Los Angeles

“Enigma Variations”

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Although it might not amount to a new paradigm, the deployment of the comparative method—a standard art-historical gambit—as a curatorial strategy occasionally allows us to look at familiar work with fresh eyes. The approach is most effective where arguably most incongruous—that is, within a modernist context, given modernism’s emphasis on autonomy for artwork and artist alike. The suggestion that the unfolding of modern art is not necessarily a matter of consecutive seismic shake-ups but is more like a slowly unfolding conversation is no longer novel, and the validity of the relational Bakhtinian mode is well accepted, serving as a critical weapon in efforts to resist the market forces that divide and conquer artists by making them into separate brands.

In the case of the “odd couple” pairing of Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico, cocurated by Michael Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s Lisa Melandri, any “anxiety of influence” argument seemed countered at the outset by Guston’s own declared admiration for de Chirico. During his teenage years in LA, Guston visited the collection of Louise and Walter Arensberg, and was moved to proclaim, “I was mostly struck by de Chirico. . . .In fact it was seeing these paintings . . . [that] made me resolve to be . . . a painter.”

This perhaps surprising statement is corroborated by Guston’s so-called New Metaphysical works from the ’30s, several of which were on view here. So utterly unlike the later Gustons (also included) that we’ve come to know and love, these paintings are certainly de Chirico–esque, if not outright pastiches of the maligned Surrealist. De Chirico, for his part, was represented by precisely those paintings that served as Guston’s inspiration: the Arensbergs’ The Soothsayer’s Recompense, 1913, and The Poet and His Muse, 1925, among other key works.

The bulk of “Enigma Variations” is given over to Guston’s stunning hood paintings, which henceforth will be tethered to the example of de Chirico’s faceless manikins as emblems of reason perverted. Also carried over is the melancholic empathy that the latter bestowed upon his twisted figures as victims of ideological manipulation. The show’s underlying arguments are made with exemplary concision and force, for as we follow the give-and-take of iconographical elements between these two painters, the conventional art-historical narrative that formerly had American-style abstraction emerge from European Surrealism only to supplant it takes a suggestive turn.

The elephant in the room is abstraction; it is at once everywhere and nowhere. We see Guston absorbing the example of European Surrealism by first internalizing visual experience and then deforming it in accordance with the dictates of the imagination. But the next step, the one that gained the New York School the lead in the great modernist race toward total autonomy—that is, the dissolution of representation as such—was here pointedly overlooked. That Guston continued well past this finish line, effectively doubling back by reintroducing clearly legible iconographical elements into his work, from the late ’60s onward, was understood as anathema—evidence of willful regression or early senility. De Chirico’s late-stage fixation on the tropes of Neoclassicism met with a similar verdict.

As the pictorial equivalent of maturity, abstraction becomes the rule, and its promise of intuitive freedoms a sham. In de Chirico’s insubordination, his refusal to “perform” a once spontaneous repertoire that was growing quickly stale, Guston clearly found the courage to fight his own battles with the AbEx orthodoxy. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the premise of “Enigma Variations” is complex: The strongest ties are sometimes forged between those who are most alone.

Jan Tumlir