New York

Philip Guston

David McKee Gallery

A tidbit of journalistic wisdom from the ’20s: “The difference between a conservative and a radical is that the conservative has got his.” Since the conservative has everything, he is interested in preserving the status quo. Would that it were so easy today to distinguish conservative tenacity from radical action—in either the political arena or on the art scene. Just as the strident antiwar activist of the ’60s finds her militarist dander ruffled by the current events in Iran and Pakistan, a painting that would’ve seemed retardataire in 1969 seems peculiarly appropriate to the 1979 mood. Notions of conservatism and radicalism don’t make much sense in an atmosphere where there are no norms to conserve or from which abruptly to take leave. The focus knob to this fuzzy issue is determining who’s got his—as the axiom suggests, the true conservative.

Philip Guston is someone who’s got his, but he didn’t get it by clinging to one style that worked. His career describes a cycle of styles that variously were unsuccessful or successful. To his credit, he kept on the move.

What remained consistent for most of his paintings was a palette with the surefire combination of red and black. In his latest exhibition, this color—which, for Guston is a liverish red with everything outlined in black, giving a rusty, lugubrious tone—is the vehicle for his private demonology. The catalogue of demons prominently features dismemberment; a painting ironically titled Connection has a couple of severed digits and dismantled musical instruments strewn across a blue horizon.

Critters are a significant part of the population of Moon, where they’re not so much demons, perhaps, as pests invading the allegory of the painter Canvas stretcher bars, discarded paintbrushes, and the disembodied (or partially eclipsed) face of the painter are the playground for these critters. The canvas is host for the pleasures of these cockroachlike pests who are the painter’s symbol of his audience, his critics.

My favorite painting in the exhibition, Ladder, is a combination of Jerry Lewis klutziness and Piero delta Francesca colors. A ladder leans against a wall that’s a horizon; a pair of legs (limbs without a body) is entangled in the rungs, which stymie any attempt to see beyond the horizon. This aborted journey to see what’s beyond the picture plane—for the horizon is decidedly illusionistic, like a painting—is rather touching in its clumsiness, which is the Jerry Lewis quality. Enter Piero with an orange Baroque configuration—it looks like a powdered wig—looming beyond the horizon line like a rising or setting sun.

In praise of these paintings, how can you call them radical or conservative? Guston paints with authority, but his handling of paint is loose, not constrained by ideas of the ideal. He began his career as an allegorical painter, practiced as a muralist, left representation for two decades as an nonrepresentational impressionist, making him odd-man out in the New York School of expressionism. Returning, as he did in the late ’60s, to the subject matter of his earliest work—Klansmen, or figures robed in penitential hoods, depending on how you see things—he added the painterly strokes of his nonrepresentational period. His career is a circle where the idea of progress has nothing to do with trailblazing the frontier, but rather, understanding the settled territory. Guston’s career is the history of American painting this century, and the tangled limbs in the rungs of Ladder about the most eloquent statement of painting’s current concerns.

Carrie Rickey