Phillip Guston: Painter 1957-1957 at Hauser & Wirth New York- Reviews

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FORBES

Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957; Photo: Arthur Swoger; © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston in his studio, New York, 1957; Photo: Arthur Swoger;
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967, which opened in Chelsea at Hauser & Wirth last week, offers a rare, comprehensive peek into one decade in an artist’s process and career.

Curator Paul Schimmel has organized an exhibition of 36 paintings and 53 drawings culled from museums (two from the Museum of Modern Art), a gallery and private collections. The paintings fill all but one of the rooms and feature thick oil or gouache brushstrokes in progressively dim colors that form indeterminate shapes. Guston finally abandoned these types of paintings for the “pure drawings” that hang on the wall of the final room.

Guston’s career progressed from figuration to abstraction and back again. The exhibition’s paintings, as a group, tilt heavily toward abstraction, though murky forms emerge upon close examination. At a preview, Schimmel identified heads, targets, and what could be a paintbrush. “The creation of these forms is really the subject of this entire exhibition,” he said. Guston was concerned with the “loss of the object” in the abstraction that many of his peers were practicing at the time.

Philip Guston, Last Piece, 1958. © The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Last Piece, 1958.
© The Estate of Philip Guston; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

“This has been described to me as the transition era,” Schimmel said about the ten years the exhibition explores.  It doesn’t really make sense though, he pointed out, that you would describe ten years in a master’s life that way.

Recommended by Forbes

Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Vessel, 1960.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

“He had an ability to push back on his own history,” said Schimmel. “Push back on his own success. Push back on both the critical and commercial success that he achieved remarkably in the 50s.” It’s a lesson that young artists of any medium can appreciate: continue to challenge yourself, avoid complacency and refuse to allow external praise to guide your career. When Guston eventually left behind his version of abstraction for figurative works that often invoked social issues, many critics were initially appalled. Yet, those works may now be his strongest legacy.

Philip Guston, Inhabiter, 1965. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Inhabiter, 1965.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Schimmel spoke about the paintings’ titles as evidence of Guston’s approach to painting as a journey—Traveler III, Turn, ReversePath II, Path IVAlchemist. The names offer small hints for viewers, friendly clues into material that can seem initially unapproachable.

Schimmel also emphasized Guston’s creative challenges. “The word ‘free’ is something that Guston often wrestled with,” he said. “Free was a blank canvas but was ultimately an enormous constraint.” He spoke of Guston’s sense of “unfreedom” as “the freedom of being able to reject and embrace the past. In the beginning, you’re free. When you face the white canvas, you’re free, and it’s the most anguishing state.” It’s a relatable feeling–the simultaneous sense of possibility and fear upon starting a new project, taking all your predecessors into account while attempting to begin something unique and meaningful.

Philip Guston, The Year, 1964. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, The Year, 1964.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967 is not the most Instagrammable show in Chelsea right now: lots of muted colors particularly toward the end, vague forms that take a while to reveal themselves, and textured paint to which photographs won’t do justice. It’s not going to break the Internet, but it’s also not trying to. The show is, more importantly, a deep and quiet meditation on process. Schimmel and his team provide a rare opportunity to examine, painting to painting and year to year, how one of the most important artists of the 20th century charted his path.  It’s a show to remind creators of all kinds to continually challenge themselves, to appreciate art as a journey and to find encouragement in both the limitations and opportunities of a blank canvas.

Philip Guston, Leaf, 1967. © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston, Leaf, 1967.
© The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967 is on view at Hauser & Wirth from April 26 through July 29.

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PHILIP GUSTON: PAINTER, 1957-1967 @ Hauser & Wirth New York

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in Private Collection, London

Painter III, 1963 Oil on canvas 167.64 x 200.6 cm / 66 x 79 in Private Collection, London

EXPLORING A PIVOTAL DECADE IN THE CAREER OF AN AMERICAN TITAN, PHILIP GUSTON: PAINTER, 1957-1967
WILL GO ON VIEW IN NEW YORK

Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967
26 April – 29 July 2016
Hauser & Wirth New York, 511 West 18th Street
Opening: Tuesday, 26 April 2016, 6 – 8 pm

‘I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean himself in this environment, in this total situation.’
– Philip Guston, 1960

New York… Beginning 26 April 2016, Hauser & Wirth will present ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’, exploring a pivotal decade in the career of the preeminent 20th century American artist. Featuring 36 paintings and 53 drawings, many on loan from major museums and private collections, the exhibition draws together a compelling body of work that reveals the artist grappling to reconcile gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction. Calling attention to a series of works that have not yet been fully appreciated for their true significance in the artist’s development, ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ explores a decade in which Guston confronted aesthetic concerns of the New York School, questioning modes of image making and what it means to paint abstractly. In the number and quality of paintings on view from this period, the show parallels Guston’s important 1966 survey at the Jewish Museum in New York, a half century ago. As its title suggests, the exhibition offers an intimate look at Guston’s unique relationship to painting and the process by which his work evolved.

On view through 29 July 2016, ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ has been organized by Paul Schimmel, Partner and Vice President of Hauser & Wirth. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue focusing specifically on the period beginning in the late 1950s and spanning a decade until the artist’s return to figuration in the late 1960s.

About the Exhibition

By the mid-1950s, Philip Guston (1913 – 1980) and his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, were among the leading figures of the New York School, standing at the forefront of American avant-garde painting. Guston, whose work was widely exhibited during this period, achieved critical success as an abstract painter, whose work was lauded its luminous, ethereal, and tactile fields of bold gesture and color. At this pinnacle moment, with the artist seemingly at the height of his career, an unexpected shift occurred in Guston’s approach. Dark, ominous forms began to crowd his paintings, coalescing into what would become a new language that consumed his practice over the next ten years.

Fable II, 1957 Oil on illustration board 62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in © 2016 Hauser & Wirth. Private Collection

Fable II, 1957
Oil on illustration board
62.7 x 91.1 cm / 24 5/8 x 35 7/8 in
© 2016 Hauser & Wirth.
Private Collection

The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth opens with ‘Fable II’ and ‘Rite’, two small paintings from 1957 that suggest evolution in both Guston’s mood and technique. Disturbing the pictorial field of these canvases, thick, densely clustered black strokes burst through heavily pigmented colorful patches ranging in tone from radiant azure and blazing orange, to fleshy pink and deep forest green. Similarly, a silvery wash of glimmering brushstrokes begins to encroach upon Guston’s lighter forms. Enveloping the background completely in ‘Last Piece’ (1958), the expanses of grey field suggest erasure – an obliteration of the artist’s previous association to pure abstraction.

In that same year of 1958, Guston exclaimed, ‘I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart’. In the face of abstraction, Guston’s search for corporeality intensified. He challenged himself to create and simultaneously dissolve the dialogues of the New York School in a field that evoked ‘something living’ on the surface of his canvas. The introduction of brooding forms can now be understood as harbingers of a new figuration, wherein titles such as ‘Painter’ (1959) go so far as to suggest the pictorial presence of Guston, the painter himself. Wrestling with the simultaneous existence of abstraction and representation, ‘Painter’ strikes a precarious note: ambiguous, but semi-recognizable forms recall the artist’s early figurative works of the 1940s. A red shape and the loose application of blue paint hint at the return of his signature hooded figure, here with a paintbrush in hand. At the same time, however, the artist’s gestures dissolve legible shapes into a swirling field of energies in flux.

Alchemist, 1960 Oil on canvas 154.9 x 171 cm / 61 x 67 3/8 inches Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 Photo credit: Milli Apelgren

Alchemist, 1960
Oil on canvas
154.9 x 171 cm / 61 x 67 3/8 inches
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968 Photo credit: Milli Apelgren

The exhibition continues across four dedicated rooms, tracing the evolution of Guston’s forms through the 1960s until they are reduced to “the isolation of the single image”. With such works as ‘Path II’ (1960) and ‘Alchemist’ (1960), dense pictorial dramas are unleashed, with colors and forms competing against one another in a storm of darkened strokes. In ‘Path IV’ (1961), Guston’s blackened, weighted masses emerge victorious, swarming in an atmosphere of rusted reds and ashen greys. Meanwhile, ‘Accord I’ (1962) reconciles the grouping of Guston’s black forms while still offering richness and warmth, as faint hues of color peek through pewter grey grounds.

