“Philip Guston: Paintings 1947–1979”


Philip Guston accomplished the neat trick of painting with one eye on his past and the other on his future while looking only at the canvas in front of him. He once suggested, rather apologetically, that viewers of his new paintings should try to anticipate the ones that would follow. But he also said, “One never forgets anything, one never goes forward and forward, you are always moving in a circular way.” For an artist so aware of time, a retrospective is in some sense the ultimate work.

This puts a big burden on the curator. How to capture all those circlings and anticipations? “Philip Guston: Paintings 1947–1979” skips the first fifteen years of the artist’s career, from 1932 to 1946, when he was a precocious WPA muralist and then a prizewinning painter of oblique allegories, and opts to begin with his first abstract painting, The Tormentors, 1947–48. Here, fleeing his early success and fired up by the recent breakthroughs of an old high-school buddy (Pollock) and a new friend (de Kooning), Guston reinvented himself. But not out of whole cloth. Hiding in the picture are detached arms, soles of shoes, and hooded figures. These motifs had obsessed the artist as a Jew growing up in Klan-plagued Los Angeles, and he would return to them with a vengeance after 1970. So The Tormentors is pivotal, recording the moment when Guston’s figurative imagination went underground to gather abstract strength before resurfacing twenty years later.

The Tormentors is followed in the exhibition by the two other key canvases of the period, Review, 1949–50, and Red Painting, 1950, and they make a huge impression. Seen in sequence, the three works show a tide of cadmium red steadily rising over black forms until it fills the picture surface. This became Guston’s signature color. It “held the plane,” he said, and it held his bloody imagination as well. The same red tide swells near the end of the exhibition in Deluge II, 1975, which shows the recumbent painter sticking his brush up into a red sea of heads, bottles, shoes, legs, frames, and books. Such links are the stuff retrospectives are made of, and the exhibition knows it. The rooms are arranged in a spiral with multiple openings between the galleries, allowing you to plot your own course, jumping decades forward or back with a few steps or a quick glance.

After the first room come Guston’s works of the early ’50s, elegant quivering fields of horizontal and vertical strokes that were dubbed “abstract impressionism” at the time. Leo Steinberg, writing in 1956, saw them entirely differently, as “exposures of nerve-threaded flesh . . . scarred and stained with sin and hunger, pain and nicotine.” The exhibition shows how prescient he was, for what is remarkable about Guston’s development from 1950 to the confessional work of the ’70s is its continuity. The pure abstractions of the early ’50s slowly give way later in the decade to acid-colored patches and tentacles that jostle and pinch each other. And around 1960 these works yield to the gray paintings, those black, brainlike blobs pickled in their own juices that Guston showed to critical unacclaim at the Jewish Museum in 1966. That reception helped precipitate his withdrawal from the New York artworld and his plunge into painting as self-analysis.

After two years of isolated work in upstate New York, Guston unveiled his new manner at a Marlborough Gallery show in 1970, and the reception was even worse. The faux-cartoon figures bathed in the clear light of Piero della Francesca pleased neither elitists nor populists, although these spacious chilly canvases have gradually come to seem like Guston at his peak. The pictures were the result of long preparation. Guston had worked out his new vocabulary on dozens of individual panels between 1968 and 1970: a book here, a building there, Klansmen everywhere. The Bonn show presents a few of these works, beginning with Shoe, 1968, a hash of black and gray strokes that, except for the clunky care Guston took with the heel, the stitching of the sole, and the shadow underneath, could be one of the gray paintings of the earlier ’60s. No matter how radical Guston’s shifts, the continuity shines through. As he said, “It has to be new and old at the same time, as if that image has been in you for a long time but you’ve never seen it before.”

The only disappointment in the exhibition is the absence of many important works from the Marlborough show and just after. Outskirts, 1969, is present, a powerful concoction of head-scratching Klansmen wandering around like stupid Burghers of Calais below ziggurat-like buildings (derived, so Guston said, from the ones he glimpsed from the West Side Highway on his occasional drives into Manhattan). And A Day’s Work, 1970, shows a powwow of three Klansmen (actually two: the hood of the third has turned into a two-by-four with nails) standing in a back alley next to a trash can they have just stuffed with shoes and legs.

Where are the missing works? With a full-dress retrospective planned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for 2002, some owners may have been reluctant to lend to back-to-back shows. The slack has been taken up by David McKee, Guston’s devoted dealer since 1974, and Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter. As a result, more than a quarter of the forty-seven paintings in the show are from the estate, and over a third are from the last five years of Guston’s life (1975–80). This is too bad, not because of the late pictures themselves, which are powerfully bleak, but because the same imbalance has marked many Guston shows, including the first full retrospective, Henry T. Hopkins’s exhibition at SF MOMA in 1980. However welcome and intelligent “Philip Guston: Paintings 1947–1979,” it is time to see Guston whole.

Harry Cooper is associate curator of modern art at the Harvard University Art Museums and lecturer in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture.