I t was one of the most radical and divisive about-faces in art history. The date was 1970, the venue was Marlborough Gallery in New York, and the artist was Philip Guston. After years working in an abstract vein, Guston — now in his mid-fifties — suddenly revealed to the world a set of representational pictures featuring disconcerting, comic-like figures.
He explained the shift in terms of the turbulent geopolitical context: as a reaction to the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, the crushing of the Prague Spring, and so on. In the late 1970s, looking back on that period, Guston said: "The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?".
He began painting in his newly figurative manner in 1967 (three years before showing any of the works publicly), and he would adhere to it until his death in 1980. In a stinging attack, the New York Times’s art critic, Hilton Kramer, said that Guston was "a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum". Others spoke of his rejection of Abstract Expressionism as treachery.
"What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
Recurring subjects from the paintings of his later years include hooded Klu Klux Klansmen; potato-headed figures with a single eye; piles of old shoes; and disembodied fists carrying garbage-can lids like shields. Interestingly, with the passage of time and the cooling of tempers, these works have come to be regarded as the finest of Guston’s career.
They form the nucleus of a major retrospective devoted to the artist, Philip Guston Now, which has just opened at Tate Modern in London and was previously seen in the US at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Guston was born in Montreal in 1913, the son of Jewish immigrants who had fled the pogroms in Ukraine. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was six, and Guston attended high school with Jackson Pollock, neither of them doing well academically. Apart from a brief stint at the city’s Otis Art Institute, he was entirely self-taught as an artist.
Formative influences ranged from Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso to Mexican muralism and the fresco painters of the Italian Renaissance. In the 1930s, in addition to producing easel paintings, he received several commissions as part of the Works Project Administration’s Federal Art Project, to create murals on US public buildings.
His career tends to be remembered as one of three acts. The early imagery was social realist. This was followed for roughly two decades from the late 1940s by his phase as an Abstract Expressionist in New York City. Like Willem de Kooning, he rented a studio on East 10th Street.
Many of his best-loved works from this period feature clusters of strong colour in the centre of the canvas which fade out into the white-grey ground at the edges. Certain critics dubbed his style ‘Abstract Impressionist’, because his paintings showed a shimmery refinement worthy of late-era Monet. In 1962, Guston received a mid-career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Five years later, he chose to leave city life behind and settle permanently in the small town of Woodstock, in upstate New York. The move heralded the end of his years as an abstractionist. Musa Mayer — the artist’s daughter and the president of the Guston Foundation — has said that "if you examine the entire scope of my father’s 50 years of work, the one constant [is] self-questioning and change".
The third and final phase of Guston’s career officially began on 16 October 1970 at Marlborough Gallery. In truth, his late paintings didn’t represent the complete break with his abstract past that is commonly claimed. The physicality of his paint remained a key trait, as did his fondness for various shades of pink.
What definitely was new, though, was the inspiration he took from cartoonists such as George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip. Guston created a pictorial universe which in its absurdity — at once manic, melancholic, perturbing and humorous — arguably also took inspiration from Samuel Beckett. He compared the act of painting his late works to "laughing in the dark".
It’s notable how many of them contain self-portraits of some kind, none especially flattering. A famous example is Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973), today in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in which the artist portrays himself as a one-eyed, potato-head figure — lying in bed beneath a blanket, cigarette in mouth, with a plate of French fries balanced on his chest.
Another fascinating example from the same year, The Canvas, is being offered in the Contemporary Evening Auction at Sotheby’s on 12 October. Guston depicted himself here as a pink canvas — abstract apart from a solitary eye — leaning against a wall of bricks. In some way, this seems a reflection on the evolution of the artist’s career: from figurative to abstraction and back again. More than that, however, by inserting himself into his late paintings, was Guston implying that with the world around him in turmoil, he couldn’t be a bystander? As one of the leading artists of his day, he felt compelled to respond.