PRINT May 2003


On the occasion of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s traveling retrospective “PHILIP GUSTON,” Artforum asked art historian DAVID ANFAM to examine the career of a painter whose “untimely” return to storytelling pointed the way “back to the future.”

LIKE MANY A GOOD STORY, Philip Guston’s art starts in earnest with a bang. Although Bombardment, 1937–38, was not Guston’s first work, it certainly marks his most significant point of departure. True, its overly “plastic” modeling recalls the monumentalizing Art Deco staginess of umpteen WPA murals long since faded into historical oblivion. But we also seem close to the freeze-frame action of comic strips. While this is perhaps Guston’s Guernica, there remains another sense in which it resembles a Roy Lichtenstein combat scene of the early ’60s—only an emblazoned “WHAAM!” is missing—time-warped back into the era of the Mexican muralists. Yet the past too haunts Bombardment, which, we might say, dynamites Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. So where are we? The answer lies in the labyrinths of time and space that belong to the storyteller’s craft. The twists and turns of Guston’s career—often he was either far ahead of, or else way behind, whatever “advanced” painters of the moment were doing, and sometimes both at once—read like the gambits of an artist who was forever going back to the future.

Of course, Guston’s aesthetic conservatism was essential to his makeup. In the 1930s it led him to prefer Piero and his Renaissance cohorts over Picasso & Co., notwithstanding the various stage props and staffage borrowed from the latter. A key painting of the next decade, If This Be Not I, 1945, clings to a nostalgic style that meshes with the American romantic and magic-realist trends of the World War II years—the very juncture when, by comparison, Pollock had initiated the calligraphic maelstrom of There Were Seven in Eight, 1945, and Still’s huge monolithic black field, 1944-N No. 2, was achieved. By the mid- to late ’50s Guston’s own color-field compositions had affinities with the careful messiness of second-generation gesturalism and its “Tenth Street touch” mannerisms even as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and others were undercutting “pure” painting—Greenbergian abstraction—with neo-Dada tactics. Late in his life, Guston’s trailblazing revival of a brutish expressionist syntax likewise stood at loggerheads with Conceptualism’s cool dematerialization of the art object altogether.

In the same vein, Rothko spoke for his colleagues in nominating Guston as his anti-type: “Philip, you are the best storyteller around, and I am the best organ player.” That is, whereas Abstract Expressionism still aspired in true Romantic fashion to the ineffability of music, Guston liked his texts. The consequences were appropriately double-edged. He tended to wax poetic when others sought the bold iconic stroke, and he resurrected lumpish graven images once talk—the increasingly Alexandrine critical artspeak and Duchampian gambits that enveloped the 1970s—threatened to blunt the primacy of the image. Now that the tidy linear narratives of modernism and its march of stylistic “isms” are outmoded, it’s hard not to sense the evergreen charm of a contrarian such as Guston. His wayward path testifies to the timeliness of being Nietzsche’s “untimely” man. Wherever we want to pigeonhole Guston, he never quite fits.

Bombardment shows a world upended by war. Not a single figure displays eyes that can see. Here Guston reversed a theme that had already dominated his previous work, such as Conspirators, 1930, where hooded Ku Klux Klansmen have plotted the lynching of a black man who is visible in the preparatory drawing but absent from the final design. At issue are the vulnerability of the self, the force of vision, and the problem of identity. Those who see but are themselves masked, like the Klansmen, have power over their unseeing victims (who again featured in Guston’s mural The Struggle Against War and Fascism, 1934, executed in Morelia, Mexico, in collaboration with his painter friend Reuben Kadish). Throughout the rest of his career, Guston rang the variations on this fundamental equation. By the 1970s it reached an apotheosis in one of his favorite alter egos, the outsize, goggle-eyed head.