Accord I, 1962 Oil on canvas 173 x 198.4 cm / 68 1/8 x 78 1/8 in Private Collection

Accord I, 1962
Oil on canvas
173 x 198.4 cm / 68 1/8 x 78 1/8 in
Private Collection

Such concessions disappear in the following year: In a significant group of works created between 1963 and 1965, Guston interacts directly with the raw surface of his canvas, marking gestural, smoky fields in greys and pinks. One of the largest paintings from this period, ‘The Year’ (1964) is dominated by the presence of two great black personages floating in a field of luscious wet-on-wet strokes. Using white pigment to erase his looming black strokes, Guston creates heaving washes of nuanced grey matter that seem to pulsate with energy and life. As forms become fewer and denser in other works, the artist’s titles imply vague narratives. In ‘Group II’ (1964) or ‘The Three’ (1964), head-like shapes and bodies emerge. In the latter, Guston represents a family: the artist, his daughter, and his wife. The culmination of this extraordinary series is ‘Position I’ (1965), in which a single black shape nestles in a barren landscape devoid of chromatic variation.

Position I, 1965 Oil on canvas 165.1 x 203.2 cm / 65 x 80 in Private Collection

Position I, 1965
Oil on canvas
165.1 x 203.2 cm / 65 x 80 in
Private Collection

In the years following his 1966 Jewish Museum survey, Guston would abandon painting and turn to drawing during a time of internal conflict and personal turmoil. In the two-year span between 1966 and 1967, he produced hundreds of works on paper in charcoal and brush-and-ink that are known as his ‘pure’ drawings. Works from this period occupy the final room of the exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Presented together in a grid, they recall the manner in which Guston lived with these works, which were tacked to his studio walls.

Commenting upon the decade explored in ‘Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967’ Paul Schimmel said, ‘If there was one way in which Guston was consistent as an artist, it was in his unwillingness to be pinned down or to rest on his own considerable accomplishments and influence. As one of the most significant proponents in the reconciliation of gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction, he was a solitary figure, ‘moving vertically’, unencumbered by the responsibilities and pressures that others often felt as they worked in his shadow’.


Courtesy of  Hauser & Wirth New York – Press Release

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May 24, 2016 3:03 p.m.

How Philip Guston, America’s Great Painter of the Night, Completely Reinvented the Sublime

By

rescan

Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

As late as he came to the style, by 1957 Philip Guston was a highly admired first-generation Abstract Expressionist — a phrase he hated. How “late” was Guston? In the 1940s peers like Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were finding their ways into all-over abstraction. Yet Guston experimented with figures, grounds, solid spaces, and objects until 1950. Pollock — whom Guston went to high school with in Los Angeles (the two were expelled for designing satirical leaflets) and who urged Guston to move to New York in 1935 — had been making abstract paintings since 1939. Gorky had done so since 1932; Rothko and Willem de Kooning reached these further shores by the early 1940s. Guston didn’t go fully abstract until about 1950! History is lucky; had he waited a minute more the Ab Ex train would have left without him and we might never have heard of him.

Guston was always a hesitant plodder, and when he finally did get to real abstraction he stayed ambivalent about it. “Every real painter wants to be, and his greatest desire is to be, a realist,” he said. The abstract works that deservedly won him fame are beautiful shimmering lyrical fields of broken brush strokes, flickering grounds of pearly blue and pink, serene combinations of Monet and Turner with inflections of Mondrian’s early piers-reflected-in-water. But Guston started to feel as if he was only taking small bites. By the 1950s, he felt he “had nowhere to go.” Saying “I hope sometime to get to the point where I’ll have the courage to paint my face … to paint a single form in the middle of the canvas,” he started doing exactly that. And had the courage to do it at the apex of his career.

By 1970 he’d finished “clearing the decks.” From then until his death, in 1980, at 66,* Guston left abstraction behind and made some of the most memorable and influential paintings of the late 20th century, big and small: huge, gloppy, opaque-colored images of Ku Klux Klansmen driving around in convertibles, smoking cigars; cyclopes heads, in bed, staring at bare lightbulbs; piles of legs and shoes; figures hiding under blankets, clutching paintbrushes in bed. A lot of these are so narratively accessible they can seem almost comic-strip-like. But also cryptic. I see spiders, newts, malignant clouds, boatmen, snake charmers, lanterns lighting up existential nights. The list of artists influenced by this incredible work includes Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, Albert Oehlen, Carroll Dunham, Elizabeth Murray, and Georg Baselitz, who saw as early as 1959 that Guston was involved with “a distortion of the abstract … full of concrete forms.” Jasper Johns saw that, too.

But the stakes of abandoning abstraction were high. Recognition had come late to Guston’s generation. The Abstract Expressionists had labored alone in America, dirt poor, with no audience, no art-world apparatus to support them. Only one another. As Barnett Newman famously put it, “We were making it out of ourselves.” And those selves were obsessed with going beyond Picasso and into non-objective painting. They had bet their entire lives on the gamble, which is why any sign of apostasy or disaffection was seen as a threat to all. Even after America took notice of the group, in the early 1950s, they were the constant butt of jokes about “my 3-year-old” being able to paint like that. Worse yet, no sooner had they arrived then a new group of artists — led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg — arrived on the stage doing totally antithetical work. The world turned on a dime. In 1962, the Sidney Janis Gallery organized a show including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, and Claes Oldenburg. This was seen as a betrayal by Guston, Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, who all quit the gallery in protest. It was the show in which de Kooning reportedly told Warhol he was “a killer of art.” But Guston wasn’t really in line with his colleagues; amidst all this he harbored secret feelings of wanting to change.

By 1957, he’d done everything he could do to avoid doing what he had to do, and his work began to solidify into something new. The lesson of his career is that in order to really be themselves all artists must find their inner Guston: an artist who foregoes easy answers, looks for and channels doubt and not knowing. An artist like this understands that he or she isn’t controlling their art — not really; that on some cosmic level art controls the artist. All great artists must be able to create a machine that can make things that they cannot predict. Even when they make what might be nightmarish or ugly to them.

Philip Guston, Position I, 1965. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Which is why “Philip Guston; Painter 1957–1967,” at Hauser & Wirth, a showcase of Guston at the turning point of his career, is an incantatory lesson for all artists. Perfectly curated by the gallery’s Paul Schimmel, the exhibition sounds a secret chord for artists in search of one of art’s many strange grails: how to make art that is original and entirely one’s own. This is especially pressing now that there are promising signs of artists everywhere trying to break through the fog of professionalism and careerism that have crept into the art world; the corporate carefulness that’s made too many painters make little moves in known directions; toe pre-approved formal lines; and make the system feel clogged up, static, sterile. Guston, who was desperate to change, knew this. He said “I got sick and tired of all that purity… the extreme codification of beliefs and the institutionalism of everything.” If that sounds painfully familiar, make it your business to see this show.

On view in the airplane-hangar-scaled museum-level gallery show are 35 paintings and 48 drawings. All are from this lesser-known decade of his career, 1957 to 1967. The entire group has not been exhibited together since the 1960s. So this is new information for many in the art world. What we see is a lead-up to what is perhaps the greatest last-act in 20th-century American art history: Guston’s all-hell-broken-loose id-under-pressure late figurative paintings.

