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Philip Guston

See also: Abstract Expressionism


From the Abstract to the Figurative: Philip Guston's Stony Path

By Martin Hentschel

Under the Spell of Mondrian's Paradigm

"When Philip Guston in the autumn of 1970 exhibited his new figurative paintings in the New York Marlborough Gallery, a storm broke over his head. His contemporary critics could apparently not get over the fact that a painter, whom they had for over two decades counted among the heroes of Abstract Expressionism, had with no apparent warning changed camps.

"Since the 50s, the relationship between abstraction and figuration had become so hardened that a vote for the one or the other was tantamount to a religious avowal. At first this was politically colored. Nazi Germany's complete elimination of abstract tendencies, on the one hand, and the doctrine of Social Realism, on the other, made abstract painting a symbolic bastion of postwar freedom and democracy - on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Not till Pop Art could this pitfall to consciousness be amended, insofar as art then became dedicated to a world that saw its political values absorbed into its consumer goods. If artistic liberty multiplied in view of the new aesthetics of products, the dogmatic position associated with abstract painting continued in another form. The dogmatism that began politically was gradually replaced by one that concerned more the inner surface of painting, yet was no less ideologically determined. It found its highpoint and its endpoint in the theory of Radical Painting: an emphatic avowal of 'pure' color that placed all narrative forms of art under suspicion of heresy. This was the mid-eighties when, in Europe, a Neo-Expressionism returned with a vengeance, the roots of which converged on the change in direction that Guston had taken in 1968.

"The feat that Guston accomplished can hardly be appraised highly enough. Even if his new figurativeness had already been foreshadowed in 1966 at the exhibition in the Jewish Museum in New York, the majority of the art public had studiously ignored this important half-way step and continued to commit the artist to continue in the painting style he had so long delighted in. In fact, Guston's recent switch to the figurative remained unusual even to those of the following generation. In contrast to his colleague and friend Willem de Kooning, for example, who had drawn criticism when he exhibited his Women series in 1953 with its early rebuff of Abstract Expressionism, Guston considered his conversion to be irreversible. This made him an exception in a world where the number of artists who turned from figuration to abstraction was legion. Their shining example was the path that High Modernism had gone, with Mondrian and Kandinsky as pathfinders, a path whose inner necessity and logic seemed so convincing that it marginalized every other divergent possibility.

"Particularly Mondrian's artistic development was considered as paradigmatic for American as it was for European art, because color-field painting could so go against the grain of Mondrian's relational concept. It was in the nature of things that the reversal of this paradigm, which for many decades was absolutely identified with the genesis of Modernism, was destined to provoke contradiction. And, finally, the purist aesthetics of Minimal Art made their own contribution to the uproar Guston caused in 1970.

'Impure' Painting, Non-hierarchical Order Configurational Processes

That Guston was not out for provocation is clear from his own statements. As early as 1960 the public should have been alerted when he spoke of the 'impurity' of painting during a public discussion (in which Ad Reinhardt, Jack Tworkow and Robert Motherwell also participated), at the same time stressing its representational function: "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself - therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden. There are no "wiggly or straight lines" or any other elements. You work until they vanish. The picture isn't finished if they are seen.

"This was not only directed against Ad Reinhardt, whose manifesto Twelve Rules for a New Academy, published in 1957, was an obsessive avowal of purified painting, it also, above all, applied to Guston's art itself, which could be read at the time solely as color-form events. In truth, Guston, as Robert Storr shows, only produced art that was completely non-representational between 1951 and 1954: "By the mid-1950s Guston had abandoned the practice of giving his paintings numerical or generic names, and his new titles reflected the growing 'thingness' of his images, suggesting a wide variety of specific subjects, moods, and art historical references.' On the other hand, the evolutionary logic inherent in his abstract works demonstrates how the new figurativeness came about almost of necessity.

"How much Guston's abstraction of the 50s was parallel to his times was something Lawrence Alloway recognized when he stressed the way lyrical abstraction was built up in the rigorous structure of the 'pink paintings' between 1952 and 1954. "These are the works in which, under the mask of discrete lyricism, he has been most radical, presenting paintings that are the sum of their discrete visible parts. In this structural candour he can be likened to Pollock in his open drip paintings... One reason for suggesting that these paintings are 'radical' Is that they make almost no use of one of the most persistent conventions of Western art, the hierarchic ranking of forms... Non-hierarchic forms can be achieved either holistically by unbroken color areas (Newman, Rothko) or by the repetition of small visible elements (Pollock, Guston)."