Yet as the shocking impact of World War II hit home, it became a commonplace to argue that the individual could no longer see his or her way through the tangle of a shattered reality. The more personal existence was in peril, the less humankind could be sure of its own nature. With the A-bomb’s explosion, the potential for the obliteration of self looked absolute. Against this apocalyptic background, Guston’s work of the 1940s unfolded. But it did so with characteristic sleight of hand.

The easiest interpretation of a nexus of paintings from 1941–48 that includes Martial Memory, 1941; If This Be Not I; the two versions of Porch, 1946–47 and 1947, respectively; and The Tormentors, 1947–48—each progressively more abstract treatments of figures engaged in mock battle or reduced to silent witnesses or victims—is as allegories pure and simple of the modern experience of warfare and Holocaust. This is also a superficial, corny response. Guston’s attitude to the world-historical crisis was typically oblique. Before war had truly affected the United States, Bombardment gave it a full-blown cinematic treatment. In 1941, though, Guston retreated from the front line, as it were, to the relative heartland of the Midwest for six years’ teaching in Iowa City and St. Louis. His work followed suit. It delved into artifice, memory, and fable. So while Pollock mapped his cosmic webs and Rothko, Still, and Newman distilled their paintings’ residual personages or biomorphs into airy veils, solid walls, and luminous measures of color, Guston stayed intent on telling tales.

Every protagonist in Guston’s set pieces of the 1940s enacts some kind of role-playing, masquerade, or gesture. The children of Martial Memory perform their gladiatorial games, those of If This Be Not I play hide-and-seek, and Porch No. 1 and No. 2 present a silent parade of body language: hands rise to faces, a head turns to the viewer, and another’s eyes are shut tight. The last vestige of these secretive goings-on is the nail-studded shoe sole and outline of a Klansman’s punitive upraised arm in The Tormentors. Less dramatic scenes such as Sunday Interior, 1941, and Sanctuary, 1944, still hint at events elsewhere because their single figures are so obviously (and sentimentally) caught in the act of memory, gazing beyond the picture. The very source of If This Be Not I’s title is the most rudimentary of recitals, a nursery rhyme, told to Guston by his wife, Musa. All the elements of these compositions therefore signal narrative impulses—the urge to make sense of circumstances—even as the stories being told are enigmatic, frozen, fragmentary, or lost. Indeed, this is their subtler point.

American culture of the 1940s was laden with witnesses whose discourse either trailed off in silence or would not cohere realistically. In his 1989 analysis of film noir, Voices in the Dark, J.P. Telotte scrutinized this phenomenon. Telotte suggests that the cinematic emphasis in the period on voice-overs, plots (and/or intricate mise-en-scène) foregrounding their own artifice, and the device of the subjective camera were strategies that articulated the pervasive crisis of identity—threats to how the self endures alienation—brought on by the pressures of war, Holocaust, cold war, and so forth. Nor was noir’s conflicted narration an isolated practice. Take one further example. Just as the person referenced in the title of If This Be Not I is someone who has lost their identity and Guston’s children hide theirs with masks and hats, so the antihero of Norman Mailer’s novel Barbary Shore—published in 1951 yet a summary of the traumas of the preceding years—is an amnesiac who cannot recognize his face in the mirror.

Like the complex mazes of noir dramaturgy and the battleground of actions and personae in Barbary Shore, the pictorial armatures of Guston’s late-’40s canvases are a constructive fabric whose goal has knowingly been suppressed to leave a junkyard jumble. They are the detritus of plots, an elegiac farewell to the big didactic programs that his murals of the ’30s had enunciated. This explains why the ubiquitous note is melancholia (see, for example, the forlorn toys of Holiday, 1944). As art historian Emily Braun observes in her recent study of Mario Sironi, melancholy tended to triumph once modernism’s ambiguities dismantled the old bases—for instance, a clear relation between sign and meaning—upon which classical allegory was anchored.

For Guston at the end of the ’40s things have taken their revenge. They crowd out an orderly human presence that is increasingly petrified and pressed flat into the picture plane, leaving mere tracery. Silence, too, is implied by the darkness that fills The Tormentors. In Review, 1949–50, the fragmentary shapes frozen under a nocturnal upper field function like syllables spoken in darkness.