The change comes slowly at first; Guston is always fighting it. As Jasper Johns put it about being an artist, “If you avoid everything you can avoid, then you do what you can’t avoid doing, and you do what is helpless, and unavoidable.” Guston did that. The opening gallery shows his first steps — so small you might not see them, thinking, Oh, he’s getting choppier, is all. I guess that triangle could be a hood or something. In 1957, Guston’s colors turn more opaque; warm tones turn frosty and muddy; odd, armlike shapes appear, torsos or trunks, hillocks, shadowy head configurations. But nothing definite. Being figurative was so strictly verboten that at one point Guston said he painted a can with paintbrushes in it, lost his nerve and scraped it off. It was just too much. In the next gallery, Guston’s backgrounds turn blocky. The shimmery thing is gone. So are the little snaky strokes. Things are thickening. A huge maroon hand thing emerges from the top of one canvas. Compositions get optically bolder. In Garden of M, named after his wife and daughter (both named Musa), we spot something like a patchy garden grid, or maybe two lumpy figures clutching each other in bed. Sooty grays, yellows, and crimsons abound. But things stay abstract. What’s happening is that Guston is looking for every way possible not to make a figurative painting. He couldn’t just paint that single thing inside a canvas, a head, or even a can, without retreating back into abstraction. It must have been hellish. These works are almost ugly.

Philip Guston, Garden of M., 1960. Photo: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth

Then, in 1963, he just blows through the fear. A big, black-hat-wearing, egg-shaped head appears with a shaky arm holding what might be a paintbrush and maybe a small canvas. This wasn’t Ab Ex, it wasn’t Pop, it wasn’t like anything. The title Painter III tells us what’s going on; it’s a self-portrait and a collective portrait of all artists’ immense inner temperaments when venturing into realms unknownBut it’s too much for Guston and he pulls back. Again. Looking is just a smooshed figure that might be gazing at a black rectangle. It’s almost self-as-grub. This one-step-forward, one-step-back crab dance continues as Guston looks for biomorphic, architectural, or geometric solutions rather than what’s staring him in the face: the horror of going both figurative and expressionistic. In the last work in the show, Guston hits the wall of all the implied image-making. An all-gray field that is so confusing to Guston he doesn’t even go to the edges, leaving swaths of canvas unpainted. In the middle of this is what looks like a black sun hovering — as if everything that Guston can empty out has been emptied out: except the truth. The implication of figure, ground, narrative, image. He’d reached Johns’s “helpless” place.

Guston must have known the return to figuration couldn’t be denied any more. And still he refused. He was in a battle of wills with his art. It must have been nightmarish. So much so that he stopped painting altogether for three years after the last canvas in this show. He didn’t show his work again until 1970. Critics had slammed that work  as “displeasingly raw”; the canvases were said to have “unpleasant texture.” His colleagues were shocked, suspicious, and thought he was trying to hop on the Pop bandwagon; one painter friend asked why he had “to go and ruin everything.” Lee Krasner was said to find the work “embarrassing.” New York Times critic Hilton Kramer lambasted Guston as “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum,” dismissing the work as “cartoon anecdotage … funky, clumsy and demotic,” and concluding “We are asked to take seriously his new persona as an urban primitive … and this is asking too much.” But the die was cast. While Pollock was the first to truly break through to pure non-objective painting, it was Guston who was the first to break out. And yet nobody seemed to understand. He’d risked everything and lost.

But Guston had crossed the Rubicon and was becoming the great painter of the American night. Not the night that follows day; the night of self. He said he wasn’t painting “pictures” but “one’s experiences and one’s enlargement of self.” Guston moved the sublime — the bigness of it all — away from abstraction where the Abstract Expressionists located it, away from nature where the 19th century placed it, off the ceilings of churches where it went in the Renaissance, and back, finally, to where it really is and probably has always been since it left the fires in the caves: The sublime is in us! To see that pictured brings Emerson’s “alienated majesty” back to us. Guston helped push everything aside, all the classicizing, romanticizing, philosophizing, or being a theologian of the sublime. This is epic. And it’s in all of Guston’s late work. Of his contemporaries, only the always generous de Kooning saw the real, deep content of Guston’s late art. He said that the subject of this art is “freedom.”

*The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Guston died at age 76. He was 66.

*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

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Reflections on Philip Guston
PHILIP GUSTON Painter, 1957 – 1967

HAUSER & WIRTH | APRIL 26 – JULY 29, 2016

One of today’s most influential painters is having his first museum-quality, posthumous show at Hauser & Wirth: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. It’s an exhibition that showcases a transitional decade, a gap that links his earlier, acclaimed abstract expressionist pictures and his later figurative, cartoonish works, which continue to resonate with many important artists of our day, including Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, and Katherine Bradford. In the works on view, we see Guston emptying himself. He leaves sumptuous color behind and simplifies his compositions, even temporarily abandoning painting in 1967 to draw. Philip Guston: Painter allows us to focus on the formal: the touch, the color, the composition.

Installation view: Philip Guston: Painter, 1957 – 1967. Hauser & Wirth New York, 18th Street. Photo: Genevieve Hanson. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

With the knowledge that such moving, significant paintings are around the corner, it is difficult to look at this decade of painting without anticipating what is to come. Guston’s early use of pink, beginning in 1965, will be pushed forward in 1970, the color becoming more corporeal, more atmospheric, and more emotional. He will use it as both the sickly skin color of his figures and the walls behind them. Guston will shape the roughly rectangular, black forms that almost touch in his 1962 painting Untitled into recognizable shapes: shoes, cigarettes, shadows. He will use that same confident, fast, responsive brushwork that is non-referential in this decade to make his figures and their environments. He will tighten the stacking that is just becoming visible in May Sixty-Five or Reverse (both 1965): his paintings will soon feature glasses, people, cars, and shoes resting on tables, beds, streets, and floors.

But what does the viewer lose by understanding these paintings as merely transitional, as I have just done, or by contextualizing them as an attempt to reconcile “gestural and field painting, figuration and abstraction,” as the press release does? This rush to find hints of future paintings, or to triangulate them within different art historical genres, distracts from the painterly elements that create the rhythm and energy that make Guston’s work so exciting, so fresh, so contemporary. Without the striking, psychological, and emotionally resonant images that will come to define Guston’s late work, the formal qualities that make Guston’s work so compelling are easier to discern.

Touch: immediate, direct, responsive. He loads a two-inch brush with paint, and seemingly without hesitation, applies the paint with a consistent pressure to create a dense network of marks. In the earlier abstract paintings, (Rite (1957) and Painter (1959)), Guston nestles his forms close together, creating a claustrophobic, Soutine-like space packed with forms made with tight, impasto brushwork. The paintings are structural and architectural. But in the paintings from 1964 – 65, Guston’s brushwork becomes more open. The brush follows the extension of his arm. It registers the movement of his body.

Color: muted, close contrast. Guston insists that he is not a colorist, as Bonnard was, but a tonal painter, in the vein of Rembrandt, Goya, or Zurbarán. As articulate verbally as he was manually, Guston explained his transition to a more controlled color palette in one of the many wonderful excerpts collected in Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition catalogue:

Gray and black seems magnificent to me. And I guess, also, I want to see how much I can do with very little things. Very simple. Just two colors. I mean, white and black. And a brush. My hand. Nothing to paste on. I want to see if there’s anything left to express with the more elementary means. So far, I’ve found it very challenging and inexhaustible.1

Philip Guston, Painter III, 1963. Oil on canvas. 66 × 79 inches. Private Collection, London. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

For Guston, reduction of means allowed for expanded communication. In Portrait I (1965), his grays are inflected with the reds and pinks underneath, creating a color that feels less like a wall and more like air.

Composition: variations on a theme, awareness of the edge. Guston’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962 proved crucial for his development. Never satisfied to continue thoughtlessly, Guston visited the Guggenheim every Monday, critiquing the nearly 100 abstract paintings that hung in the rotunda. The museum itself became, as he described, “an extension of my studio.” After the show ended he was “more ruthless” in his practice and began emptying the canvas not just of color, but of structured composition. In The Year (1964), he uses white to “erase” his blacks, creating the grays that surround his black forms, which he saw as objects of a kind. Throughout 1964 – 65, Guston repeated these one, two, or three black forms in slightly different places and in different sizes so that one can see the paintings as a continuum, aided by Hauser & Wirth’s installation. The density of these black forms contrasts with the openness of his edges, which he leaves as unpainted canvas, partly as a practical issue—at this point, he paints on unstretched surfaces—but also as a poetic one. The unpainted edges keep his paintings open and unfussy, allowing for breath. But they also complicate the relationship between image and surface: the painting seems to hover in front of the picture plane, but then an awareness of the unpainted edge locks the painting back in place.

