If a century and a half of avant-garde art has taught us anything, it is that transgression comes with a time stamp. Stylistic innovations that once repelled grow pretty (Monet), subjects that scandalized get dismissed with a shrug (Manet). Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold may have looked like a pot of paint flung in the public’s face, as John Ruskin griped in 1877, but by 1905, when Camille Mauclair lodged the same complaint against the Fauves, Whistler seemed a model of gentility.
So how is it that Philip Guston, dead these forty years, is still pushing our buttons? Until a few months ago, he seemed to conform to the anticipated arc—early show of talent, challenging departure from status quo, posthumous popularity. An eminent Abstract Expressionist, he had flummoxed the art world in 1970 with a late-career tack into figuration, nudging paint into the shapes of bottles and bricks and comical, conical white hoods with oversized hands and the creepy softness of the Pillsbury Doughboy. Between lovely painterly passages, the patched and dowdy hoods smoked cigars, drove around town, worked at easels, and beat themselves up, in both senses. When first exhibited at Marlborough Gallery in New York, these paintings were so unprecedented people found it hard to describe them, never mind make sense of them. “It’s as if De Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart,” the Village Voice critic John Perrault wrote in one of the few conciliatory reviews, adding, “It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things.”
And they did, publicly and privately. Guston retreated to his home and studio in Woodstock, New York, returned to teaching, and spent his last, enormously productive decade churning out mad, masterful, largely unsalable paintings of people and things behaving badly. He died in 1980, just as his odd storytelling began to look less like an embarrassment and more like liberation.
Today those late, querulous paintings are counted among the most influential American artworks of the twentieth century. The artist, critic, and curator Robert Storr describes the “revelation” of seeing Guston reproductions as a graduate student during the aesthetic asperity of the 1970s: “They found the cracks in my secondhand ideas about art…and flooded my porous imagination.” Often tagged a “painter’s painter” (a way of saying he is more cherished in the studio than in the sales room), Guston is also a writer’s painter and has inspired a wealth of thoughtful criticism and personal accounts. Night Studio (1983) by his daughter, Musa Mayer, and Guston in Time (2003) by Ross Feld should be required reading for any aspiring memoirist in the orbit of a self-consciously great artist. Poets cherished him; Philip Roth dedicated Zuckerman Unbound to him.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Marlborough show has brought a fresh bounty of research: an online catalogue raisonné, a portable paperback survey by Mayer (to be published in February), Storr’s monumental Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting (eight flab-free pounds), and the multi-author catalog of the sweeping “Philip Guston Now” retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Art with Tate Modern, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Stretching the full length of Guston’s career and sporting dozens of rarely seen works, the “Philip Guston Now” exhibition should have been a victory lap. But its June 2020 opening was delayed because of Covid-19, and then in late September the museum directors announced they were shelving it “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” They planned to “rebuild the retrospective” and “present a reconsidered Guston exhibition in 2024.” Their statement did not mention Black Lives Matter or the Ku Klux Klan, but its fuzzy PR-speak had the whiff of political panic, and they soon confirmed that the problem lay with two dozen pictures that included, or could be thought to include, white hoods.
The art world was stunned. To change “Philip Guston Now” to “Philip Guston Sometime Later” was one thing, but a four-year “rebuilding” sounded like a gut rehab. Storr, Mayer (who had been closely involved in the show’s development), and the Tate curator Mark Godfrey swiftly posted objections. An open letter in The Brooklyn Rail demanding the show’s reinstatement was signed by an intergenerational, interracial array of artists, critics, curators, and dealers. The museum directors were accused of cowardice (opinion divided as to whether the nightmare they feared was BLM protests or boogaloo bois selfies), of condescending to the public, and of scapegoating the Guston show to distract from their own failures to diversify their collections, professional staff, and social circles.
