Guston retrospective shows artist exploring human condition
Philip Guston occupies an interesting space in the 20th-century American art landscape. He was an outsider who at times was “in,” at least until he was not. But he was not an outsider in the sense of naive or folk artists. Guston was critically acclaimed until he wasn’t. But through it all, Guston continued to produce work under his terms.
“Philip Guston Now,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Jan. 16, is a fascinating overview of this singular artist’s career, as he moved from Surrealist-inspired imagery to Abstract Expressionism and back to the figurative works that marked his late career.
Most importantly, Guston was a man who sought to capture the moment, to be, as the exhibition implies, in the “now.” As such, he was always developing different styles, pushing the boundaries of art and the human experience.
The son of Jewish immigrants who escaped the central European pogroms at the beginning of the 20th century and made their way first to Montreal, Canada and then Los Angeles, young Philip Goldstein was largely self-taught. His father committed suicide in 1923 (he was found by his young son), and Philip found refuge in drawing and cartooning, drawing inspiration from books on the Italian Renaissance and Mexican Muralism.
“Mother and Child,” from 1930, which shows the influence of Michelangelo and the Surrealist Georgio de Chirico, was painted when the artist was only 17. The painting is clearly echoing the two artists, with de Chirico’s sparse walls and forced perspective, combined with Michelangelo’s muscular, sculptural figures.
Guston’s politics were shaped by the LAPD’s “Red Squad,” a unit that gathered intelligence on political and social activist groups, and by the strong Ku Klux Klan presence in L.A. (in the 1920s the Anaheim City Council was said to have comprised almost entirely Klan members). “Drawing for Congressman” shows a Klansman with a rope (this was after Scottsboro). It is a wonderful drawing and a detailed picture. Guston’s early work consistently rejected racism and anti-Semitism.
In 1936, with his name changed from Goldstein to Guston, he moved to New York. He supported himself by painting murals for the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era program designed to support artists.
Guston painted “Gladiators,” in 1940, as he embraced American Modernism. The image is dynamic depiction of masked children fighting with weapons, including a trash-can lid shield. Guston is commenting on the folly of war.
In 1945, Guston painted “If This Be Not I.” With the war coming to an end and the atrocities of the Holocaust becoming known, Guston gives us a marvelous image painted like a theater scene, with the “actors” posed against a background. They are all children, either masked or with their faces obscured, a representation of the willful blindness of the world to the Holocaust. One child in the middle is unmasked and wears a crown. This is a representation of his daughter, Musa. She is witnessing what she doesn’t understand, symbolizing the sheer magnitude of the Nazi’s evil that was beyond comprehension. Maybe she is the promise of a better future.
In 1947, Guston painted “Porch II,” a transition to abstraction. When he returned to New York from Iowa, he saw that he was out of place, no longer of “the moment” and destroyed much of his existing work.
In 1950, he switched his style to abstraction and became a leading figure in the New York Abstract Expressionist movement. His thick brushstrokes and vivacious colors are lively and playful. The pastel-colored abstracts of the 1950s echo Monet’s Giverny Impressionist nature paintings.
By the mid-1960s, Guston allowed representation to creep back into his paintings, to the dismay of critics who accused him of betraying abstarction. In 1964, he painted several grey paintings that were shown at the Jewish Museum. “Head” is one of the exhibition’s three predominantly gray paintings with black blocks. In “Head,” we get the slightest hint of an eye and a mouth. The paint does not go all the way to the edge of the canvas. Does he feel that abstraction is shrinking in on him, narrowing his art?
In 1968, Guston produced a series of drawings, exploring the relationships of charcoal lines. “Book and Charcoal Sticks” is a rudimentary drawing, almost childlike. And yet it is also abstract without the title to guide us. These simple drawings are a fascinating collection that allow us to see the creative thought process at its most raw.
By the late 1960s, Guston returned to representational painting, incorporating bright colors but also drawing on the cartoon of his youth, especially George Herriman, the creator of “Krazy Kat” (R. Crum was also a fan of Herriman and the distorted figures in Guston and Crum have similarities).
The old Klan imagery returns. Guston started to paint himself in the works, and “The Studio” shows the artist in a Klan hood, painting a self-portrait. This is Guston saying we all have a latent potential for racism, and we must look at ourselves for tendencies for evil. He is not excusing himself from human foibles.
“The Studio” also features what will become a recurring motif; a large cartoonish hand, often holding a cigarette. Guston was a heavy drinker and smoker which contributed to poor health (he died in 1980 at age 67).
His later works feature dark subjects, but Guston always delights in the process of painting. Many of the works from his late period include a heavy use of pink, although Guston said he never used the color, but that it was a mixture cadmium red, white and shades of yellow.
Toward the end of his life, Guston worked in his Woodstock home, painting his own life, including his marriage and his failing health. “Couple in Bed” is a wonderful image, with both Guston and his wife, Musa, their heads deep in the covers, while his thin arm holds paintbrushes. There is an intimacy that is heartfelt. It shows Guston’s two most important relationships — with his wife and his art.
The beauty of “Philip Guston Now” is that there is so much to think about and in such breadth. The work is open to interpretation, but what is sure is that there is a keen mind at work, trying to make sense of a complex world. It is dark, it is strange, and it is sometimes funny. Guston’s work may be all things — it’s whatever we need “now.”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is located at 1001 Bissonnet in Houston. For more, visit mfah.org.
This story first ran in the Nov. 18, 2022, Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.