"Starting with a work like Ochre Painting 1, 1951 via To BWT, 1952, and Zone, 1953/54, up to Untitled, 1958, a continual line is being drawn: it begins with the egalitarian structure described by Alloway; all the elements, however relate at first to the picture plane. In To BWT the grid structure is concentrated at the center of the picture; an imaginary optical plane is created that pulls the foreground elements together with those of the background into a continuum. In Zone the massed paint takes on a material character that presses forward out of the picture plane. This materiality in Untitled encompasses the whole body of the painting, while the elementary structure of small particles is abandoned. Although it looks like Guston has here returned to traditional composition, his compositional method is based less on a planimetric order - on the contrary, this becomes disorganized - than on the step-by-step spatial transference of individual color-forms from the background. The whole canvas develops quasi from back to front and so, in a certain way preserves its non-hierarchic status.


"What the figurative aspect finally crystallized into was that cartoon-like, slightly coarse style that was to characterize his late paintings from 1968 on. The dualism had now completely evolved. Guston was partly spared a constant tug-of-war in that he did his 'pure' drawings during the day and gave himself up to the world of objects at night. This dichotomy tells us much. It testifies to the fact that the artist was aware of having invaded 'forbidden' territory, that he was about to create something that the sober light of day could hardly bear The title of Goya's famous caprice supplies us with the suitable metaphor: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. What was monstrous was less the things themselves that Guston put down on paper than the profound dichotomy of the working method itself. It tells us how much the historical paradigm that describes the path from the figurative to the abstract (the reversal of which proves recalcitrant) has even become inscribed in the artist's own idea of himself.

"If the return to the world of things, as the 'dark pictures' make clear are based in part on the painting process itself, what was certainly essential was a lively political awareness that Guston had shown since his artistic beginnings. In 1977 he retrospectively spoke of this aspect in a quite clear-cut way: "So when the 1960's came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am 1, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. [..] I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.... Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt."

"One picture can perhaps equally articulate Guston's schizophrenia and his desire for wholeness. It is one of a collection of works that contains a head turned to the right, with eyes wide open and a furrowed brow. Basically the mouth is missing in these faces, while a cigarette usually juts from the lower half: a sure indication that it is the chain smoking Guston. Although this insignia is absent in our picture, the other motifs allow it to be classified without doubt as a self-portrait. Spleen was painted in 1975 and its pink background contains only few figurative elements. In front of a line, interpretable as a table edge, lies a thin, limp paintbrush. From it juts the profile of the head and a single fist. A picture within a picture, which dashingly portrays a sparkling sun, has been placed directly vis-a-vis the eye; it nearly seems to be stuck there. The link between picture and eye has been arranged almost obsessively in that the pupil's diameter is exactly the same as the sun's. The picture of the sun has the character of an idee fixe. It points to that counterworld that normally remains invisible in his pictures: his longing for holistic beauty - a childhood dream. Present in the work is the awareness that this longing is a vain one. The pendant to the sun is the fist, into which all indignation about the existing state of affairs is concentrated.

"The picture's few ingredients express the dilemma that is never to let Guston go. There can be no mediation between the beauty that he called up in his works of the 50s and his reference to the social world as It affected him and that he felt to be bitter and violent. Which is why the paintbrush in this picture is limp and dull.

Liberation through Self-restriction

"We know that Guston made the decision to portray the world as represented by the clenched fist. The artistic means he used to do so and that first turn up In the drawings have been debated: his early interest in cartoons, namely the comics of George Herriman and later of Robert Crumb, his fascination for the paintings and drawings of Max Beckmann, which he was able to see as early as 1938 in New York and especially to study during his years of teaching in St. Louis (1945-1947). Beckmann did not only appeal to him thematically; for his new works Guston also borrowed his method of drawing closed contours around the figures.

"And yet: none of the influences that were doubtlessly at work here give an adequate explanation of the enormous turnabout that Guston made between 1968 and 1970 with the introduction of his crude, casual and comic-strip-like images. We need to go back one step to find the key. While working on the 'dark pictures' from 1961 to 1965, Guston had, as he himself noted, reached a point where painting had become 'crucial'. He had advanced to its most elementary state, by eliminating all painting's seductive means such as the use of color. The alternate application of black and white paint led to a process of mutual erasing, whereby the paint became amassed into various gray tones. It was a continual trial of strength from which, in the end, form and arrangement emerged. And, in fact, these paintings lacked any kind of virtuosity in its conventional sense. They are the result of a restriction he inflicted on himself, not so as to sound out the limits of his capacities, but so as to experience the inner essence of the painting process - how does form, how does a picture originate?

"When Guston decided to dedicate himself again to the world of things, this experience stood him in good stead. He had the example of Pop Art directly before his eyes, which opened up our everyday world by taking its most superficial and, at the same time, most significant aspect as a reproach: advertising. But could credibility become possible by bringing the artistic medium in line with consumer aesthetics, as did Pop Art? And, on the other hand, could you tell stories by using an artistic skill, which he, Guston, had already almost twenty years ago brought to a level that in every way was convincing and unquestionable?