Guston empties the canvas of color and compositional complexity so much that he reverts to drawing; more than fifty ink and charcoal works on paper hang on the final wall of the gallery. As fresh as they were in 1967, these drawings register Guston’s transition back to figuration (he was a WPA muralist in the 1940s). Here we see his recognizable hand: confident (indicated by the pressure he exerts on his material), yet wobbly. We see his openness to images, his humor and playfulness, and ultimately, his willingness to experiment his way forward.


Endnotes

  1. All quotes from exhibition catalogue: Paul Schimmel, Philip Guston: Painter 1957 – 1967, Hauser & Wirth (2016).

Contributor

Kate Liebman KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.

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Master Baffler: How Philip Guston Gave Form to Doubt

Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)EXPAND

Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)
©The Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
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“Paul Valery once said that a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning,” Philip Guston told an interviewer in 1966, adding, “In a painting in which this is a room, this is a chair, this is a head, the imagery does not exist — it vanishes into recognition…. I want my work to include more.”

The abstractions on view at Hauser & Wirth contain much more than what we can see. Painted between 1957 and 1967, they culminated two earlier phases of Guston’s life’s work and previewed a final act that would leave many of his contemporaries despairing for him — and later viewers rapturous.

When Guston (1913–80) was about ten years old, his father committed suicide, and it was the youth who discovered the body hanging from a rafter. He reacted by escaping whenever he could into a closet with a single light bulb, spending hours drawing in solitude. His mother enrolled him, at thirteen, in a correspondence course from the Cleveland School of Cartooning, hoping to coax him out of his isolation. A couple of years later, in high school, he became friends with Jackson Pollock, and a teacher introduced the boys to Picasso, de Chirico, and other modernist painters; both students were ornery and were eventually expelled for distributing a leaflet satirizing the school’s elevation of sports over the humanities. By his early twenties Guston had become a skilled muralist, working first in Mexico, then California, and ultimately in New York City, where, at age 26, he won first prize for his mural Work – the American way, painted on the façade of the Works Progress Administration building at the New York World’s Fair.

In 1940 Guston completed another WPA mural, at the Queensbridge housing project, which exudes a hopeful earnestness through the community of musicians, basketball players, workmen, and roughhousing children depicted across its forty-foot expanse. But he was getting fed up with the government program — at one point federal inspectors ordered him down from his scaffold while they investigated the possibility that a dog’s tail curling around a boy’s leg in the Queensbridge mural (a composition inspired by Guston’s intensive study of Renaissance masters) might actually be a camouflaged hammer and sickle. More significantly, he was beginning to chafe against the aesthetic complacency of figuration at a time when his colleagues in the nascent New York School were struggling to find paths to abstraction beyond Picasso’s cubism, Kandinsky’s squiggles, and Mondrian’s geometries.

By the early 1950s, as Pollock was refining the explosiveness of his drip technique, Guston was atomizing his figures into fields of delicately tuned color. In 1966 he told another interviewer, “In the Fifties I entered a very painful period when I’d lost what I had and had nowhere to go. I was in a state of gradual dismantling.” His sense of being caught in limbo is manifested in those early abstractions as crosshatched clumps of color that dissipate into tinted fogs as they spread across a white tract.

In the later works on display here, ranging from two to seven feet across, those scattered clots of pigment have coagulated into forms that gain metaphysical heft from such open-ended titles as Fable II and Rite. With pink, red, orange, and green wedges parrying around black fulcrums, these two paintings (1957) feel as endlessly animated as the waltz of a Calder mobile. Painted with a wet-into-wet vehemence that pushes beyond Guston’s earlier elegance to achieve an earthy gusto, the images refuse to drift into biological allusion or cubist grid. Twinkling humor radiates from the rounded square with depending tail in Traveller III (1959–60), which levitates to the top of the composition like a balloon. Whether it is filled with helium or dialogue is an unanswerable question. In all of these works, Guston’s forms shamble up to the brink of representation (one might flash on the convolutions of the human brain in that scramble of orange and black brushstrokes) but inevitably shear off into abstraction. Narratives gibber behind the thrumming colors, visceral textures, and shifting proportions but never quite cohere. “Doubt itself becomes a form,” Guston told the poet Bill Berkson in 1964, and you can sense in these emphatic shapes the artist searching for a reason to let the classically derived figures he’d abandoned twenty years earlier re-emerge.

Guston mixed much of his color right on the canvas, but the smears here never degrade into mud. Instead, they positively glow. Quick struts of blue or crags of black partially obliterated by squalls of white create translucent layers as luminous as the sun through smoke (a haze that perpetually surrounded Guston, a chain-smoker — it is a rare photograph that doesn’t portray him with either cigarette or brush in hand). “What am I working with?” he once asked the composer Morton Feldman. “It’s only colored dirt.” And while Guston probably wasn’t grandiose enough to equate his own painting with fashioning Adam from dust — or even a golem from clay — he was tireless in trying to make something that had never existed.

That day came with Guston’s startling 1970 exhibition of galumphing cartoon paintings — those comical heads — which was nearly universally panned as willfully retrograde in an age when abstraction was already under assault from minimalism and conceptualism. John Perreault, writing in this newspaper, was one of the few critics to realize the breakthrough he was witnessing, a perspective that would be ratified more confidently by each generation: “It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart…a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. But not me.”

Perreault was dead-on about the hatred that followed — Feldman and Guston’s friendship was actually destroyed by the cartoon paintings — but that coming pain and revelation was still unknown to the artist when he painted the abstractions in this show. He was working his way to surprising even himself, telling Berkson, “I want to end up with something that will baffle me for some time.”

He got his wish — and so have we, for half a century and counting.

 

The Chameleon Painter

Even in his most pared-down paintings, Philip Guston was digging for something new.

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.

When his gallery shut its doors a year ago, McKee explained: “The art market has grown so vast that our gallery model is in danger: the collector’s private experience with art matters much less, as the social circus of art fairs, auctions, dinners and spectacle grows.” He went on to lament, “The value of art is now perceived as its monetary value. The art world has become a stressful, unhealthy place; its focus on fashion, brands and economics robs it of the great art experience, of connoisseurship and of trust.” For McKee, the epicenter of the new gallery model is Chelsea. In 2009, he remarked that he wouldn’t want “a big gallery in Chelsea” where “the spaces are anonymous, and they’re like cruise ships, where the captain doesn’t really know what’s going on in the ship…. I like a gallery to have a more intimate experience. And you know where if you want to sit and talk with a dealer, you can, who’s not going to kick you out.”

While McKee declined to adapt to the hypertrophy of the 21st-century art market, Hauser & Wirth—a sprawling enterprise with branches in Zurich, Los Angeles, London, and Somerset, England, as well as New York—is among the alpha galleries of the new environment, alongside Gagosian, David Zwirner, and others. Its Chelsea spaces are among the neighborhood’s biggest. The chances of being able to walk in and find Iwan Wirth minding the store and willing to sit down and schmooze about the work with you are close to nil. When McKee walked into the first-ever Guston exhibition in Chelsea (as well as the first with Hauser & Wirth), I was watching him look at art that he knew more intimately than almost any other living soul, and in a context more different than he might ever have expected. The look on his face was that of a man rather stunned—with dismay, or relief, or a little of both, I can’t say. I’d like to think that, without necessarily relinquishing his qualms about what the art business has become over the last 40 years, he was reconciled to seeing Guston in this new light by the evident care and respect with which the exhibition was prepared—no matter if it was installed in one those anonymous white caverns he never wanted for himself.

* * *

It’s often said that mega-galleries mount shows that might once have been the grand projects of museums, and that’s true. The point of an exhibition like “Philip Guston: Painter” isn’t merely to hang works on the wall that happen to be on the market (most of them probably aren’t); instead, the choices are based on serious art-historical considerations. Another such show is taking place nearby at Zwirner, through June 25: “Sigmar Polke: Eine Winterreise,” curated by the former Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí. Like the Guston exhibition, it is not to be missed.

The Guston show really encompasses three distinct stages in his career. Early in the 1950s, his painterly touch was often considered a bit refined compared with some of his more swashbuckling colleagues. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, when this exhibition picks up the story, Guston’s mark starts to look blunter, more declarative; the paintings acquire a greater sense of the “objectness” of things. They are richly colored, with awkward, hard-won forms that clearly exhibit what Guston once called “an infighting in painting itself.” Then, in the mid-’60s, comes a reduction of color to mostly shades of gray, with loose, almost blowsy brushstrokes massing together to form simple, nebulous shapes. Finally come the drawings already mentioned, with their nearly zero-degree mark-making.

The coherence of the Hauser & Wirth show isn’t surprising, given that it was organized by one of America’s most respected curators, Paul Schimmel, the former longtime chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His involvement reflects yet another aspect of the changes afoot in the art world. In one of those strangely chiastic situations characteristic of the times, MoCA had hired art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as its director in 2010; Deitch and Schimmel didn’t see eye to eye, and two years later Schimmel either resigned or was fired, depending on whom you ask. Deitch himself didn’t last much longer in his new role and is now back running his gallery in New York. Schimmel left the nonprofit world to become a partner at the gallery whose Los Angeles branch is called Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.

For McKee, seeing Guston in this new context must have meant seeing his old friend’s work differently, for better or worse. I saw something almost completely new. That’s because I’d always thought of the essential Guston as the figurative painter of the 1970s. His abstract work was good, I knew, but mainly of interest as the precursor to greater work—an impression confirmed by the only large-scale Guston show I’ve ever had a chance to see, a rather skimpy retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Art back in 2004. This present show has changed my view: Had the 1967 drawings that form the conclusion to it been the last works Guston ever made—had he retreated into silence, which could well have been the next logical step for him after those defiantly reductive works—we would still have to recognize Guston as one of the great artists of his time.

And yet, however logical—and despite Guston’s friendship with the apostle of silence, John Cage—silence was probably never in the cards for him. Even his most pared-down work was less about shedding the inessential than digging for something new. The search for fresh ingredients meant not only poring through the history of art, but also keeping an eye on younger painters. I don’t think it’s really true that in the late 1950s and ’60s, Guston was—as a gallery wall text claims—“very much removed from the public debate, apart and alone in his studio.” Could those final drawings ever have come into being without him having been aware of a younger artist like Cy Twombly, with his sparse mark-making? A group of paintings from 1964 to ’65, their gray and black lit up by a bit of pink, seems like an attempt to observe how much can be done by varying and redeploying the fewest possible elements, as if he’d been observing the kind of “systemic painting” that had been in the air (and would be the subject of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966). In a 1966 interview with Guston, Harold Rosenberg pointed out how the paintings “have a great deal of resemblance to one another. Or let’s say a great deal of thematic continuity. It’s as if your paintings of the last three years were one long”—at which point Guston cuts him off, as if to avoid facing a verdict: One long what?

All the same, despite the seeming suddenness of Guston’s shift to figuration, hints that he was trying to go in that direction (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, trying to avoid an irresistible pull in that direction) are recurrent. They are most evident in the rather awkward work for which the Hauser & Wirth show is titled, Painter III (1963), in which the large central black oval is clearly enough the head of the painter whose brush-wielding hand can be made out just below. Looking (1964) gets its title from the eye-like marks that seem to face the viewer from the head-and-shoulders form on the painting’s right. Reverse (1965) anticipates the head in lost profile (with cigarette and smoke) of Guston’s 1978 Friend-To M.F. ( The composer Morton Feldman was one of the friends whom Guston thought had turned away from him in 1970.) Even earlier works like Fable II and Rite, both from 1957, earn their titles by the nonspecific figurative connotations of their bunched shapes; it would take only a little bit of further manipulation to turn those forms into the kind of stylized figures found in the paintings that Jan Müller was making around this time, or Bob Thompson just a little later. This was the period in which, as Frank O’Hara would write, Guston’s forms “pose, stand indecisively, push each other and declaim.” As early as 1961, the conservative New York Times critic John Canaday was wondering whether “in the end it should prove that he has really gone in a circle, carrying abstract expressionism back to its figurative start.” Just as Guston’s paintings explored the porous boundary between sameness and difference, his career was an essay in the single-mindedness of a chameleon.

In the Abstract

Art | Apr 2016 | BY Katy Diamond Hamer

What do brushstrokes tell us about a painter? Similar to a written signature, those singular linear marks are unique to each individual, and can change over time. Case in point: a new Philip Guston exhibition at the New York location of Hauser & Wirth, which recently announced its exclusive worldwide representation of the estate of the painter, who died in 1980. The gallery’s premiere Guston show features a series of paintings and drawings dating from 1957 through 1967, a time when the artist was known specifically for his abstraction. Early in his career, Guston made narrative figurative paintings, often working with the WPA on large-scale murals. Then, as Hauser & Wirth Director Anders Bergstrom points out, “In 1950 he started painting completely abstractly and became well known for these works.”

Guston’s Position I, 1965

Curated by Paul Schimmel, “Painter” includes a series of pieces with a limited color palette consisting of earth tones: greys, muted blues, deep reds and greens. The artist moved paint around the surface in a varied yet seemingly specific way. Sometimes it goes to the edge of the work, such as in Fable II from 1957, an oil painting on illustration board. Often it’s possible to recognize the thought process of the artist as he applied his medium thickly by brush, working it with other colors on the piece itself rather than the palette. A few years later, Guston made Traveler III (1959-60), an oil painting on canvas containing a frenetic life energy.

Guston’s Last Piece, 1958

Most of the pieces on view in “Painter” were celebrated in a 1962 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. After his death, in 2003, Guston received a major retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum, “but there were only maybe eight paintings that represented 1957 to ’67,” says Bergstrom. “We’re taking those years and blowing it up to 30-plus paintings. People will literally for the first time in 50 years be able to see this many works from that era in one place at one time.”

Guston’s Painter III, 1963

In the 1982 documentary Philip Guston: A Life Lived, he was asked a question about his stylistic evolution between 1962 and 1969. While slightly shrugging his shoulders and lighting a cigarette, he replied, “You work in this style or that style, as if you had a choice in the matter. What you are doing is trying to stay alive and continue and not die.” Guston’s later body of figure-based pieces, once reviled, has influenced a generation. But regarding the abstract paintings currently on view at Hauser & Wirth, the artist stated, “I recognize that they are dissolved and you don’t have figuration, but that’s really besides the point. What is to the point is that I’m in the same state [when making them]. The rest is not my business.”

David Hammons: Five Decades Retrospective at Mnunchin – Reviews

Seeing David Hammons

Given that the artist is such a spectral presence, how can his multifarious oeuvre be summed up in a single retrospective survey?

The most passionately discussed New York City gallery exhibition of last season might have been Philip Guston at Hauser & Wirth, but the most talked-about one by a living artist was undoubtedly “David Hammons: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery. Each of the two shows cast its own spell, one very different from the other, but both seemed to offer one emphatic if understated lesson to young artists: Keep your distance from the art world. Guston sought solitude by “painting a lot of other people out of the canvas,” as Harold Rosenberg put it in a conversation with him. Guston concurred: “People represent ideas…. But you have to paint them out. You know, ‘Get out.’” He told Morton Feldman that “by art I don’t mean the art world, I don’t mean lovers of art.” Lovers of art—people like me—might love it to death; what we love in art may not be what the artist needs from it. Guston once compared the art world to a country occupied by a foreign power.

Hammons is even more vehement. For him, not just the art world but art itself is suspect. “I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never, ever liked art,” he told the art historian and curator Kellie Jones in a 1986 interview that remains the most complete exposition we have of this notoriously unforthcoming artist’s philosophy. Claiming to have finally become “too old to run away from this gift,” and fascinated by the “outrageously magical things” that sometimes come of it, Hammons gave in, but without surrendering his reservations. Art should catch you unawares, he told Jones, preferably anywhere but in a gallery: “I like doing stuff better on the street, because the art becomes just one of the objects that’s in the path of your everyday existence. It’s what you move through, and it doesn’t have any seniority over anything else.” In a legendary 1983 performance, Hammons set up a sidewalk vendor’s space on Cooper Square, peddling snowballs that he arranged by size and priced accordingly.

