When Philip Guston changed his style from the delicate abstract impressionism he was known for to the raw, cartoon style he developed in the late 1960s, his audience was generally shocked and judgemental. But even at the time of his change, a few discerning people saw the transformation as more than the mere embrace of the demotic. In fact, de Kooning himself made the trenchant, accurate comment, “It’s about freedom.” Thus show at Hauser & Wirth excludes the political cartoons Guston was making during the same period about Richard Nixon, who had plunged the country deep into a genocidal war in Vietnam, concentrating instead on a more personal struggle. The paintings in the show, with their shoe soles, lids of garbage cans, and Klu Klux Klan hoods (a theme reprised from the early, politically oriented work Guston did in the 1940s), embrace a privately apocalyptic tenor that was equal parts a response to the spirit of the time and an expression, perhaps, of the start of aging–Guston was in his mid-fifties when he began painting so differently. Whatever the cause of the break between the old style and the new, the alteration was permanent–he would go on painting these coarse renditions of old and new themes until he died.
Today, with painters such as the Americans Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz, who pursue a rough-hewn style that reads the American social fabric in unembellished, nearly distraught terms, the late work of Guston comes across as utterly contemporary–despite the fact that two generations have occurred since Guston passed away. The show, judged cumulatively, presents a private apocalypse, in which the values of art are deliberately debased as a correlative to the pessimism Guston might well have been feeling on a social and personal level. The handling of the imagery is as rough as it can be–objects are rendered in a notably heavy fashion–the utter opposite of the delicate, light-filled abstraction for which Guston had been recognized. As emblems of a very tumultuous time, the paintings relay not so much a commentary about the Zeitgeist as an embodiment of a period marked by ongoing social change, One can paint with or against the time, and Guston made the decision to develop a way of working that reflected the age’s social extravagances: the fallout of the Vietnam War, the racial and gender struggles taking place, the psychedelic drugs that were a mainstay of expanding consciousness. While the paintings on show do not directly reflect these themes, they do offer Guston’s audience a sense of the nearly anarchic spirit animating the experimentation taking place.
This means, then, that the works we see present a double-sided view: one attending to the social upheavals occurring in the late 1960s and the 1970s, as well as personal complexities of a gifted painter coming to terms with the experience of the moment. One has to admire the abrupt transformation of Guston’s style, which oriented the viewer toward an unkempt reality manifesting itself in the raw pictures that still stun us with their transparent honesty. Rarely have we come across so disheveled an outlook, compounded by a cartoon style that turned his work into a proletarian tableau of subjects that were as ungainly as his style: a wall of foot soles, the lids of garbage cans massed together, a picture of a man in a Klu Klux Klan outfit in a studio. The allegorical implications of such work cannot be denied, yet it is hard to tell what the implications of so symbolic an approach might be. Maybe we can comment on the general atmosphere of the works on show, which evidence both an energetic force associated with life energies and the sense that we are at the end of the road. Tears (1977), could not be more autobiographical in implication; it is composed of a man in a bed, presumably Guston himself, with two huge black eyes surrounded by long eyelashes. Tears drip downward from the lids of his eyes onto a black blanket–and while there is not a hint of sentiment in the painting, the image itself embraces a melancholy that cannot be denied.
What are we to make of so crude a representation of emotion? Painted in the broadest terms possible, Tears shows the fundamental feeling of sadness in a memorable, if also an unrefined, image. By refusing to finesse the image, the picture becomes an expression of unmitigated sorrow, in a style that expands the emotion while at the same time coarsening it. The coarseness of the paintings is their key. It results in a democratizing effect, a point of view in keeping with the spirit of the time. At the same time, it enlarges the effect of the art, so that we look at the work, and its attendant rawness, in light of a monumentality we did not think such a style could develop. This is not a time of subtlety, nor was it a time of subtlety when Guston made these pictures. So across the gap of half a century, in America we seem to have come full circle. The period of Trump, frighteningly popular in America, and the consequences of his aftermath loom large in American minds, and this show, in its deliberate vulgarity but also its honesty of intent, matches our time now very well. So when we see the uncouth design of Guston’s work, it becomes both a sign of the times and a transparent outpouring of something close to grief. While the ties between the two are not immediately available in the work, it is clear that the style itself is a referent closing the gap between events that bordered on the revolutionary and a personal view whose darkness was openly evident.