Each side accused the other of insufficient wokeness: “Rarely has there been a better illustration of ‘white’ culpability,” averred the Brooklyn Rail letter, while the National Gallery director Kaywin Feldman (who inherited the show when she took over in 2019) asserted that “Guston appropriated images of Black trauma” and likened the show’s supporters to conservatives kicking up a fuss over Yale’s expansion of non-Western art history options: “It’s that fear of this changing moment.” The Tate’s leadership passed the buck back across the Atlantic, explaining that they were acceding to American concerns, and stated, “Tate does not self-censor,” then suspended Godfrey, apparently for having gone public with his concerns. The curator and former Venice Biennale director Francesco Bonami, noting that the directors’ decision might prompt the general public to think the art was actually racist, said, “If I were in the Guston Foundation’s shoes, I would have sued the four museums for defamation.”
Then, in November, the museums announced a new opening date, two years earlier, in 2022, though denied it was a response to the backlash.1 It now appears the show will proceed without dramatic changes to its contents. A signatory to the Brooklyn Rail letter, the artist-gallerist David Dixon, floated the idea that what looked like tone-deaf flip-flopping might be strategic brilliance:
By closing the Guston show before opening due to the Klan imagery, the outcry is now focused on the censorship, whereas if they had just opened normally, there surely would have been public criticism of the Klan imagery, itself. Hence, this retraction and reaction now completed, they can re-schedule and open the show ASAP with a public prepped, more grateful and now attentive to the subtleties and nuance of Guston’s use of the potentially incendiary content.
In the meantime, as a result of the brouhaha, “Philip Guston Now” has been cast as an “anti-racist exhibition” and Guston’s oeuvre framed as an instrument of directed political action. The museums have promised to present Guston’s “powerful message of social and racial justice” so it can be “clearly interpreted,” and those urging reinstatement have often done so on the grounds of Guston’s relevance to our current, belated racial reckoning. It is, however, hard to read—or even leaf through—these books without wondering whether “racial and social justice” is the best yardstick for this restless and relentlessly curious body of work, and whether its clear interpretation is either feasible or desirable.
Guston’s biography provides ample proof of his political convictions—his loathing of the Klan, of Richard Nixon, of violence against the powerless. It also leaves no doubt as to his Ozymandian artistic ambitions, which had a drive and logic of their own. Yoking the ambitions to the convictions was, he found, insipid: “What bores me,” he said in 1974, “is to see an illustration of my thought…. I want to make something I never saw before and be changed by it. So that I go in the studio and I see these things up and I think, Jesus, did I do that? What a strange thing.”
This comment was made late in his life, when his studio was filled with strange things. Fortunately, three of the new books—Philip Guston Now, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting, and Philip Guston—explore Guston’s lesser-known early career, when his desires to better the world, to master painting, and to make things strange were in open competition. Philip Guston Now leads off with a pair of almost preternaturally assured works from 1930, when Guston was just seventeen. Like the showpiece of an apprentice seeking admission to the guild, his Mother and Child seems calculated to show off his gifts as a draftsman, his understanding of color and composition, and his aspirations—a subject purloined from the Renaissance, monumentalized figures from Picasso, and a somnolent urban stage set from de Chirico. Drawing for Conspirators uses a similar composition, but the central figure is swathed in KKK robes, the clambering infant is now a length of heavy rope, and the distant lamppost has been replaced by a lynching tree and hanging body.
Along with two lost paintings (one destroyed in 1933 by the Los Angeles Police Department’s anticommunist Red Squad), Drawing for Conspirators has been adduced as proof of the young Guston’s ethical bona fides—a muscular, unambiguous counterweight to the later sad-sack dumpling hoods. Its explicit depiction of the murder of a Black man, however, was a big reason the museums flinched. In the exhibition catalog, which includes essays from ten contemporary artists, Glenn Ligon considers the drawing as an exposition of the ugly bedrock of American violence, while Trenton Doyle Hancock (who has used comic-strip Klansmen in his own work) takes note of the Kluxer’s unexpectedly mournful slump, the eyeholes that suggest “the limited consciousness of a catfish,” and the mood of “quiet unease” in the aftermath of bloodlust. For Guston, a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles during the Klan’s heyday, the hood represented both a symbolic racist menace and the anti-Semitic terrorists around the corner. Far from a straightforward piece of agitprop, Drawing for Conspirators is an ingenious concatenation of Christian iconography, current events, modernist moodiness, and childhood dread.
