New York

Philip Guston

McKee Gallery

Philip Guston’s paintings consist of three things: the images (and their possible meaning), the surfaces, and the color, all carefully balanced one against the other. Guston paints a few items, most often old shoes, sole up, a position more of assertion than disuse. These shoes are in landscapes: singly in piles or on posts, which with Guston’s characteristic duality suggest both tree trunks and gravestones. In other instances the pile of shoes shares the canvas with a masked or unmasked head (cigarette in mouth), a light bulb, a window shade. In some ways these paintings are, as Guston’s titles imply, “ominous” and “desolate” but it is hard to completely accept this sentiment. The masked head, in a Ku Klux Klan pillowcase, has an eye hole which is a vertical black rectangle, an easy stroke of paint, a departure from the expected horizontal slit, which makes the mask much less sinister, somewhat cartoonlike. The unmasked head also has a cartoon-like eye, single and in profile, which, through its size and unblinking stare is ultimately more frightening than the mask. In several paintings the figure (masked in one, unmasked in the other) raises a handful of rope over his head, and it is not clear if the purpose is flagellation or protection. Mostly, however, it is Guston’s surface and color which balance the effect of some of his imagery. The paintings are large, predominantly red and light pink with areas and outlines in black or gray. Guston’s surfaces are also robust and energetic. These paintings are executed with extreme confidence and economy; there does not seem to be an ounce of extra paint anywhere. Usually Guston does not bother to paint the bottom of the canvas, but finishes off anywhere from four to eight inches up. Everything is painted differently—each painting, parts of each painting. Colors are layered over others; green shows through red, pink through gray; or unmixed on the brush, the colors go on in streaks of pink or gray with white. Guston’s surfaces are fast, like De Kooning’s, but they are drier and tauter. In Painting, Smoking and Eating Guston lies in bed smoking, a plate of cakes on his chest, the single unblinking eye trained on his painting table, occupied mostly by a pile of shoes. The quality of this stare is in all the paintings, explicitly in the eyes, masks, light bulbs, suns, implicitly in the attention and craftsmanship which his surfaces reflect. One senses that Guston has honed his life down to a few basic activities which are interdependent: he smokes and eats in order to paint. The surfaces confirm, as the imagery sometimes suggests, that he is completely at ease with this single preoccupation. A penchant for thick, animated shapes in his abstract paintings from the early ’60s presaged Guston’s return to this highly personal form of representation. This shift makes his surfaces particularly purposeful and diverse. Guston’s accomplishment may not measure up to other Abstract Expressionists—Pollock, Newman and Rothko in particular—but he is doing his best paintings now; they are very good, and the nature of his perseverance makes the comparison, at this point, irrelevant.

Roberta Smith