There is also a wider existential truth at stake. Speaking against death—as with the princess Scheherazade, whose yarns kept her alive so long as they lasted—constitutes (Telotte aptly quotes Foucault on this score) “a task as old as the world.” And here we would do well to fast-forward between two crucial ruptures in Guston’s trajectory.

The first break came around 1950, when recognizable objects and threats were repressed in his idiom; the second around 1967, when they returned like inexorable revenants after having struggled through the semantic fog that shrouds Close-Up III, 1961, and its successors. The touchstone of this final phase occurs with Painter’s Forms, 1972. On a flesh-colored field the painter’s mouth spews forth a shoe, a bottle, his initials, and other items as though they were speech. With eyes shut, the message of his art is to pronounce . . . things. Why? Rilke provides the clearest explanation of this “talking cure” in his Ninth Duino Elegy. There, the sole antidote to alienation, to the homelessness that besets the modern condition, exists in the power of language to incarnate feeling and touch the bedrock of reality:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window . . .
Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness[ . . . ].

By no coincidence, death and violence were major catalysts spurring Guston’s return to figuration after around 1967. He subsequently confessed how the Vietnam War and its demonstrations triggered memories of the Scottsboro Boys—an incident that had prompted his early Klansmen groups—and that the jumbles of legs that became a leitmotif in the ’70s were linked to photographs of the concentration camps. Small wonder, then, that Rilke’s injunction to “speak and bear witness”—in effect, a naming of the artist’s ur-forms into existence—should be the implicit rationale behind Guston’s eventual and pervasive flypapering of art and language. A typical matrix of the late phantasmagoria happens to be a codex: First Book, 1967.

Given that Nazi atrocities were on Guston’s mind while assembling the dark scenarios of Porch and the charnel house–like Night Children, 1946, it is notable that this particular pictorial drive petered out with his turn to abstraction after 1950. That Nazi horrors might be too awful to describe, that they defied belief, was a frequent thought in the United States at the time (as traced in Deborah Lipstadt’s 1986 account of the subject, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933–45). In the catalogue to the 2000 exhibition “Philip Guston: A New Alphabet” (co-organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and the Fogg Art Museum), cocurator Harry Cooper therefore rightly proposes that the artist’s reborn figuration entailed an uncanny Freudian return of the repressed (not to mention Guston’s long-distant trauma of discovering his father’s suicide by hanging). Can we go further in this direction?

If so, I suspect that the abstractions of the 1950s should be likened to Freudian screen memories, a pictorial barrier fabricated to mask content more terrible and never fully worked through—at least not until, that is, Guston recollected them once and for all in the grand fabulations (two titles, Allegory, 1975, and Legend, 1977, trumpet their made-up nature) of his final two decades. Having “got sick and tired of all that purity . . . [Guston] wanted to tell Stories!” In short, the nasty business of the late ’40s was unfinished. Thus it returned with such a telling—in both meanings of the word—impetus at the last. Murder—whether in the guise of his father’s suicide, the Klan’s deadly tricks, wartime bombardment, or Nazi annihilation—must out. Guston felt compelled to create a “new alphabet” because he knew his old language had not told all of its tales.

Meanwhile, however, the abstractions of the ’50s mark time. They weave seductive screens from a multitude of delicate brush dabs that promise to coalesce into a readable array but don’t—Abstract Expressionist equivalents to Homer’s Penelope, who constantly wove, and just as constantly unraveled, her threads. I doubt whether Guston was quite himself in this phase as he assimilated the merest feedback from Rothko’s tinted scrims, de Kooning’s edgy rhythms, and both the latter’s and Pollock’s formulation of the image as process. (Parallels also obtain with the tremulous grids of Ibram Lassaw’s sculpture.) The current retrospective from Fort Worth should provide us ample opportunity to judge how well these Gustons compete against the classic Rothkos, Newmans, Stills, and Pollocks of the period. Although they may not leave him behind, the chances are that neither will Guston go down in history for this chunk of his output alone.

