Philip Guston: The Impurities of Pyramids, Shoes and Paintings

To begin at the ending:  Art historically, Guston was essentially eliminated from the echelon of abstract expressionism, not because of the figure per se (De Kooning, after all, kept the figure in his paintings) but because of the type of figure: crude, evocative of pop art and comic, and so clearly autobiographical.  But if the abstract expressionist elite rejected him, the new imagists of the 1970s did not.
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.