Two paintings, ostensibly of Guston in bed, emphasize the personal nature of the project he took on during this period. In Pittore (1973), we see him in bed, his head on the left and with a cigarette in his mouth. A blanket with folds covers his body up to his neck; a large clock looms in the background, its arrow set at 11. Underneath the bed is a set of art paraphernalia: what looks like a stick of charcoal and several colored pigments. To the bottom right is the word “pittore,” or painter. It would seemingly be a scene or repose, but the eye is open. What does the clock mean? Is it a comment on encroaching time? This seemingly simple painting brings up many questions. In it Guston announces his vocation, but the clock keeps ticking away, making him and us aware of mortality. He is in bed but awake and smoking–activities placing him in the realm of the living, not in the land of the dead. By and large it is a picture of self-assertion despite the implications of time. In Sleeping (1977), we see a man, again presumably Guston, with tousled, graying hair beneath a rumpled red blanket, wearing the thick-soled shoes that became a trademark of late style. We only see his ear and the upper part of his face, his left eye closed in rest. It is a portrait of genuine repose, lyric in its gentle treatment of sleep. This is likely one of the most accessible, least symbolic works in the show.
Back View II (1978) is a collection of shields, painted mostly in red and pink. The shields, looking a lot like the covers of garbage cans, are massed together in tight defense. The hands are visible, as is the black top of the head at the high point of the imagery. For an American at this time, the first association might be that of a police group coming together to advance against violent demonstrators. Or, concurrently, it might be a symbol of a person’s defenses: a wall defending someone from psychological attack. This double interpretation is an inevitable result of Guston’s method, namely, the allegorical use of a broad imagery that can support several readings. The use of symbolism, or multiple implications, in contemporary art can be fraught with confusion and doubt. Because we need to remain open to various suggestions in these paintings, their strengths proceed indirectly rather than by clear definition. Moreover, in this work, Guston himself holds the key to the paintings’ meaning, which places us in the weakened role of guessing at their significance. Actually, symbolism has been problematic in its general clarification since the loss of shared cultural or religious values. We no longer agree on what anything means. As a result, our agreement is undermined as to the value of what we see. In the case of these paintings; oblique implication wins over direct statement. The paintings are meant to be read as allegories of a man entering later middle life, but his seeming discomfort is expressed indirectly, The clock in Back View II invests the image of the man sleeping with the import of a limited life. Thus, simple objects take on meanings of note in Guston’s art.
The complexities of Guson’s apparent double stance in this body work act as a warning: we are meant to confront the burden of a culture seriously amiss in its public policies, as well as the unspoken trials and tribulations of an artist entering the later part of his life. What can be done in the face of both a private and public responsibility that demands intelligence and depth in its response. We know from Pittore that the vocation of the artist is an activity of note–Guston, who adored Piero della Francesca, uses the Italian word as a link to the high occupation of being an artist. Perhaps the act of painting is enough, by itself, to offset the difficulties of contemporary life, although in America, with the democratization of art, the numbers of art practitioners are great enough to obscure the profession. In any case, the pursuit of art itself seems to be both a practice and a metaphor for Guston, who, we remember, moved out of a perfectly accepted style, in alignment with the major ab-ex painters who proceeded him, for a manner of working that deliberately distanced his audience from the comfort of beauty. It is important to talk about beauty here because Guston’s earlier style embraced it, only to reject it for an honesty that matched the violence of the time. The delicacy of his abstract work was based on a refinement of marks placed centrally in the on the extended expanse of white paper. The work occurred in striking extinction to the bold, sometimes flamboyant art of the first generation of lyrical abstract painters. But the upheaval in style that began in the late 1960s became an opening, a window, for a way of looking at experience that matched its dark undertow. As I have written, painters today are looking at Guston as a harbinger of a directness that eschewed subtlety in favor of an honest confrontation with events and the self.
