New York

Philip Guston

The supposedly big change in Philip Guston’s art occurred in the late 1960s, when he switched from his refined, “tender-minded” version of “action painting” to a cartoonlike imagery of hooded figures, familiar objects (fruit, shoes, body parts), and social settings. He eschewed gestural expression in favor of quasi-surreal scenes—absurd juxtapositions, of a cyclopean head and an empty liquor bottle, for example, or, more morbidly, of legs and feet with hobnailed shoes, their soles facing us, in a barren room—and clumsily executed illustration. As the artist put it, according to a wall text at the Morgan, he was sick and tired of “purity,” and turned to “narrative” in acknowledgment of what he once called the “cruelties of holocausts” and their innumerable victims—the “unbearable” sadism of the world. He became a “witness of the hell,” and used humor to defend against it and maintain a semblance of artistic sanity.

That’s the official story, but there’s something very wrong with it, at least if one recognizes the purist beauty of much of the work in this retrospective of Guston’s drawings—virtually all the later images are meticulously executed abstract constructions (a bowl of cherries is a superb example), if not as gloriously gestural as the earlier drawings—and realizes that the “hell” was Guston’s as well as society’s, as his numerous comments about his recurrent bouts of “anxiety,” not to say panic, suggest. Born “Goldstein” to poor Russian immigrants, Guston found his Jewishness catching up with him after his prolonged “fit” of pure painting—“pure” meaning socially anonymous, without social identity and history—spent itself.

Now the thing about Guston’s late imagery is that while it aims to be antipure, even vulgar, it is also a regression to the pre-abstract all-too-human imagery, often of violent Ku Klux Klansmen, of his youth—in the service, I think, of an ego that had become sterile after years of producing Abstract Expressionist works. After all, isn’t purity sterile—a creative dead end? Isn’t it just redundant harping on one note, twisted and turned this way and that but always the same limited (and self-limiting) thing? So that’s another missing—or at least half-repressed—part of the Guston story. The other part is that he turned to “American” objects and figures at the end of the decade that began with Pop art (among other movements). It is hard to believe that Guston wasn’t aware of Oldenburg’s grotesquely enlarged objects and Lichtenstein’s parodies of gestural brushworks. The tendency to grotesqueness, as an elaboration of caricature, is to me the most “aesthetically” significant aspect of Pop art, and Guston’s grotesque caricatures fit right in. So Guston was catching up, as it were, being trendy in realizing that the best days of Abstract Expressionism were about to end.

It has also been said that Guston’s hooded figure is a golem—a being in human form artificially created and given life, as crudely material as it is nominally human and alive (golem is Hebrew for “shapeless thing,” suggesting that it was the original Frankenstein)—as well as a Ku Klux Klansman; that is, a self-alienated Jew as well as a hostile anti-Semite. Guston seemed to have identified with the anti-Jewish aggressor, which is perhaps why he was able to look into the pit of history and see the dead bodies accumulated there without artistically flinching, although the sight made him sick and became the “objective correlative” of his mental sickness. Guston’s body parts belong to the victims of the Holocaust, which constantly haunted him—survivor’s guilt? (His close friend Philip Roth also suffered from it. So did Rothko and other Jewish “transcendentalists” and purists, including Greenberg.) Awareness of the Holocaust—the repeated holocausts of modern history, as he said—undoubtedly linked up with his growing sense of the inhumanity of pure art. It is why he returned with an ironic vengeance to making humanistic art, with its eloquent appreciation of the simple fruits of life, tempered by a sense of the stupid funniness—intractable moronism—of human beings.

Donald Kuspit