The distance the artist has put between himself and the institutions dedicated to cultivating the appreciative penumbra around art has been not only intellectual but also, so to speak, tactical. He’s famous for making himself scarce. In her contribution to the “Five Decades” catalog, Alanna Heiss—the former director of PS1, where, in 1990–91, the largest exhibition of Hammons’s work appeared, curated by Tom Finkelpearl—­recalls that because the artist “refused to be available by telephone” while the show was being planned, “intricate systems were set up to contact him. The most familiar one I remember was that to meet him, you had to go to the corner of 125th Street by the Orange Julius stand and call a number. He would call you back, and come down and get you. Sometimes it would take a long time. Tom and I had long conversations about the show waiting for David to emerge from the protective cover of the Orange Julius sign.”

Guston and Hammons are hardly the only important artists whose legends are woven around their ambivalence or antagonism to the institutions of art, or rather to art as an institution. An important precursor for Hammons’s brand of found-object assemblage is the great Bruce Conner, whose retrospective, “It’s All True,” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through October 2. Conner once threatened to “quit the art business entirely,” and while he never quite succeeded, he made it as hard as he could for the art business to deal with his orneriness, which could also take the paradoxical form of pretending not to care. In 1963, he printed a card stating: “The bearer of this card is authorized to alter any collage or assemblage made by Bruce Conner which is displayed for public consumption.”

* * *

Such haughtiness might seem risky to artists coming of age in the social-media era, where accommodation and availability are the minimal conditions for success. Or possibly not, since it’s Guston’s and Hammons’s refusal to assimilate—­and, of course, the eye-opening art that it made possible—that continues to inspire. But who gets to be inspired? Hammons has complained that “the art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?” The paradox is that, at least for Hammons, dissing the art world turned out to be the best way of winning it over, and his art is no longer a denizen of the street but of the toniest galleries. When Hammons bites the hand that feeds him—and it feeds him very well; he’s one of the top 10 living American artists by auction price, and the piece that scored this record was auctioned not by a collector, but by the artist himself—the response is usually a swoon of pleasure. His first show with L&M Arts, Mnuchin Gallery’s predecessor, in 2007 featured fur coats despoiled with swaths of paint; it didn’t look like much to me, but lots of people waxed lyrical over the sublime nerve of scandalizing the posh uptown crowd by trashing their most precious apparel. No matter that there are always more minks to ranch and foxes to hunt, or that these coats had become even pricier with the swipe of a brush. That’s what counts uptown (and in most other places), isn’t it? So the joke was on whom exactly?

If that 2007 show was a one-liner, Hammons’s second show at what was still L&M, in 2011, was anything but. The artist had never been known as a painter—though I suppose his treatment of the fur coats could be seen, in retrospect, as an unorthodox example of that genre—but this was a painting show unlike any other. The works were big, bold, and brushy in a manner reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism—­or, I should say, so they seemed from what little one could glimpse of them, because they were mostly covered by torn black tarpaulins, plastic garbage bags, and the like. Was this a cruel joke on the market’s preference for painting? Some observers thought so, though given Hammons’s long-standing association with outstanding painters like Ed Clark and Stanley Whitney, that hardly seems likely. In fact, the hybrid three-dimensional constructions that he’d eked out of the dubious amalgamation of relatively traditional artistic means and grubby everyday stuff were nothing short of magnificent. Significantly, Hammons insisted that L&M break with convention by issuing no press release, but the works themselves spoke eloquently enough about how an artist need neither to renounce nor adhere to any aspect of his tradition (including the by-now-traditional rejection of tradition) in order for “outrageously magical things” to happen. With Hammons, they do, more often than not.

Delving even further back into Hammons’s exhibition history gives an even stronger sense of his unpredictability. At a 2002 show at the Ace Gallery in New York, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” the rooms were unlit, shrouded in darkness; visitors were given small blue flashlights so they could make their way through galleries empty of everything but whoever else was passing through. Roberta Smith elo­quently described the experience as “like being surrounded by Arctic fireflies or walking among faintly visible ghosts.” Given that Hammons is such a spectral presence himself, how can his multifarious oeuvre be summed up in a single retrospective survey? What could it mean to look back on five decades of work by someone convinced that being an artist means (as Hammons told Jones) “never liking anything he finds, in a total rage with everything, never settling or sacrificing for anything”?

At Mnuchin last spring, it meant, for one thing, last-minute changes to “Five Decades”—­and more changes made during the course of the show—that were much talked about in the art world. Apparently, Hammons decided as he was hanging the show to exclude some of the works that had already been loaned by important collectors—­an affront in itself—and substitute some small, cheaply framed photographic pieces, many of them documenting some of the more ephemeral works he’s done over the years.

* * *

Is Hammons contrary for the hell of it? It would certainly jibe with his proclaimed admiration, as a younger man, for artists who “were like poets, you know, hated everything walking, mad, evil; wouldn’t talk to people because they didn’t like the way they looked. Outrageously rude to anybody, they didn’t care how much money that person had.” It’s a lot easier to talk that talk when, despite all expectation, you’ve ended up with more money yourself than you probably ever imagined. But still, that attitude is justified only by the art it makes possible and, so to speak, defends. Making bad art to spite an art world primed to accept your every whim as a sign of genius would be the ultimate self-defeating gesture. It’s strange that some of Hammons’s admirers think this is his modus operandi.

There’s no doubt that the great impression left by “Five Decades” came from some of the show-stopping, indelibly strange, sometimes haunting sculptures Hammons has made over the years. I’m thinking of pieces like the 13-and-a-half-foot-high Basketball Chandelier (1997), a pole leaning against a wall and topped with a hollowed-out backboard and rim, the basket itself made of crystal prisms; or the eerily simple In the Hood (1993), a hoodie’s excised hood mounted on the wall and held open by a wire rim, emptily gaping from on high. There are also the recent untitled works—taking off from the paintings of a few years back, a couple of which were also on view—made of big old mirrors draped with torn fabric or blocked with sheets of galvanized steel. These are strangely figurative works: The mirrors become bodies clothed in outlandish, maybe mournful garb, at once scavenged and ceremonial.

But what made the show more than a collection of captured trophies was the selection of small photographic pieces scattered among the larger works. My favorite is from 1989: Untitled (Three Leg Chair), which shows the artist himself (still as elusive as ever in sunglasses) leaning back in an elegant old chair that only has its two back legs. The third leg promised by the piece’s subtitle is Hammons’s own, firmly planted: It’s all about balance, and self-reliance, even when you think there’s an independent support system sustaining you. Other pieces were more mysterious: for instance, a found photo of an all-white basketball team, the ball inscribed with the year “1936.”

That the young athletes’ whiteness seemed so striking in this context probably means I have to use a word I’ve been consciously trying to avoid using. But while Georges Perec managed to write hundreds of pages without using the letter “e”—he failed if you consider his name on the title page of La disparition (in English, A Void) as part of the novel—I’m not virtuoso enough to write a couple of thousand words on Hammons without talking about blackness. That’s unsurprising, considering how deeply race informs his approach, his subject matter, and even his materials (an untitled sculpture from 2004 is a gray stone turned into a kind of portrait head by being topped with hair gathered from a Harlem barbershop). But my reticence, I hope, is just as understandable, because one thing Hammons makes me feel is how much of an outsider I am to his world. That’s not accidental: “White viewers have to look at someone else’s culture in those pieces and see very little of themselves in it,” he told Jones. “And that’s the beauty of looking at art from other cultures, that they’re not mirror reflections.” Is that why he later decided to work with shrouded mirrors?

* * *

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of the reason I didn’t write about “Five Decades” back when it was on view was that it made me self-conscious about how race and culture condition interpretation. I didn’t feel ready to think through my reactions to the work. And the last thing I wanted was to let myself off the hook by just joining the chorus of praise for Hammons, as if that might make me right with the Lord. What’s more demeaning than joining the laughter at a joke that might be on you?

