonists but it doesn’t work.”
Edge of town, 1969
Guston seems to be almost parodying the Abstract Expressionists in his painting “Edge of Town” painted in 1969. Here, cartoon Klansmen cruise along a vertically divided abstract ground of blue and white strikingly similar to Barnett Newman zip paintings.
Red Sky, 1978
The composition of numerous later works, such as Red Sky (1978), seems to mimic the horizontal divisions of Rothko’s abstract sublime, reflecting a farcical view of artistic purity. The hooded figures became Guston’s symbols of evil in everyone. He gradually seemed to turn the Klansmen into figures of painters or critics. He was poking fun at the New York art world.
He was shunned by the collectors and curators who previously admired his work but his isolation made him feel whole, and most importantly, he felt free. Guston knew he had at last managed to put all the different parts of himself together. The traumatic death of father and brother, the political engagement of his youth, the existential anxiety of his abstract expressionist period–all these things were woven together in the fabric of these extraordinary paintings.
San Clemente, 1975
The political rage that underlay Guston’s late turn to figuration is made most explicit in “San Clemente,” which he painted in 1975. President Nixon is depicted as a horrible character. He’s got a prick where his nose should be. He’s literally a dickhead and there’s a tear trickling down one of his hairy testicular cheeks. Nixon suffered from a circulatory disease that caused his limbs to swell but in Guston’s picture this stands for more than a mere illness. This enlarged member stands for the diseased body politic of America.
Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1972
In the late 1970s, he was smoking and drinking constantly. Exhausted by bouts of insomnia, the never closing Cyclops eye is everywhere as are the empty bottles and the Camel cigarettes. And there’s a sense that he knew time was running out. Musa, who often appears in his later work, suffered from spinal meningitis and a stroke during this period.
In “Source” (1976), Musa rises like the sun on the horizon, her head haloed like a saint.
The Web, 1975
In “The Web” (1975), she and Guston are huddled together for eternity in the web of life. For the longest time, the work was unexhibited and held in Guston’s studio until it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2005. By 1980, after almost a decade of fighting for his place in the sun, Guston was preparing for a major exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There was a resurgence of interest in his work from younger artists who admired him for defying expectations. Three weeks after the opening, he died of a heart attack. Philip Guston was buried in the artists cemetery in Woodstock and with his remains, his family buried some of his paints and brushes. Part of his greatness was that he painted his life onto his canvas. With his art, he overcame trauma, subverted authority and became free in his strangeness and seclusion. His words, written in 1960, turned out to be prophetic: “It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’, which forces painting’s continuity […] You work until you vanish.”#