|Guston: Drawing for Conspirators, 1930 (graphite, ink, pencil, crayon on paper; 22 x 14")||Guston: Martial Memory, 1941 (o/c; 40 x 32")|
His early years are typical of the
biographies of the other abstract expressionists (immigration, early interest
in art, involvement in the WPA/FAP mural projects). One difference
(apart from his father's suicide) was the role of the KKK in Los Angeles
as strike breakers. References to the KKK found their way into his
work by 1930 and never completely disappeared although the hoods change
their shape and the figures who are hooded are not always KKK members.
|Guston: If This Be Not I, 1945 (o/c, 42 x 55")|
The early figural paintings share
an interest in the claustrophobic space of de Chirico, the incomplete illusionism
of Piero della Francesca, and the compositional structure of Mondrian.
The subjects are always enigmatic and difficult to interpret, especially
if we try to find some rational, realistic meaning.
By the 1940s, Guston was part of the circle of artists who were forging paths in abstraction, and who later became known as the abstract expressionists. Although we certainly see a degree of abstraction in his treatment of space and figures, Guston does not truly paint non-objective paintings until the 1950s. A good place to begin an examination of his abstract paintings is with his own statement about them:
“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 defined 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” (Guston, 1960; quoted in Philip Guston: Retrospective, p. 37).
|The Porch, 1946-7 (o/c, 56 x 34")||The Porch, No. 2, 1947 (o/c, 62 x 43")|
The evolution from the Porch
paintings to the Tormentors is one which takes Guston from figurative
paintings to abstraction. Guston appears to be exploring structure
as something internal to the painting, increasingly compressing his figures
so that they lose a sense of independent solidity and mass and become increasingly
ghost-like, as one critic, Michael Auping, has described them. In
following this evolution, there is a suggestion that the visual model in
this case is not Piero della Francesca so much as the painfully Gothic
expressionism of Max Beckmann as well as photographs which Guston had seen
of survivors of Nazi death camps. We might do well to keep in mind
the fact that Guston’s real name was Goldstein and his family had emigrated
because Jews were persecuted in Russia. By the same token, we might
also want to remember that Guston’s father had hung himself and the young
Guston had been the one to find him.
|The Tormentors, 1947-8 (o/c, 40 x 60")|
When we turn to The Tormentors,
all of this has become implied; rather than seeing bodies we now see white
outlines of the places where the bodies had been standing on the Porch.
It is not a big stretch to recognize a comparable compositional format
to both paintings; nor is it a stretch to see the Tormentors as
a more psychological or emotional expression of a subject which has to
do with death and extermination. Finally, what we should note is
that we can certainly perceive this painting as an abstraction but in the
context of the knowledge of what directly preceded it, we are better able
to see that Guston is engaging in a process of stripping down the figures
and object elements of the earlier painting to bare essentials and to structural
indicators, a process which continues into the even greater abstraction
of Red Painting of 1950. Yet, with this abstraction, Guston
has more definitively entered the domain of the object-less painting, a
trend which continues in his work for the next decade as brushstrokes and
varying degrees of the density of paint become the essential components
of the painting.
|Red Painting, 1950 (o/c, 34 x 62")|
To B.W.T., 1952, a painting
dedicated to his friend, the artist Bradley Walker Tomlin, exemplifies
this development, although there will always be something about the way
in which the density increases and converges toward the center of his paintings
and contrast between paint applied in dabs and in linear gestures, that
impels the tendency to see these as reflections of figures and objects.
|To B.W.T., 1952 (o/c, 48 x 51)||To Fellini, 1958 (o/c, 69 x 74")|
If, for the central abstract expressionists,
the evolution towards abstraction was almost uniformly in the direction
of splitting apart, disintegrating or dissolving the figure and subject
matter into intangible layers of color and gesture, Guston, after his move
into an abstraction which centralized the touch of paint, rather than the
gesture, and therefore never became as intangible as the others, had, by
the late fifties, already begun to move toward a thicker style with greater
suggestions of congealed figures. It should be no surprise, then, that
many of Guston’s paintings are not only named but named for people who
ultimately inspired him to think or respond in some way or whose own investigations
into art demonstrated a parallel course to his own.
|The Studio, 1969 (o/c, 48 x 42")|
Guston’s abstractions are, in fact,
less known than his later paintings, in part because the late 1960s saw
what appeared to be a complete reversal in his work–figurative art that
sort of looked like pop art but pretty much didn’t; paintings which appear
to have not only halted the process of Guston’s work but reversed it.
|Painter's Forms No. 2, 1978 (o/c, 78 x 108")|
Guston, having begun with figures
and having moved into abstraction, after passing through a stage in the
60s in which his paintings became darker and block-like forms seemed to
coagulate on the surface, reincarnated the figure in paintings which have
been described as grotesque and comic, both of which are probably true.
Also true is the fact that they suggested a more socially-oriented and
autobigraphical content to his work. And what is finally true is
that in its departure from the paradigmatic abstract expressionist path,
Guston's eventual affinities were with a different generation of painters--the
new imagists and "bad painters" of the 1970s.
|Couple in Bed, 1977 (o/c, 81 x 94")||untitled (Hillside), 1980 (acrylic and ink on paper, 23 x 29")|
My question, I think, is whether we should see Guston as being as true to the ideals of Rosenberg as De Kooning was. If the artist has eliminated the boundaries between art and life by the decision to "just paint," then is it the case that everything about an artist's life enters the painting when the artist has eliminated these boundaries? Isn't that what Rosenberg said? And given that Guston studied and absorbed the influences of Miro, Picasso, Piero della Francesca, and other artists, without imitating any of them, perhaps Greenberg's belief that there is continuity of ideas through the evolution of art also makes sense. Just thinking out loud, as it were.
Some extracts from Philip Guston's essay, "Faith, Hope and Impurity":
"There are so many things in the
world - in the cities - so much to see. Does art need to represent
this variety and contribute to its proliferation? Can art be that
free? The difficulties begin when you understand what it is
that the soul will not permit the hand to make. [...]
"The problem, of course, is more complex than mere duration of 'inspiration.' There wre pre-images in the fifteenth century, foreknowledge of what was going to be brought into existence. Maybe my pre-image is unknown to me, but today it is impossible to act as if pre-imaging is possible.
"Many works of the past (and of the present) complete what they announce they are going to do, to our increasing boredom. Certain others plague me because I cannot follow their intentions. I can tell at a glance what Fabritius is doing, but I am spending my life trying to find out what Rembrandt was up to.
"I have a studio in the country - in the woods - but my paintings look more real to me than what is outdoors. You walk outside; the rocks are inert; even the clouds are inert. It makes me feel a little better. 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 each day. [...]
"Where do you put a form? It will move all around, bellow out and shrink, and sometimes it winds up where it was in the first place. But at the end it feels different, and it had to make the voyage. I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.
"Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing."
*reprinted in Philip Guston Retrospective, organized by Michael Auping. (Fort Worth: Museum of Modern Art, and Thames & Hudson, 2003), 93 - 95.