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PRINT January 2003

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Philip Guston

Over the past decade, the golden oldies of Abstract Expressionism have made a big comeback. For some time it looked as if successive tidal waves of Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, performance, video, and their extended family of neo-this-and-that descendants had swept Pollock, Rothko & Co. once and for all into the hinterland of art history, a distant pantheon of heroic gestures, sublime transcendence, and signature styles. Yet recently these figures have gotten major shows—starting with reassessments of Kline (1994) and Rothko (1996–97) organized by the Menil Collection; de Kooning at the National Gallery of Art; MOMA’s great Pollock retrospective; Rothko (yes, again) at the National Gallery and the Beyeler Foundation; and Still at the Hirshhorn the year before last. Now Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, is set to give Philip Guston—the most pungent imagist of the group—the works.

It’s not that Guston is forgotten. He had a good miniretrospective at the Kunstmuseum Bonn three years ago and has received focus treatments such as “Philip Guston: A New Alphabet”—examining his late shift back to figuration—at Yale and Harvard in 2000. But what’s needed is a grand summation, not seen since the SF MOMA show in 1980, that ties the threads together. With approximately 140 paintings and drawings, this should be it. Auping has spent five years in preparation, and his selection ought to leave no avenue of the artist’s many directions untraveled. Guston’s gamut ranged from a late-’30s idiom in which Piero della Francesca goes WPA, through If This Be Not I, 1945, in which a ghostly midwestern cityscape is animated by the carnivalesque shades of Beckmann, to the tremulous painterly mirages of the ’50s that placed him in between the gesturalist and Color Field tendencies of the New York School. Then, of course, Guston took one step back and a great leap forward in the late ’60s with his return to legible motifs and narratives. These influenced an entire generation of New Image art. As if this weren’t enough, Auping also promises to include “a number of surprises, even for people who feel they know Guston’s work.” Will these be rarely seen pictures or provocative configurations of familiar ones?

How does Guston rank against heavy hitters like Rothko, de Kooning, or even Joan Mitchell? He was never as much a petit maître as Tomlin or Stamos. On the other hand, there’s a sense in which he took longer to attain true originality than other nominal front-runners. Perhaps the catalogue—with essays by Auping, Michael Shapiro, Dore Ashton, and others—will help resolve these questions. And maybe Guston’s extraordinarily heterodox universe—with its mingling of dreck and painterly delicacy, Beckettian despair and Yiddish humor, ironic abjection and iconic force—will establish him as the liveliest of Abstract Expressionists for the twenty-first century.

David Anfam is an art historian based in London.

“Philip Guston” will be on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Mar. 30–June 8; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, June 28–Sept. 28; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Oct. 27–Jan. 11, 2004; Royal Academy of Arts, London, Feb. 2004–May 2004.