New York

Philip Guston

David McKee Gallery

There are some who believe that society's acceptance of an artist's vision diminishes that vision. More often than not, society erodes the artist's independence by transforming artwork into a commodity, which ultimately entraps him or her in a symbiotic relationship. One approach to this dilemma is for the artist to exploit this relationship—a strategic maneuver of which Andy Warhol was a past master, using it to achieve a mass audience. Another approach, diametrically opposite to this one, is the one taken by Philip Guston, who, each time he gained approval, began to doubt himself to such an extent that he eventually stepped outside of consensus opinion. Guston, deeply distrustful of societal approval, believed that such approval was delimiting, and that for an artist to receive it was a sign that he or she was a good student of official history and had satisfied an agreed-upon standard.

This exhibition, entitled “Roma 1971,” revealed an important and heretofore little-known chapter in Guston's artistic development during the late '60s and early '70s. Increasingly dissatisfied with his abstract paintings, and with accepted notions of modern art, Guston stopped painting just after a major retrospective of his work opened in 1966 and turned to drawing instead. During the period of internal conflict that ensued, which lasted two years, he vacillated between doing “pure” drawings and depicting objects such as shoes and books. The objects won out, and in 1968 he began drawing them in acrylic, working out a vocabulary that would serve him for the last 12 years of his career. Guston accomplished this with incredible speed; he was like a ravenous termite eating his way through a vast, unpredictable landscape, one that was partly imagined and partly seen and remembered. The works that resulted, including paintings in oil on canvas and in acrylic on Masonite, were shown in an unsettling, breakthrough exhibition in 1970. Immediately afterward he went to Italy (his third trip there), having been invited as artist-in-residence for a year by the American Academy in Rome. He spent much of the time painting an extensive series of oils on paper, based mostly on the formal gardens and archaeological excavations that he visited in Rome and other cities throughout Italy.

These are the paintings from which this exhibition has been selected. They show Guston addressing two important questions: Could he absorb the world around him and incorporate it into his work? Having assembled a vocabulary, could he now place the objects in a space that wasn't an interior, abstract, or schematic? These whimsical works are fantastic improvisations in which he responded to the landscape that he observed, using a palette consisting chiefly of cadmium red and white. It is in these paintings, most of them done quickly and decisively, that Guston began introducing a sumptuous crystalline light into his work and tested his ability to transform the world of objects and places around him into the realm of paint, while giving himself the same free rein that had led to his recent figurative work in the first place. They are surprising and invigorating, even for a fan of Guston's late work such as myself. Despite the scorn and incomprehension with which Guston's shift in style was received by the public and the press, he shows more assurance in these works than ever before.

In the late '60s, the art world was dominated by work that was detached, ironic, and extremely confident in its intelligence—a situation not unlike that of today. Guston did something truly radical. He deconstructed his own intelligence and, in the process, revealed a lot about the art world's pretentiousness. One of the most seductive and delicate handlers of paint to emerge during the '50s, a decade later he made his work intentionally crude and blunt in order to get to the reality beneath the scrim that he himself had helped to erect. Guston recognized the poignant lyricism of homely objects and eroded presences. He understood what painting was and showed us what it could be.

John Yau