The youngest child of immigrants from Odessa, Guston (né Goldstein) was ten when his junkman father committed suicide. His attentive mother, noting his penchant for drawing, signed him up for a correspondence course in cartooning. He didn’t stick the course, but published cartoons in the “Junior Times” section of the Los Angeles Times from the age of thirteen. At Manual Arts High School, he was exposed to European modern art and buddied up with Jackson Pollock. At the nearby Otis Art Institute he met his future wife, Musa McKim, and left after just a few months. But Guston was a prodigy and could find the masters he needed in library books and on gallery walls—Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Picasso, de Chirico.
His sense of political urgency and his love of quattrocento frescos came together in mural painting. Having met the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in California, Guston and two friends secured a commission for a large mural in Morelia, Mexico: an explosive depiction of victimization from the Inquisition to the Klan, it took six months to paint.2 He then moved to New York City at Pollock’s urging, changed his name to Guston (apparently a preemptive attempt to please Musa’s parents), and found work with the WPA’s Federal Art Project, producing cunningly composed, illustrative friezes for public housing and post offices. The WPA Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair was crowned with Guston’s big-boned American workers wielding microscope and jackhammer.
He was at the heart of the New York art world, which was increasingly the global art world in exile. In 1941, however, Guston and Musa decamped to the Midwest, where he took teaching positions in Iowa and then at Washington University in St. Louis. In his art, the cloudless public-service pitch of commissioned murals gave way to painterly reverie. Martial Memory (1941) and If This Be Not I (1945) show children (including his daughter Musa as a toddler) masked and crowned with paper, armed with trashcan-lid shields and tea-kettle helmets, in pageants of enigmatic desolation. The example of Max Beckmann provided new tips in the use of props—a cigarette, a trumpet—as portents. In the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Guston formulated elegiac allegories that were earnest and adept, a titch clever, and perfectly suited to their moment. In 1945 he won first prize for painting at the Carnegie Institute, in 1946 he was profiled by Life magazine, in 1947 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1948 he won the Prix de Rome. At thirty-five he was one of the prominent painters of his generation, but, Storr writes, “he balked.”
A spread in Philip Guston Now captures the mechanics of that balk in three images: a 1947 drawing packed with masks, crowns, bits of architecture and faces; a second drawing in which particulars have been swept away, leaving vestigial triangles and dotted arcs; and a painting, The Tormentors, whose slabs of black and red are laced with spidery lines and rivet-like spots—a battleship built by crazy-quilters. In Italy on the Prix de Rome, he traveled, studied Piero and Tiepolo, and drew everywhere. His marks bunched up in quavering confederations and eventually left their subject matter behind. The trouble with figurative art, he concluded, was that it “vanishes into recognition.” Remove the recognizable and you can begin to see the push and pull of impulse, recanting, and reconfiguration that constitute painting and, by extension, life itself.
By 1950 he was back in New York, making paintings in which brushstrokes moved together and apart, as erratic and coordinated as a murmuration of swallows. While many Abstract Expressionist canvases thrust and exhorted, Guston’s floated and scintillated. “Color,” wrote Leo Steinberg of a 1952 painting, “has the weight of hushed odors.” Storr is particularly helpful on these paintings, describing their formal development in terms poetic (“as with any abrupt dissolution of solid matter, the dust remained”) and pragmatic (reminding us of the ruinous cost of free-form experimentalism with oil paints), and placing them in the context of contemporary thought. Like everyone, Guston read Sartre, and he thought of painting as a struggle to discover something real, undistorted by dumb desire or imitation. (“I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through. Human consciousness moves, but it is not a leap; it is one inch.”) But the bleakness of existentialism was leavened for Guston by John Cage’s Zen-inspired pursuit of methods that accepted rather than directed. For Guston, this meant an openness to being both guided and obstructed by materials: “The great thing about painting and drawing, as opposed to thinking about it, is the resistance of matter.” Cage was a friend, but it was his colleague and fellow traveler Morton Feldman who became Guston’s critical touchstone. They shared an instinct for clustering and asymmetrical balance, a desire for an art “in which there existed almost nothing,” and a fascination with transposing parts until their relationships hovered at the edges of perception.
Guston’s star rose again—he was picked for the second Documenta exhibition in Kassel in 1959, the Venice Biennale in 1960, and a one-man retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962. The paintings, however, were changing: brushstrokes clumped together, color got louder and then disappeared. The push-pull of form began to look less like swallows flocking than like boys fighting, and then like disembodied heads silhouetted in fog. By the mid-1960s, with his marriage in crisis and American aggression on the rise at home and abroad, Guston was questioning the sense of “going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”
He stopped painting, removed himself from the epicenter (this time to Florida), and drew. He made “pure drawings” that tested the weight and tension of just one or two lines. And some days he would let those lines off the leash to do as they liked, and found they liked fetching things—a book, a shoe, a light bulb, a clock. By 1967 Guston had lost faith, Storr writes, “in the wonderfully disembodied, unencumbered formal language” of abstraction. When he returned to painting, he was excitedly encumbered.
In Philip Guston Now, William Kentridge pays homage to “the first miraculous three years” when Guston took “all the lessons of the abstract expressionists and [brought] them back into the studio, dragging the world behind him.” Guston brought other lessons as well—George Herriman’s busy-body line from Krazy Kat, Piero’s taut space, Beckmann’s gravid props. As a seventeen-year-old, he had aimed at a seamless fusion of borrowed parts; now he sutured them into a seamed and scarred monster that was, like Mary Shelley’s, roiled by anger, grief, and confusion, and like Hollywood’s, unapologetically hokey.
If it is hard for us now to understand the sense of grievance provoked by these paintings in 1970, it is because we tend to think of abstraction as an aesthetic choice rather than a moral one. Just eight years earlier, though, Guston himself had joined other abstract painters in quitting Sidney Janis Gallery to protest Janis’s groundbreaking exhibition of “factual paintings and sculpture”—soon dubbed Pop Art. To artists who had spent decades struggling to wrest something that felt “true” from obdurate matter and from a canon based in illusion, Pop’s leveraging of prefab source material seemed lazy, and its popular accessibility suspect. By these lights, Guston’s blobby cars and daft villains looked like cynical slumming, no matter how nice the brushwork.
He had endured critical drubbings before, but this was of a different order. A spiteful attack from the revanchist critic Hilton Kramer could, eventually, be laughed off (“Jesus, what if he had liked it, then I would have really been in trouble”), but even close friends saw the conflation of paint, politics, and slapstick as a betrayal of principle. Morton Feldman never spoke to him again.
There had, however, been earlier signs of apostasy. As far back as 1960 Guston had grumbled about the dogma of “pure” abstraction and its proscription of visual intimations of experiences not physically present on the canvas:
There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself…. But painting is “impure.” It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.
“Image-ridden” just about sums up the late work, in which paint seems to pile and stretch itself into subjects of its own choosing. More than once Guston likened painting’s uncanny agency to a golem. How else to explain the gangs of bent, pipe-cleaner legs that tie themselves in knots, dangle over walls, or turn their shod feet to the sky in a theatrical pushing up of daisies? Or the cycloptic bean with its furrowed brow, an unsubtle stand-in for the artist, multiplied and afloat on a wine-dark sea? Or the lightbulbs and clock faces—memento mori of the industrial age—hanging about in sullen rooms?