Luckily, I’ve had another, unexpected chance to delve into Hammons’s art. In Greece this summer, there was a scarcely publicized show of his work on view (through September 30) at the George Economou Collection, a private museum in Marousi, a northern suburb of Athens. (Its owner is a Greek shipping magnate, not the American poet who happens to have the same name.) “David Hammons: Give Me a Moment” is billed as the artist’s first European survey, although it’s a smaller show than “Five Decades”; it even includes a couple of the same or very similar pieces. Ably overseen by Mark Godfrey, a senior curator at the Tate Modern in London, the show’s tighter focus makes it stronger than the one in New York. But whether it’s because of Godfrey’s selection or simply because I was looking at the work in a different context—one in which the specifically American history of racial oppression slips from foreground to background—I saw Hammons’s work differently.

Not that race disappears as a subject. Recalling the 2002 show at Ace Gallery, which was his first encounter with the artist’s work, Godfrey observes: “Readings that try to force Concerto to be a symbol of African American experience are reductive, but to ignore the metaphorical or cultural resonances of darkness, black, and blue would be equally wrong.” In Athens, though, Hammons’s work seemed blessedly indifferent to such dichotomies. Although as sly as ever, it made the artist appear less of a trickster; the characteristic anger of his work was still discernible, but it suddenly seemed less important than the love embodied in it. The overwhelming tenderness in his handling of material corresponds to his feeling about the people whom his art is finally about: black people, in the main, but not only. One of the most touching pieces, inspired by his stay at the American Academy in Rome, is called Roman Homeless (1990). Nothing more than a piece of worn-out, nearly colorless embroidered fabric draped around a cylinder of metal mesh that might or might not be a trash basket, and with some discolored old tennis balls and bits of crystal from a chandelier hanging from one side, the piece is an unforgettable portrait of someone to whom you might give a coin in passing without really noticing—but who, on second thought, could just as well be the soothsayer in Julius Caesar foretelling your Ides of March. There’s something minatory about this eerily faceless head decked out in poverty but also in great ceremony—and yet there’s also the implication that if you had the heart to break the boundary of difference and at last simply see this person face-to-face, the threatening spell might dissipate.

Hammons keeps reminding us that seeing each other is not so easy. At the Economou Collection, there was an untitled work from 1996 consisting of a sequence of African masks—cheap knockoffs, not museum pieces—placed atop one another, bound together with wire and cord: masks masking masks masking other masks, and behind them a blank wall. And just in case you think you can see through them to the underlying reality, at the front of the pile, there’s a little mirror.

Who or what is reflected in the mirror that Hammons holds up to our culture? Keeping in mind what he told Jones about the beauty of an art that can be experienced as not just “mirror reflections,” it might be that the best mirror is an empty one. The mirror that fronts the untitled African-mask sculpture was too high on the wall for me to catch my reflection in. Is that really what the work is offering: an escape from the self, from identity? It wouldn’t be surprising. As abstract as Hammons’s art can be, it is often implicitly figurative, still very much about things—and about how things become magical when you can lose yourself in them. When you work on things, you transform them—the way the rusty, bent bottle caps in Air Jordan (1988) metamorphose into cowrie shells—but they just might transform you at the same time. A change can always come, if you manage to wait long enough.

David Hammons: The Private Public Artist

The staging of Hammons’s work at Mnuchin Gallery amounts to the punch line of a joke that has extended throughout his half-century career.

Flying high outside the galleries of the Studio Museum in Harlem and overlooking 125th Street is artist and perennial prankster David Hammons’s most famous work, Untitled (African American Flag), which reimages America’s flag in the Pan-African tricolor of red, green, and black. Whenever Hammons art is included in an exhibition, as the flag recently was at MoMA P.S. 1 during “Greater New York,” viewers are offered an opportunity to renegotiate what can be art. This is the case again in the recently opened solo exhibition, “David Hammons: Five Decades,” at the Mnuchin Gallery through May 27.

“Five Decades” is Hammons’s first survey in about 25 years. In 1990, he presented the solo exhibition “Rousing the Rubble” at MoMA PS1, and since then he has used Mnuchin’s space twice to show “Fur Coats,” in 2007, and “Tarp,” in 2011, with just a handful of authorized offerings in between. The idea for this year’s show started as a museum-worthy retrospective that Hammons whittled down to 33 works, which include a series of never-before-seen photographs. Hammons cut, for example, his clever 1988 portrait (How Ya Like Me Now?) of Jesse Jackson, depicted with white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, from the show. The exhibition’s earliest work is the 1969 black-and-white body print Spade (Power for the Spade); it concludes with a vibrant and earthy abstract-expressionist painting wrapped in a tattered red tarp made in 2015.

During a time when museums are dramatically expanding their holdings beyond Eurocentric art, the Hammons exhibition is a tour de force of the art of black life. For the notoriously private artist, this exhibit seems to have presented another opportunity for subversion: Is there a better way to address the hard realities of racism and wag a finger at the institutionalized art world than to present his work in a genteel mansion converted into a gallery between Madison and Park avenues?

The staging of Hammons’s work at Mnuchin amounts to the punch line of the joke that has extended throughout his half-century career. Hammons, who is 72 years old, was born in Springfield, Illinois, to a poor family in 1943. During the early 1960s, in Los Angeles, he studied art and joined an informal group of avant-gardists including Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, and John Outterbridge, of California’s Funk Art Movement. Hammons later became involved in the Black Arts Movement typified by groups like the Chicago-based art collective AfriCOBRA. In 1974, the artist moved to New York City and a Hammons-ian rule emerged: You never know what you are going to get from him, or where you’ll see it. He took over an electronic billboard in Times Square in 1982 to present cryptic messages to the public (harlem can you stand such beauty? one read); in 1983, he sold snowballs alongside street vendors in Cooper Square; in 1986, he covered five 20- to 30-foot-high basketball hoops with bottle caps, an installation, called Higher Goals, that aimed to challenge the imaginations of opportunity-strapped black youth. In 1990, Hammons was awarded the Prix de Rome prize, and in 1991 he won a McArthur “genius” grant. Still, Hammons keeps his distance from the art world as such: He rarely shows, barely grants interviews, and doesn’t have a dealer.

* * *

The conceptual artist challenges the notion of a monolithic blackness in the sculpture that opens “Five Decades,” Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like… ? (2001), which is comprised of three microphones set to different heights. Hammons evokes the physicality and cultural positioning of Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan with humor and word play: three black men who represent dramatically different illustrations of blackness. It also serves as one example, among many in the show, of the ways that Hammons is able to examine the human condition and uncover both trauma and transcendence.

For example, a wooden Bakongo sculpture uses satire to reveal a pause-for-thought truth about modern American society: Hammons painted the double-headed, nail-punctured dog orange and titled it Orange Is The New Black (2014). The Congolese sculpture, traditionally used to ward off evil spirits, makes you wonder who needs to be protected from the haunts—those swept up in mass incarceration or those who make and consume its watered down, pop-culture version.

In the corner of the gallery that Hammons personally arranged sits an untitled 2004 sculpture of a rock with a fantastically fresh fade fashioned from coiled hair swept up off a barbershop floor. The work evokes the ways in which the barbershop—where black boys and men often gather to form community—is, for some, as revered as any American institution. The process by which Hammons, like a barber, finely fixed nappy hair into a celebrated style also serves to question traditional politics of beauty.

Two mirrors, one shrouded in worn fabric (2013) and the other boarded up with galvanized steel (2014), purposely obstruct reflection. It seems that Hammons wants us to look harder at the conditions that shape black life because the truth is not always easily rendered. And, as with most of Hammons’s art, another message is just under the surface: The joke may be on us.

* * *

On the opening night of “Five Decades” a line of viewers hoping to glimpse Hammons’s art stretched down the north side of East 78th Street. Inside, an assemblage of stars in the contemporary black art world—Thelma Golden, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, Kimberly Drew—gathered to pay homage to Hammons and his work. Hammons was nowhere to be found, as is typical. By now, his absence from the social and commercial spheres of the art world has turned into a kind of performance art itself.

