Cambridge, MA

Philip Guston

Fogg Art Museum

In 1970, at the height of an established career as a leading Abstract Expressionist, fifty-seven-year-old Philip Guston confounded critics and alienated fellow artists with a show of figurative work: ominous narrative paintings featuring cartoonlike Klansmen. Now the stuff of modernist legend, Guston’s transition from his so-called abstract impressionism to a heavily painted, moody figuration is revisited in a groundbreaking exhibition co-organized by Joanna Weber, acting curator at the Yale University Art Gallery (where the show debuted last spring), and Fogg Art Museum associate curator Harry Cooper. “Philip Guston: A New Alphabet” presents forty-eight oils (including four from the controversial 1970 Marlborough exhibition), acrylics, and gouaches made between 1961 and 1978, but the thematic core is the “alphabet panels,” a pivotal group of small oil paintings from 1968–70, which the artist arranged and rearranged into narrative schemes that inspired the monumental works in the Marlborough show. The twenty-seven here (of the original thirty-seven) are shown for the first time just as Guston left them on his studio wall when he died in 1980.

A high point of the Fogg installation is the juxtaposition of these alphabet panels with a group of seven nearly black-and-white paintings from 1961–65, which mark an earlier transition from total abstraction to a darker palette and more palpable forms and gestures. Seeking what he called “stronger contact with the thickness of things,” Guston produced such masterworks as the mural-size Air II, 1965, centered around a large black blob. This shape becomes more legible in light of the alphabet panel Untitled, 1969, a study of the back of a man’s head: The central form and gestures of Air II are repeated in the head and patterns of the hair. The freedom Guston must have experienced as he completed his transition is evident in each of the alphabet panels. His passionate and playful spirit comes through in the animated forms of bricks, anthropomorphic cigar, coffee cups, tabletlike books, and blocky shoes painted in cadmium red, white, ocher, and black.

Guston’s enigmatic hooded heads also appear in the panels, in varying colors and positions among the brick walls of a city. These fragmentary pictures anticipate the scenarios of larger work. In the monumental Riding Around, 1969, three hooded figures—two smoking cigars—drive around an urban environment looking for “action.” Although the roots of these figures go back to social-realist murals of Klansmen that Guston painted in the ’30s, the hoods reborn in the late ’60s seem less malevolent than quirky, even adorable, as figments of his own character. Guston sometimes identified them as self-portraits and liked to call them “the little bastards.” As Cooper suggests in his catalogue essay, “Perhaps Guston needed the Klansman as a chaperone in the dangerous passage back and forth between abstraction and figuration.”

The show tells little about 1972–78, when Guston turned from his hoods toward the personal and apocalyptic subject matter evident in the large canvases The Nile, 1977, and Table and Stretchers, 1978. However, the splendid examples of the first hints of Guston’s refiguration and his wildly expressive, heavily handled narratives renew one’s faith in the sensuousness of painting. For a Guston fan, seeing the twenty-seven alphabet panels together as the artist left them is better than visiting the Arena Chapel.

Francine Koslow Miller