If my perspective on the painter’s canvases from the ’50s is right, they amount to a hedonistic intermezzo between the work produced in the previous fraught decades and the ferocious endgame Guston resumed by unearthing his foundational themes in the 1960s. Robert Storr discerns a clue in their reference to Watteau—a canvas of 1957 was titled Cythera. To be sure, Guston maintains throughout the ’50s a fine bel canto, allowing the pleasure principle to infiltrate his palette with delicious results: tints of chartreuse, rose, bronze and gunmetal gray that may be their most original aspect. Then the mood clouds over at the close of the decade. The congealed shreds imply pressures building beneath the surface. The painter’s joy in color is up against reverberations from the grim murk of matter. Textures are smeared, shapes ragged, and tones dirtied. Mirages threaten to become nightmares. Aptly, Guston cited “erasure” regarding the “dark pictures” that lasted until 1965. The past held much to blot out.

But rather than erase, Guston at the eleventh hour did the opposite. He amplified the old voices. The magnetism of his new figuration is inseparable from its being writ large—sometimes in the sheer size of his ’70s compositions and always metaphorically in the gargantuan coarseness of his cartoonish drawing. Everything looms on a Brobdingnagian scale—hoods, heads, feet, easels, flames, bugs, and horizons—that will admit no finely delineated niceties. The air of grotesque magnification transforms Dantesque terror into comedy and silent gravity into graveyard humor. It is Guston’s last joke about vision’s transgressive force to reimagine the theatrum mundi afresh. The painter masters and martials the parts of a universe that had once been reduced to traces. No other member of his generation before then had taken raw emotions and projected them onto an IMAX screen of this expressive magnitude.

Needless to add, though, Guston’s representational blasphemy maintained an impeccable lineage. To see the quiddity of everyday facts has often been a fresh starting point for artists since at least Chardin. Listen to the Frenchman as reported by his biographer Charles-Nicolas Cochin: “Here is an object which I must aim to reproduce,” he said to himself. “In order to concentrate my mind on reproducing it faithfully, I must forget everything I have seen, even including the manner in which such objects have been handled by others.” Now hear Guston: “I imagine wanting to paint as a cave man would. . . . I should like to paint like a man who has never seen a painting.” It requires extreme aesthetic sophistication to reach such a primitive beginning. Maybe the otherwise improbable cherries found in Curtain, 1977, and Untitled (Cherries), 1980, were Guston’s sly homage to his French predecessor who delineated those fruits with trademark delicacy.

The gigantic heads with one staring eyeball—caricatural self-portraits—that populate the late work embody Guston’s terminal mode of seeing. It overturns a venerable American love affair with the transcendent: the myth that vision (literal and spiritual) can conquer its material embodiment, leave language behind and transport us to higher realms. Emerson epitomized this view in a moot passage in his essay “Nature”: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball . . . the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” Regardless of whether Guston knew Emerson, he was surely familiar with the Abstract Expressionist variant of such oculocentrism. In 1947 Rothko wrote about making “transcendental experiences” possible through his art and personified their herald in Tiresias, 1944, named after the mythic Greek seer whom he depicts with a transparent body topped by a Cyclopean orb-head. Newman, Still, Richard Pousette-Dart, and others all duly paid their own lip service, verbal and imagistic, to “transcendence,” “Vision,” “revelation,” and the like.

At the last, Guston brilliantly critiqued this visionary idealism—the mind-over-matter rhetoric—of Abstract Expressionism. His heads instead see the baseness of life at its most primal: feet (what could be more base than our soles?), books (in the beginning was the word), abjection (Head and Bottle, 1975, thrusts the artist’s gaze facedown on his liquid muse), and the formless (since for Guston speech/language concretizes vision, his blockish forms, as Cooper proposed, shift identities with the same metonymical slipperiness that enables us to name a single thought with diverse related words).

