Critics’ Picks

Philip Guston, East Coker-Tse, 1979, oil on canvas, 42 x 48".

Philip Guston, East Coker-Tse, 1979, oil on canvas, 42 x 48".


“Philip Guston and the Poets”

Gallerie dell'Accademia
Campo della Carità, Dorsoduro 1050
May 10–September 3, 2017

It is a small wonder to see Titian’s final statement, the anxious, sepulchral Pietà, 1576, only a few rooms away from Philip Guston’s late meditation on frailty and death, East Coker-Tse, 1979. The latter painting depicts an emaciated, red-tinged visage with lips peeled back in a rictus and eyes staring listlessly upward. Drawing on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), Guston finished the work shortly before his death in 1980, conflating the poet’s contemplation of looming inexistence with the rough, painterly economy, lack of ornament, and representational directness that had become synonymous with the artist’s late style. Emblematic of each artist’s confrontation with their respective ends, Pietà and East Coker-Tse echo one another’s angst, terror, and sense of inevitability.

This exhibition makes clear that Guston’s return to figuration was mediated not only by his appreciation of Italian Cinquecento masters, but also by his enthusiastic readings of modern poets including Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Yeats’s sensuous contemplations of bare reality and its shadow twin, representation, exerted a particular gravitational torsion on the painter’s mature vision. One wall text even quotes Yeats’s 1930 poem “Byzantium”: “Those images that yet Fresh images beget.” One could do worse for a description of Guston’s late style. Imagery wrestled its way back into his practice in myriad forms, from the dark portrait of Promethian creativity in Flame, 1979, to the eschatological flood of Ocean, 1976, or the congealed, sanguinary surface of Sunrise, 1979, in which the illuminating sun is almost blotted out by the muddy, overworked horizon.