The Artful Dodger

Philip Guston was misunderstood—but why?

Click here to see a slide show of Philip Guston’s work.

I doubt that there’s another American artist who gets people riled up or discombobulated the way Philip Guston does. His detractors see his late grotesqueries, done in a cartoonish, Kilroy-was-here style, as the embodiment of countercultural desublimation. His admirers can’t seem to write about him without couching their enthusiasm in a defensive or condescending tone, as if they were spooked by the prospect of defending him. Even the curators of a wonderful new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have not made available for media reproduction Guston’s jarring late renditions of morally ambiguous, Klanlike figures.

Mother and Child, 1930

Why these emotionally complex responses to Guston? I think it’s that how one feels about this painter has to do with how one feels about his historical context: i.e., the era of the Vietnam War. During that time, the counterculture denigrated high art and sneered at the mandarin belief in art’s capacity to transcend its historical moment. That was when Guston, who was born in Montreal’s Jewish ghetto in 1913 and raised in Los Angeles, abandoned Abstract Expressionism’s high style and began to paint in a cartoonish idiom borrowed from popular culture. As a result, many people figured that Guston had jumped on what they considered a barbaric bandwagon. Not only was he a sellout, in their eyes, but he had forsaken his belief in art’s elevated power. But this judgment was neither considered nor accurate. It was a verdict of guilt by association.

Painting No. 9, 1952

Throughout the ‘50s, the Abstract Expressionists—Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, etc.—dominated the art world. It was during this time that Guston (who died in 1980) hit his stride with gentle, delicate Abstract Expressionist canvases, pictures whose subtle dabs of color rise out of a white background like whispers from silence. (Compare the refinement of Painting No. 9 to the outsized dramas of Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Franz Kline.) But by 1970, pop art had overthrown abstract painting with soup cans and Brillo Pads and American flags. And that year, Guston shocked the art world with his return to figuration in what came to be called his “infamous” Marlborough exhibition: Guston’s comic-book figures seemed to be in a direct line of descent from pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973

Before Guston, no other major abstract painter had returned to representational painting, much less to paintings like these. The new work represented figures wearing Klanlike hoods, but they were not really menacing or thuggish. A humble pathos hung from them; with their thick clumsy hands and encumbering hoods, they smoked stogies, drove around in dilapidated cars, and stared out of windows. They had mortality and futility written all over their concealed faces. Most disturbing of all to Guston’s Abstract Expressionist confreres, some them were even depicted in the act of … painting! Guston’s peers didn’t see the wry ironic pathos. In 1970, they saw what seemed like a fashionably relativistic comparison of the exalted figure of the artist with the debased figure of a hooded executioner. “Why We Are in Vietnam”—that kind of thing. Guston seemed to have crossed over to the Other Side: i.e., to the crude, drug-addled apostles of transcendence downward.

Bombardment, 1937-38

If not for Guston’s historical context, it’s likely that his crowd would have seen how complex and aesthetically refined his seeming crudities actually were. As Guston once wrote, his later work is a repudiation of the idea of pure art, of art itself, in fact. It attempts to get beyond culture’s appropriation of art to what art is before culture claims it: a raw, primal act of making, which is not art-making but a form of living, of self-understanding from a vantage point outside the self. Viewed in light of that sentiment, the shimmering early canvases don’t look so aesthetically detached; the subtle feather-touches of color that seem to emerge from the white background in Painting No. 9 are perhaps are not so refined and aloof at all. Perhaps, as with the Belgian painter James Ensor’s carnivallike figures and Fellini’s priapic clowns—each of which influenced Guston—the color is a kind of mask that attempts to conceal the voidlike nature of the white behind it. Perhaps this implication that beautiful abstraction hides essential meaning more than it reveals it is Guston’s comment on what he considered to be Abstract Expressionism’s disconnection from life’s primary experiences of loss, and suffering, and death.

Guston’s breakthrough painting If This Be Not I, painted in 1945, depicts masked figures in a surreal setting. Being a “not I,” achieving self-surrender, would become Guston’s chief aesthetic project; it was also a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on egoistic self-assertion. In order to arrive at this self-surrender, he needed an alter ego that he could treat as an object of examination, of self-satire. And so in the turbulent abstractions of the 1960s, Guston’s brushwork has become larger and looser, and black rectangular shapes begin to appear. The concealing nuances of color in the earlier paintings now seem to be acquiring a positive value: They are not just masks that conceal, but nascent personas—entities in their own right.

Couple in Bed, 1977

Four years after Guston painted the last of this series, he made the first of his dark late paintings, executed in a deliberately antiromantic style that was at once a modestly mythic reply to the superficialities of Pop Art and a retort to the Abstract Expressionists’ grandiose myth-making. The first hooded, Klanlike figure appears in 1968, right around the time Guston met Philip Roth, who soon became a close friend. Roth himself was engaged in constructing in his novels a fictional persona named “Zuckerman,” onto whom he could project a self and examine it with detachment. It’s hardly a coincidence that Guston invented his alter ego at the same time.

But with his ambiguous Klan figures, Guston went way beyond Zuckerman.These weird hooded personas are unsparing sublimations of the executioner’s job into the artist’s essential obligation to escape his self: every hung picture the product of the painter’s self-hanging. At the same time, with their hints of violence, and unattached hands and legs and feet, and stark, forlorn atmosphere, these pictures captured the apocalyptic atmosphere of Vietnam-era America, its cities burning, its citizens protesting and rioting; Guston achieved this without the slightest compromising explicitness. He found a way to tell his own story and the story of his age without reference to himself or to his age. That is a very old form of the imagination.