New York

Philip Guston

Marlborough | Midtown

After a long and admirable practice as an abstract painter, Philip Guston once more returns to figuration, reminding us that he, like so many of his Abstract Expressionist confrères, had begun as a figurative painter in the ’40s. But then as now, his figuration is a dubious achievement. Once a purveyor of melancholy and classicizing nostalgia, Guston is now into second, perhaps even third school Chicago Funk and Momenta. The reasons for this return, or re-emergence, must be connected with emotional and intellectual pressures of a private nature. Such reasons really ought to concern us considering Guston’s rank, although they generally fall outside legitimate areas of inquiry, even in these lengthily argued columns.

Guston is recently quoted as having said, “I got sick and tired of that Purity! wanted to tell stories!” These paintings are not about purity—Expressionist impasto and facture on variations of cadmium red medium are not about purity—nor are they narrative for all of the R. Crumb-like Klu Klux Klanners, big mitts, cigar butts, and big stitch brogues. All this nostalgia for Smokey Stover is still all about sensitive patches and Abstract Expressionist all-over. Only something is giving.

The problem of these pictures is far more interesting than the pictures themselves. Attempts at accommodating illusionism into the all-over are common enough. (Think of Chuck Close or Paul Sarkisian, not to mention the many cool automotive imagists.) They seem to solve the induction through surface dematerializations assisted at times through the use of the air brush or through dry surface application. Gus-ton, by contrast to these irrefragable representationalists, stands committed to his concentrations of unctuous roseate and threaded patches, now given identifiability in terms of the comic strip. That being the case, then the imagery, skirting narrative, is employed instead to combat the patness of his abstract concerns. Thus representationalism is not the problem, as the motifs do no more than define painterly areas. Guston instead points to his mode of painting itself, since a disparity exists between the altitude of the facture and the baseness of the humor. Perhaps the low humor hints that the quality of Guston’s painting—I mean that stuff about the organic meaning of the way things are painted—is on the verge of faltering as well.

Robert Pincus-Witten