In light of such a change, the activity of painting, no matter how dislocated or vulgar, presents itself as a way out of confusion and even despair. We are living in a time, at least in America, of hyperpoliticization, in which there is only one correct answer for any social position taken. Yet the act of art, increasingly democratized, becomes more and more important as a way of offering resistance to the increasing sameness of life all over the world. There are problems with such an outlook–fine art has become fetishized, and if we go to the art fairs, with their scores and scores of booths, we don’t find much to admire. It looks like we have exhausted the styles that have come to mean so much to us, pushing us into the direction of identity art, in which the attributes of the practitioner take precedent over the work. This is problematic in the sense that art thus becomes entirely a projection of personal experience, at the expense of the painting being made. In The Studio (1969), Guston offers what must be a self-portrait, in which he is dressed in full Klu Klux Klan regalia, smoking a cigarette while he paints a picture of himself in a reddish-pink studio. At the forefront of the painting, we see a large can filled with brushes and a bright red palette. A clock is visible, along with a window opening up to blue sky, a green shade hanging over it. The scene may be a current view of Guston’s state of mind, but it is also a deliberate quotation from his work of decades ago, when the Klan was a genuine racist presence in the society.
The scene might well be a typical representation of an artist working in his studio–if it were not for the hooded uniform the figure wears. This uniform deliberately dates the piece to a time when racism was rampant. In light of our time now, though, concerns are disturbingly similar. American racism simply will not go away and needs to be confronted. Guston’s use of the Klu Klux Klan suit is slightly strange in that we assume that the person painting is the artist himself. Why would he engage in so provocative an image? There may be two reasons: first, in doing so, Guston brings the difficulties of racism into contemporary life–a fact surely noticed by the followers of the “Black Lives Matter” movement active so recently here–and he also includes himself as part of the problem, asking that his viewers also, like him, take responsibility for an intractable prejudicial attitude. And yet, when all is said and done, what we have is a person working as a painter, painting a self-portrait, one of the most venerable genres in the field of art. So this is art about art, but without being self-enclosed in that its themes also include outward social concerns. If Guston is emphasizing painting as a primary activity, he is also addressing mores that remain deeply problematic and strike into the core of American life. For this reason, it is probable that his late work is so popular again. We are not seeking a time of esthetic transcendence; instead, we are intent on establishing a democratized culture, in which the suffering of the poor and minorities are elevated as themes.
There is not much that can be done to transform Guston’s show into anything beautiful or visionary. He presents experience as it happens to most of us–as raw and random, leaving us in the grips of forces beyond our control. Nothing can be done to fix our experience, and not enough is being done to eradicate prejudice. Guston makes it clear that our preoccupations are both personal and public, and that there is a strong connection between the two. His paintings offer little solace, preferring instead to communicate a difficult realism meant to underscore the harsh realism that underlies our time. There doesn’t seem to be much of an answer helping us move beyond our conundrum–things remain the same, and Guston emphasizes the harsh and the difficult. It looks like the only way out of our predicament is the pursuit of art, no matter how unreasonable the results may be. But that is the point: we are living in unreasonable times. Thus, Guston’s troubling but deeply honest treatment of living, his life and the life of American society, stands out for its straightforward approach to things we probably don’t wish to acknowledge: aging, social struggle, even the lowering of style into something crude and common. Given that Guston was capable of painting in the most delicate manner, we cannot say it was a lack of skill that compelled the style of these works. Instead, it was a deliberate choice, meant to shock the esthetes who wanted him to continue offering something close to decorative art. Finally, it is a question of honesty–and this is what the current generation of artists and viewers want. Without it, art becomes moribund, a vapid exercise in artificial esthetics. But Guston had the courage to face the realities of his life as they were, not so very long ago. It makes sense then, that today we would take a strong interest again in a painter who refused to embellish the truths as he knew them, no matter how uncomfortable they would make us.