"Against this background it was only consistent to again lay down a restriction. No more 'beautiful' pictures for the sake of credibility. 'Bad' painting for the sake of story-telling. Painting that articulates its proximity to caricature, so as to be able to bring violence, wit, politics and the grotesque into play. And finally, self-inflicted restriction so as to be finally free of those outside restrictions that an academically-neutered Modernism, its public and critics demanded of an artist like Guston. The 'dark pictures' were an important, indispensable lesson in a process of liberation, since they allowed the artist to reach a point where the crude, violent and simplified style of the late works was to a certain degree anticipated.

The Pseudo-gaiety of the Grotesque and Mutilation to the Body

"In Flatlands, 1970, the possibilities of this newly won freedom are spread out like a tableau - the possibility, say, of looking back without anger and at the same time being lord of the present. In his earliest works Guston had portrayed the martial activity of the Ku Klux Klan with the necessary gloom and acuity (Conspirators, ca. 1930). These killers now appear again on the scene, limbs of corpses paving their way. In fact there is nothing whole in this landscape: a conglomerate of ruinous elements, the result of a devastation that time has revealed. But the protagonists themselves have lost their nether parts like figures in a game whose rules they cannot fathom. The seams of their hoods expose the overblown puppets for what they are: the seams show that it is the women in the background who have sustained the masquerade with their handiwork.

"Herein lay Guston's new possibility of coping with everyday violence and terror - by exposing them to ridicule. This could only ensue from an equal portion of brute force and the pseudo-gay, as it has been put to the test here in all deliberateness. The artist did not hesitate to include a bit of self-criticism - in the form of a swollen hand that points to the only intact object, an abstract picture. The sun is also not missing, the sun that later in Spleen becomes a trauma. Here it is, together with the pink clouds, an ingredient that lends the scene's gay cynicism the last bit of spice.

"Dore Ashton has worked out how the grotesque was inscribed in Guston's late work, namely, as an expression of his split consciousness vis-a-vis the everyday, political terror and his very real powerlessness as an artist. Kayser, in his book on the grotesque, writes., "The grotesque world is our world - and is not. Horror mixed with smiles has its basis in the experience that our familiar world, seemingly moored in a fixed order turns topsy-turvy, its order nullified." This seems to have been Guston's basic mood these last ten years. The massive irruption of those hooded figures into his new picture-world speaks a clear language. Whether they gang up before the gates to the city, ride through the neighborhood in open cars, or after a day of work - dismembered bodies piled up in the background as trophies - hold a palaver, their presence seem ubiquitous, almost normal. This is what makes such paintings and drawings so uncanny, that the evil arrives with the greatest matter-of-factness and, as such, seems to be an outright synonym of middle-class citizenry.

"The awareness of his own powerlessness led Guston to put himself into the role of the pursuer. We are suddenly confronted with the hooded man in the studio, holding the unavoidable cigarette in the right, plying the paintbrush with the right. "The idea of evil fascinated me... " Guston said. "I almost tried to imagine I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot?"

"In the last years this grotesque-comic side in his work was to recede more and more, while his dark pessimism about the state of the world grew. This is the period of apocalyptic fantasies like Yellow Light, 1975, or the three versions of a flood (e.g., Deluge II, 1975), from which there is no escape. He recognized his own alter ego in Goya's darkest engraving [sic]: it shows a dog trying in vain to climb a hill while he is being relentlessly buried under sand. (Un perro, 1820-21, Prado, Madrid).

"It is significant that in Guston's late works there is as good as no complete body to be seen, including his self-portraits. Anatomy is reduced to the head. In view of a world out of joint, his feeling of being imprisoned in the role of spectator must have taken over his consciousness more and more. And when some part of the body other than a head damned to watch and suffer appeared, It was no less dismembered. The paintings Feet on Rug, 1978, and Ravine, 1979, among the most agitating of his last years, show just such mutilation. The one shows two foot stumps, motionless on a rug specially made for them, before an empty horizon. The other is a ravine into which beetles make their way over what is, in reality, the anatomy between head and shoulder transformed into a topographical formation. These are documents of desolation that have yet found a unique form, testimony to an artist who is painting against his own downfall.

"If we look back on the themes of the last decade, it becomes more than clear why Guston had to take the decision to restrict his own artistic resources; why, at the height of his mastery, he had to go back a step so as to capture on canvas what concerned him in the world."

- From "Philip Guston: Paintings 1947-1979"

Further reading on Philip Guston:

  Philip Guston Images
1952 To B.W.T.
1953-54 Zone
1956-57 The Clock
1969 City Limits
1969 Outskirts
1969 The Studio
1970 A Day's Work
1973 Painting, Smoking, Eating
1975 Head
1975 Deluge II
1976 Ancient Wall
1976 Green Rug
1976 The Pit
1976 Room
1977 Curtain
1977 Sleeping
1979 Entrance
1979 Talking

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