None of these things is happy, but Guston’s delight in them is inescapable—his cartoonist’s pride in capturing the body language of a stubborn boot, his punning riffs on shapes. The piled legs recall genocides, and also, Art Spiegelman reminds us, the “plop take” when a cartoon character jumps or is pushed out of the frame, leaving only the lower legs in the picture. Pleasure and shame share the same visual tricks. It’s a short step, it turns out, from a paintbrush to a cat-o’-nine-tails.
“Omnivorous, narcissistic, brilliant, sometimes verbally fluent to the point of glibness and flattery, horridly lonely, someone for whom nothing was enough and too much at the same swamping moment” is how Ross Feld described his friend. But of all the surviving Abstract Expressionists, only Guston, Storr points out, turned a mirror on the persona of the artist, in all its hard-drinking, hard-painting, self-destructive grandiosity.3
Bad habits litter the paintings—empty bottles, persistent cigarettes, the compulsion to take up all the space in the room. In several paintings Guston lays his bean head down beside a half-dome of parted hair, his metonym for his wife. In some images the hair-head is bedraggled and lost (the images made after her 1977 stroke are especially searing), and in others she rises from the sea like Eos lighting the world. Mayer gives a sensitive account of this marriage in Night Studio—its choreography of intermittent callousness (him), unwavering reticence (her), and devotion (both, in their own ways).
What redeemed him, for later generations, was self-awareness. Peter Fischli of Fischli and Weiss, best known to American audiences for the Rube-Goldberg-meets-conceptual-art film The Ways Things Go (1987), admits that all that carrying-on about painterly struggle had seemed “a bit ridiculous to us.” In Philip Guston Now he writes about a lithograph he bought, in which a cloud of fists and trash-can lids hovers over a low horizon. It’s a playground punch-up in heaven, a picture of purity sullied. “This is so great,” he concludes.
In Pit (1976) Guston’s cycloptic bean lies at the bottom of a hole bristling with legs; a ladder leads up, but the eye faces down. The pit may be a mass grave and it may be a joke, reckoning with existential dread while mocking the chest-beating self-importance of existential dread. In The Line (1978) a veiny hand reaches down from the clouds to mark the earth—God as artist (or vice versa)—but the style, Mark Godfrey notes, is “more Monty Python than Michelangelo,” and the line might be the liberating one of Harold and the Purple Crayon or the constricting one of William Blake’s compass-wielding Urizen in Ancient of Days. Tragedy, metaphysical truth, the transcendent solipsism of the studio—all the sustaining claims of high art are set up and knocked down like bowling pins, only to be set back up so the game can be played again.
Each of the new publications proceeds at a different pace. At just 120 densely illustrated pages, Mayer’s Philip Guston is an expertly informed speedboat. Storr’s book by contrast is an ocean liner providing for your every need: the text is thorough, insightful, and graceful; the inclusion of two full talks by Guston is a boon; the reproductions are lavish. The distinctive virtue of Philip Guston Now lies in its plenitude of voices—four curators, ten artists—each teasing a different hair of the shaggy dog Guston left behind. Some, like Godfrey’s “Jewish Image-Maker,” provide a new means of looking at familiar work, others bear personal witness. Both of the larger books include outstandingly useful timelines at the back.
And what about those hoods?
Storr and Mayer use the term “metamorphic” to describe the persistent mutability of Guston’s late phase, and even the hoods failed to stay put after their star turn in the Marlborough paintings. The Hauser and Wirth exhibition “Resilience” and its catalog, by Mayer, looked at his output in 1971. In Italy, he painted bricks and spolia, cartoon fountains and lollipop trees, and even the few hoods that appear are shown in mellow red, their threat dialed down by hue.
