In 1970 the New York Time’s critic, Hilton Kramer spoke of artist Philip Guston, after his debut of new paintings as, “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.” Kramer was not alone in his harsh assessment of the painter’s apparent abandonment of abstract expressionism for a return to figuration. Guston’s work as one of the seminal abstract expressionists was poetic and painterly with soulful investigations of the painting surface. The new work that he was creating after moving from New York to Woodstock was still quite painterly, but now was filled with iconic, cartoonish imagery.
The success of Abstract Expressionism had been like a great release for the New York School of painters and their critics, as a palpable door opening in the path of art history and one that was definitively American. But praise of their innovation took on a sort of moral imperative with which Guston took issue. He famously said,
“There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’, which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.”
Kramer’s remarks were as cutting as a review could be, basically saying that Guston was attempting something duplicitous and not getting away with it, that he was shirking his responsibilities as an artist. The reaction confirms how much Guston’s former work had become part of this narrative of modern art. Though abstract art was thought to have freed itself from narrative subject matter, here you can see how abstract art itself was part of a story. Deviating from that story created unsettling doubt for many. Guston was interested in creating imagery that wasn’t immediately or easily recognizable—that settled into the consciousness by way of it’s own painted logic. Appreciation of his late work followed the same arc, gradually revealing uncommon adoration.
The McKee Gallery in New York is having an exhibition of Guston’s later work in celebration of what would be the artist being 100 years old. It was nice to have the arbitrary milestone of time to as the only thing contextualizing the paintings which seem to exist outside of any rational timeline. They play with one’s sense of time in fact, putting the viewer alongside the painter going at it in the studio late at night when the rest of the world has slipped away. Both new and old at once, both folky and urban; in every respect Guston’s paintings seem to shimmer with a satisfying contradiction.
The animated lines and hefty cartoon forms feel very simple and matter of fact yet they linger in my mind. Like a magic trick, every object rings the bell of recognition but when you try to put your finger on it the image morphs so slightly as to avoid being grasped. Everything is familiar but nothing is certain, as in the often-used representation of the Klansman hood that has been repurposed into some tragicomic character. Guston allows the cartoon impression of common objects to free them into dreaming things that still have the feeling of importance but with meaning that is just outside the bounds of language. In kind, the narratives follow the unspeakable joys and pains of being an artist.
Throughout these paintings there is the evidence of wrestling, reworking and evolving in broad declarative strokes until some insistent truth emerged. I get the feeling from them of a world established by following the breadcrumbs tossed off by hard work. Their strangeness is a moat to separate them in that world from fashion and its contentment. Guston himself said that, “art without trial disappears at a glance,” and perhaps it was that principle that allowed him to wriggle out of the expectations of the art world and remain free as a painter.
There is one piece in the show that serves as a sort of bridge to the earlier abstract work, “The Year 1964”. Its transitional properties are very apparent, as two dark grey squarish forms swim in a froth of grey and pink marks as though in the process of becoming heads. It is a reminder that a story only ends if you stop telling it. If you continue past one resolution you may find another very different resolution that changes the flavor of the whole story arc. Guston could have been content with his identity as an abstraction expressionist and have been remembered fondly for that work, but he continued the search to find new ground that showed the world that there was life beyond abstraction. This transitional piece shows that they are not different entities but share the same rites within the realm of paint.