New York

Philip Guston

McKee Gallery

Many of the small oil panels that Philip Guston produced between 1969 and 1973—of which this show featured almost fifty—depict scenes from the artist’s life, and are thus infused with an uncanny sense of the biographical. The cigar in the 1973 work of that title must be his, for instance; and so must the shoe depicted on one untitled and undated canvas. The paintbrushes in an untitled 1972 work are certainly his own, suggesting that the paintings pictured in other works—one hangs on the wall by a nail; another is centered, in effect a painting within a painting; and a third is on an easel—are by him too. Wandering through the exhibition, it was hard not to think, That must be the armchair he sat in, that the coffee cup he drank from. The hooded figures in several works are the same Ku Klux Klansmen Guston depicted many times, perhaps most famously in the early painting Conspirators, 1930, but they are also Guston himself—as The Studio, 1969 (not in this exhibition), with its hooded figure in the process of painting himself, makes plain: It is a self-portrait of the artist as conspirator.

Taken together, these panels might be taken to form an extended, if eccentric and repetitious, predella, similar to those on which incidents from the life of a martyred saint were depicted: Guston’s version awaits a centerpiece showing this acclaimed Abstract Expressionist martyring himself to representation. The first exhibition after his “return to representation” in the late 1960s received a largely hostile response from reviewers as well as from his fellow abstractionists, which in part must have prompted Guston’s retreat to his studio in upstate New York. Strange as it may seem to say so, all these paintings convey the same glorification of studio isolation—the city is a distant memory—conjured by Georges Braque’s late, similarly insular studio scenes. The objects Guston depicts are still-life props; and, for all their painterliness, these small paintings only now and then reveal a dramatic trace of an inner life. The artist may be king in his studio—is the hood an ironic crown?—but it is a rather small world he rules. Even when he ventures outside, the car he rides in is small, in effect a toy, like the other objects he plays with.

The figures and objects have Guston’s familiar cartoonish look—a sort of sly innocence—but they are also peculiarly sinister and confrontational. And they hold on to an abstract sensibility, too, in the way in which they are stripped to their formal essentials: A lightbulb is no more than an ornamented circle, a casual pile of bricks a geometric—dare one say Minimalist?—construction, and, in one work, a hood suddenly becomes a pyramid. What is technically noteworthy about these works is their flat planes of color, sometimes speckled with dots of pigment, and emphatic contours, which are usually but not always pitch-black. “My whole life is based on anxiety,” Guston once wrote (how unfortunate), adding, “Where else does art come from?” It’s a very modern, limited idea of art, appropriate to our so-called age of anxiety, suggesting the limitations of Guston’s still lifes, conveying as they do the stultifying effect of anxiety on perception—the way it reduces one’s vision to a few precious obsessions, not to say an obsession with oneself—which, ultimately, diminishes the role of art to supplying memento mori of a hermit’s unlived life.

Donald Kuspit