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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Defiant strokes: Hauser & Wirth hosts Philip Guston’s transitional work
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.
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.
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 unknown. But 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.
|ArtSeen||June 3rd, 2016|
Reflections on Philip Guston
PHILIP GUSTON Painter, 1957 – 1967
by Kate Liebman
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.
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
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.
- All quotes from exhibition catalogue: Paul Schimmel, Philip Guston: Painter 1957 – 1967, Hauser & Wirth (2016).
Kate Liebman KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.
Master Baffler: How Philip Guston Gave Form to Doubt
Endlessly animated: Fable II (1957)
©The Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
“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.
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.
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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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”