An insight into Guston’s ultimate mentality may also come from an otherwise remote source that was doubtless unknown to him, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. In A Treatise on Poetry, 1955–56, Milosz deals with the same sentiment of shattered history and self as did the early Guston. Indeed, Part III of the poem surveys Warsaw under Nazi bombardment. In turn its language mirrors the ruinous, down-home fragments that the late Guston elevates to the status of dumb witnesses, opaque bric-a-brac summoned from memory as nouns in a bleak imaginative landscape:

When gold paint flakes from the arms of sculptures,
When the letter falls out of the book of laws,
Then consciousness is naked as an eye.

When the pages of books fall in fiery scraps
Onto smashed leaves and twisted metal,
The tree of good and evil is stripped bare.

When a wing made of canvas is extinguished
In a potato patch, when steel disintegrates,
Nothing is left but straw huts and cow dung.

In such passages Milosz leads us closer to the crux—and possibly nearer than most art historians could manage—of Guston’s genius in broaching a terrain that would soon fall to, say, Anselm Kiefer to navigate to the fullest. Memory, matter, and metaphor are its agents and exert themselves on what Milosz calls “the dirt of our subjectivity” and Guston, referring to paint itself, defined as “colored dirt.” Both use irony and humor to cement the fragments. Those qualities inflect Guston’s climactic creations toward a genre that few commentators have noticed—carnival. To the best of my knowledge, only the British painter-critic Timothy Hyman has rated Guston’s post-1968 mischief as “epic-scaled carnivalesque.”

As famously investigated by Mikhail Bakhtin (I’m reluctant to revive this warhorse of academe, but nobody else will do so well), the key to the structure of the ancient tradition of carnival is ambiguity. Carnivalesque humor embraces opposites-in-tension and consequently lends itself to such variable wavelengths as macabre laughter and grotesque realism. Nothing better captures the raunchy, manic-depressive antics of late Guston, who, true to carnival’s dictates, donned his mask in pictorial terms to ride around town with “hoods.” His subsequent deluges of heads and assorted anatomies (including Nixon’s phlebitic leg) constitute a singular variant of Bakhtin’s “tumultuous crowd” and its flaunting of the abject, grotesque body. Good and bad are also reversed during carnival, which turns protocol topsy-turvy. Similarly, Guston “almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot.” The association of painting with plotting and evil invokes Degas, who compared making art to perpetrating a crime. That brings us full circle.

In The Genesis of Secrecy—a dazzling inquiry into biblical narrative and its progeny—Frank Kermode demonstrates how the process of telling/interpreting stories is deeply imbricated with deception and trickery. For example, ancient lore portrays Hermes, the mythic founding father of hermeneutics, as a “trickster, a robber” because he violates boundaries (by, among various practices, conveying souls to and from the underworld). Modern fictive plots as we now understand them have a precursor in parables and midrash, the Talmudic practice of weaving new commentaries around existing narratives.

Guston told his friend the poet Bill Berkson that with his insurgent figuration he had rediscovered the “pleasures of narrative” and deemed the images akin to “ancient manuscripts.” Maybe his fables at the easel belied a distant Talmudic ancestry in their urge to generate plots out of a chaotic universe, a “book” otherwise without sense or ending. Certainly, the horseshoes that clutter Tomb, 1978, and the pressing-irons elsewhere parody the biblical speech of God in Revelation, who names himself the alpha and (horseshoe-shaped Greek letter) omega of existence. The Line, 1978, even portrays the divine hand as that of a painter delineating genesis from out of a cloud. Here and in other terse legends—the conspirators of Cabal, 1977, and the fiery brazier smoldering in the darkness of Flame, 1979—all the previous urgent storytelling quietens to the enigmatic tenor of parables. Having started some forty years before with the big bang of Bombardment, Guston concludes in apocalyptic and infinitely eloquent whispers.

David Anfam is a London-based art historian.