Guston: when figurative art is courageous

Review

Philip Guston is considered one of the major figures of 20th century American art. A retrospective of his work has toured through Ft. Worth, Texas, and San Francisco, and is now appearing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is a look at the artist’s progress through various styles during his lifetime.

Early works mimic the styles of other great artists, showing Guston’s extraordinary draftsmanship. “Drawing for Conspirators,” done during this period, depicts Klan members attacking a Black man positioned as if Roman soldiers were attacking Christ. It shows one of the driving forces in Guston’s motivation to paint: trying to come to terms with the human condition.

Like many artists, Guston got his start with the WPA Federal Art Project during the 1930s. He painted several murals around the country. Leaving that for a teaching position, he started exploring abstract expressionism. By the early 1950s he was producing works wherein brushstrokes and color only hint at form, and were of such beauty that he was thrust to the forefront of the American art scene.

However, the political conflicts of the 1960s aroused his fascination with the human condition, its cruelty and dark sides – the potential for which we all carry within us, and thus, as I believe Guston felt, must reach for some understanding of. The motivation was such that Guston developed a more figurative style, which when first shown, left the New York art community aghast. This became his personal act of courage: he did not revert back to the pure abstracts that the art scene of the time loved, but forged ahead, in isolation, developing an iconography and style that would express his exploration of that which makes us human.

A group of paintings Guston refers to as the “hoods” recalls the drawing he had done as a young man. What we perceive as Klansmen are done in a sort of cartoony style. He indicates they are self-portraits, showing himself as masked, hateful, but not truly scary – amusing in a very dark way. Aspects we all feel about ourselves at times.

A painting of a post-resignation Nixon, “San Clemente,” also carries that complexity. Nixon is caricatured in the extreme, with a contorted pose, a swollen, veiny leg (his phlebitis) and a phallic face, the jowls hanging like testicles. Looking at it, we would feel nothing but distaste for Nixon, except that there is a tear painted on his cheek, which calls forth a bit of empathy.

His work continued as an exploration of self and the society around him. A very touching picture, “Couple in Bed,” shows him holding his wife close. Musa, his wife, had previous to this painting suffered a stroke. “Street II” shows a rather manic dog with bloodshot eyes licking a shoe. The dog’s in the street and above him, separated by a curb are the legs and shoes of humanity walking by (perhaps expressing the isolation Guston felt). Shoes, or legs with shoes, is one of the symbols Guston uses to represent masses of people – humanity. Another “Street” painting shows the human penchant for conflict, as a group of people represented by legs, faces off against arms defending themselves with trash can lids.

Towards the end of his life, Guston had a heart attack and had to produce smaller work. Some of the work takes on a more spiritual tone. He died in 1980, leaving behind a wealth of art varied in its nature, some beautiful, some disturbing, some enigmatic. In an essay, he wrote, “But I do have a faith that it is possible to make a living thing, not a diagram of what I have been thinking: to posit with paint something living, something that changes with each day.”

The author can be reached at kmoy@pww.org.