In a 1986 interview, Hammons said, “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?” Thirty years later, the audience continues to show up, but Hammons might be having all the fun.

Laughter and Anger

A David Hammons retrospective.

A concise retrospective—a sampler, really—of important works by David Hammons, at the Mnuchin Gallery, on East Seventy-eighth Street, is a big deal, as Hammons shows generally are. Now seventy-two, the African-American artist has, by choice, exhibited rarely during the five decades of his now-you-see-him, mostly-you-don’t career. When glimpsed in person, he’s a watchful dandy sporting a colorful knit cap, but sightings are few and far between. Hammons so successfully shuns and fascinates the art world that he is almost an art world unto himself. The qualifier “elusive” clings to him. “Unique” applies, too. He is both a satirical oracle of racial fissures in society and a subtle aesthete, in forms of post-minimalist sculpture and installation.

Comedy and spleen seesaw in Hammons’s art. “In the Hood” (1993) is in fact the hood of a black hoodie, hanging agape, high up on a white wall of the gallery. It’s rivetingly clever, but may strike some, at least, as menacing. “Traveling” (2002), a beautifully atmospheric grisaille, nearly ten feet tall, was made by repeatedly bouncing a basketball soiled with “Harlem earth” onto paper. The themes of other works stray from race to class. Purple paint is slathered across the back of a gorgeous fox-fur coat, while two apparently lovely abstractions painted by Hammons are largely concealed by tattered plastic fabrics, reminiscent of homeless encampments. Like earlier Hammons shows, this one feels like a combined diplomatic mission from an ominous polity and a guerrilla raid by a force that departs as swiftly as it pounces.

The artist spoke with me, bracingly and delightfully, for a column in this magazine, in 2002. He wouldn’t do so again. “We hear that he’s in Morocco,” Sukanya Rajaratnam, a partner at Mnuchin, told me. She shrugged: maybe, maybe not. This is Hammons’s third show at the gallery since 2007. The owner, Robert Mnuchin, a collector who was a partner at Goldman Sachs, cheerfully acknowledges that his relations with Hammons are conducted, often by proxy, at the artist’s unpredictable initiative and always under his conditions. It is a tangy arrangement, strictly ad hoc. The works in the show differ from those in the catalogue, because Hammons dropped by the gallery at the last minute and dictated some changes. (“Difficult” is another epithet that trails him, voiced with rueful smiles by dealers and curators.)

Hammons has never had a regular dealer, but he plainly favors the Mnuchin Gallery because it’s at so far a remove from the rough streets that provide most of his material. (It’s in an Upper East Side town house, to which you are admitted by a buzzer through one locked door and by a guard through another.) His first two shows there, of ruined fur coats and shrouded paintings, coolly affronted the wealthy neighborhood, which could roll with it by regarding him as a sort of court jester, licensed by the lofty market value of his work. (Museums and collectors, especially in Europe, crave his sparse output.) He would reject that belittlement, of course, while leaving himself open to it. Paradox becomes him. Andrew Russeth, of artnews, has reported that two years ago Hammons bought a one-story brick building in Yonkers, which the city’s mayor, Mike Spano, announced would be renovated to house an art gallery. The thought of Hammons as a curator excites. Already, he sometimes incorporates other artists’ works into his own shows; for instance, a delicate abstraction by Agnes Martin recently appeared in an otherwise rugged installation in London to enigmatic effect.

Hammons grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the tenth and youngest child of a single mother. He did poorly at school, except in vocational courses. He considered becoming a commercial artist, and, with that goal in mind, in the early sixties he moved to Los Angeles, where he attended, among other schools, the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts), a hotbed of avant-gardism. In L.A., he befriended jazz musicians and was caught up in the ripples of the Black Power movement. His first mature works, four of which are in the show, are body prints that he made by greasing and pressing himself and others against paper, applying black pigment, and adding such symbols as American flags and spades from a deck of cards. The best-known of his works include versions of the flag in Africanist red, black, and green and “How Ya Like Me Now?” (1988), a large painting of Jesse Jackson with white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. (None of them appear in this show.)

In 1974, Hammons settled in New York and slowly gained notice for startlingly beautiful sculptures made of empty bottles that had contained cheap fortified wine. For the “Times Square Show,” a well-remembered populist event put on by the artist-activist group Colab, in 1980, he covered the floor of a space with glittering shards of smashed bottles. In the winter of 1983, outside Cooper Union, in the East Village, he staged a legendary performance in which he solemnly peddled snowballs, priced according to size. That jape is memorialized in this show by a glass sculpture of a snowball on a wall-mounted bric-a-brac shelf, and by the printout of an e-mail from a collector couple (their names redacted) who had it in their heads to shop for one of the original snowballs but reported that “not a single insurance company would cover it for us, and we called half a dozen.” For a similar burlesque on the market, “Concerto in Black and Blue,” in 2002, Hammons turned off the lights in the immense windowless Ace Gallery, on Hudson Street, and provided tiny blue key-chain flashlights for visitors. Reinstallations of the work were offered to collectors at prices scaled to the spaces that they wanted darkened.

A recurring theme in Hammons’s work is the seductive and sometimes tragic allure of stardom for impoverished black youth. It is addressed with painful directness in the outdoor sculpture “Higher Goals” (1986), in Brooklyn, which raises basketball hoops twenty or thirty feet in the air. In the Mnuchin show, “Basketball Chandelier” (1997)—a full-sized mockup of a hoop and backboard festooned with dangling crystals—evokes the glamour of the game. “Which Mike Do You Want to Be Like . . . ?” (2001) consists of three standing microphones of different types and vintages. The Mikes alluded to are Jackson, Jordan, and Tyson. On more assertive notes, two sculptures incorporate human hair that Hammons gathered at black barbershops. In a magnificent untitled piece from 1992, borrowed from the Whitney Museum, a vast, stilled explosion of projecting wires is covered with hair. (The piece molts when it is at all disturbed; Hammons maintains a supply of hair to repair it.) In “One Stone Head” (1997), a stone has been given a raffish haircut, suggesting a self-portrait.

More recent pieces in the show include amateur copies or pastiches of African masks and fetish sculptures, which Hammons found or bought and then smeared with orange paint. They are collectively titled “Orange Is the New Black.” Also lately he has extended the motif of his occluded paintings, but without paint, to decoratively framed secondhand mirrors. He fronted one, standing ten and a half feet high, with two sheets of battered galvanized steel. The sheets are angled relative to each other in a way that uncannily recalls classic Cubist or Constructivist composition.

The show has an exquisite soundtrack of traditional Japanese court music, played on koto and bamboo flute. Hammons is enamored of Japan and travels there often. In 2002, he fashioned a faux Zen garden on a flatbed truck and drove it around Yamaguchi. “A Movable Object / A Japanese Garden” (2012) rings a change on that idea with ragged chunks of asphalt heaped on a swatch of lovely blue fabric, by Issey Miyake, and mounted on a wheeled platform. Beautifying asphalt would seem to be no cinch, but the naked quiddity of the stuff, after a third or fourth look, turns cherishable. It’s typical of works by Hammons to repel at first glance and weave a spell on successive viewings.

Hammons’s strategic independence is inescapably self-conscious. It’s a quality he accepts for keeping his several identities—artist, cosmopolitan, American, African-American—in continual play. Infrequently, some of what he does is throwaway slight or arch—take, please, “Standing Room Only” (1996), a taxidermied cat curled up on a West African-style drum—but he is always original and never wanting in point or in purpose. Each piece intervenes in the normal course of art and society, creating a turbulence. He makes people nervous. Some white critics—such as me, when I first encountered his work—have reacted defensively, purporting to roll their eyes at the obviousness of the references and provocations.

But even if you understand a joke it can still be on you. The test is authenticity. The proof of Hammons’s art is his life, and vice-versa. His double-rootedness in demotic culture and in patrician sophistication brackets a social zone that he leaves void, anticipating polarized responses. Whatever you are, at this biting and elegant show, you become the ground zero of the lack and the possibility. 

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