Returning to America, his political rage erupted in a different direction with a run of anomalous ink drawings, collectively titled Poor Richard, in which a scrotum-faced Nixon goes adventuring with Spiro Agnew (a nosed hood) and Henry Kissinger (a pair of clunky glasses). The National Gallery has now published Poor Richard in a natty, gift-book-sized paperback, demonstrating that putting out a book in which the thirty-seventh president of the United States is shown inserting his penis-nose into the hood-hole of his vice-president causes less institutional worry today than exhibiting bemused hoods riding around in cars. While the Nixon drawings are, Chris Ware noted, “genuinely weird” in their hilarious, hallucinogenic spleen,4 they are also clear: we know who the players are, we know what Guston thinks of them, and we know they are not us. We are off the hook.
The hoods are not so easily sequestered. Like the cigarettes and bottles, like the eye that looks insatiably but never grows a hand to fix what it sees, the hood signals a history of poor decisions and ineffectual resolutions that may or may not include mob violence. It is the kind of bad that can find a home beneath all kinds of headgear. This is why it is hard to shoehorn these paintings into a critique of institutionalized racism: Guston just doesn’t seem very interested in collective guilt.
His 1978 comment “I perceive myself as being behind a hood” has been repeated a lot lately, usually as evidence of his awareness of his own complicity in a system that benefits white people. That he despised racism is, again, well documented. But with regard to the hoods, he went on to explain how in the late 1960s he found he could use the bogeyman of his childhood as an imaginative prompt: “What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot. Then I started conceiving an imaginary city being overtaken by the Klan. I was like a movie director. I couldn’t wait.”
This is the discomfort zone in which “Philip Guston Now” got trapped: the littoral where one person’s history and another person’s metaphor overlap. If this pushes our buttons, it should—not because one is right and the other is wrong, but because sometimes both are right.
“I had no illusions that I could ever influence anybody politically,” Guston told students. “That would be silly. I mean, this is not the medium.” Painting is, however, the medium of doubling and shape-shifting. That is, after all, what art does: Moby-Dick is, and is not, about cetaceans.
In one quietly poignant late painting, Guston dispensed with the dismembered body parts, booze, and whips. The only thing sitting on the red ground is a small, dumpy tea kettle, exuding a wriggling vapor trail into the black sky. It could be an image of whistling in the dark, if it had a whistle, which it doesn’t. It’s not that kind of kettle. Instead, it is just steaming in the dark, alerting no one, throwing its funny evanescent swirl into the air, a random force with untold consequences.
Harry Cooper, the lead curator of “Philip Guston Now,” writes that Guston “distrusted the symbol,” which is to say, the idea of a stable link between image and interpretation. With luck, the exhibition will live up to its intelligent and beautifully produced catalog. If so, viewers may come away not with a “clear interpretation” or with a sense of righteousness affirmed, but with something like the dizzy exultation Guston voiced in a 1978 letter to Ross Feld: “We do not know what we thought we knew—Yes!”
According to Feldman, the 2024 date had been “pulled out of the air in haste.” The new schedule is: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May 1–September 11, 2022; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 23, 2022–January 15, 2023; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., February 26–August 27, 2023; Tate Modern, London, October 3, 2023–February 4, 2024. ↩
The two friends were Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner. The mural still exists. Long hidden by a false wall, it was rediscovered in 1973, but as Guston had signed it with his birth name, Phillip Goldstein, the connection to him was not recognized until the 2000s. ↩
The machismo of this persona has been widely discussed, but both men and women painters of the New York School bought into it. Storr acknowledges that “many of the bar-crawling core of the Abstract Expressionists were alcoholic womanizers” but also notes that “the handful of women who played this game back at them—notably Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, and, above all, Joan Mitchell—were just as ambitious, lusty, and tough-talking.” Without doubt, it took a lot more energy for women to claim a seat at that sticky bar table. But even while the women had to work harder, be better, and accept less in the way of acknowledgment, their values and aspirations were not dissimilar to those of their male counterparts. ↩