Critics’ Picks

Philip Guston, Alfie in Small Town, 1979, oil on canvas, 68 x 80".

New York

Philip Guston

McKee Gallery
745 Fifth Avenue
March 2 - April 20

This year marks the centennial of the late painter Philip Guston and the forty-third anniversary of his alienating midcareer exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, which prompted New York Times critic Hilton Kramer to proclaim the artist “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.” Kramer was referring to Guston’s unexpected turn to cartoonish figuration after his successful career as an Abstract Expressionist was curtailed by his increasing disenchantment with abstraction’s stymieing commercialism (Guston said in 1969, “Every time I see an abstract painting now I smell mink coats”).

This exhibition of Guston’s works from the mid-1960s on takes this departure as its starting point. At the height of abstraction’s codification in American art, Guston was intrigued by the image as emblem, and how one could create a legible image with the smallest number of marks on a canvas. His subjects were often disquieting tokens of the political climate of 1960s: driving scenes, French fries, cigarettes, and hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. Guston’s Klansmen, while rooted in the artist’s childhood experience as a child of immigrants in 1920s California, are also shrewd reductions of human forms, limbless triangles with ovals for eyes. He painted empty picture frames (Plotters, 1969), open books with fat dots for text (Book, 1968), what look like blank trompe l’oeil plaques (Untitled, 1980), and ominous cartoon-size hands pointing emphatically, like foam fingers at a basketball game, in various directions (Dawn, 1970, and Drive, 1969).

Alfie in Small Town, 1979, depicts a cycloptic dog in a desolate landscape either flying toward or being ejected from a door guarded by several jaunting fingers and the steely heel of someone’s shoe. This painting is dedicated to Gavin McKee, McKee Gallery founder David’s son. (Alfie was the McKees’ dog.) But in this context, one can’t help but wonder if it’s something of a self-portrait, and the coming-or-going ambiguity seems poignant. By the end of his life, Guston’s impudent stance toward abstraction had established his position as a founding father of American neo-expressionism. A hundred years from now, he’ll still have the last laugh.