At the National Gallery’s Philip Guston show, lots to unpack
Guston’s career divides roughly into three phases. As a young man, he made masterly but derivative art influenced by European Renaissance and surrealist painting as well as contemporary American and Mexican muralists. Later, after moving to New York in 1935, he gradually began to embrace abstract expressionism, which after World War II came to dominate the city’s fashionable galleries. Ultimately, he switched to a cartoonish but painterly style to depict highly personal subjects. Among them were hooded figures of Klansmen that dismayed some viewers when “Philip Guston Now” was being planned.
The controversy over Guston’s white-hooded protagonists prompted a rethink and postponement of the exhibition, which was originally scheduled to open at the National Gallery in 2020. The three museums that have so far hosted versions of “Philip Guston Now” responded with warning labels such as the ones at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which The Post’s Sebastian Smee deemed “patronizing.” The National Gallery’s approach is subtler. But the museum did carefully sequester in an easily bypassed gallery the controversial paintings first shown at New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1970.
Ironically, these pictures were initially denounced not for their content but for their style. In the late 1960s, both agitated and energized by the era’s political turbulence, Guston developed his mature mode of painting. It drew partly on a childhood enthusiasm: George Herriman’s 1913-1944 comic strip, “Krazy Kat.” But the artist’s representational pictures retained elements of his abstractions, including their loose brushwork, thick impasto and a palette heavy on pink, red and black.
To judge from the examples here, abstraction was not Guston’s calling. He ultimately decided it was “a lie, a sham, a coverup for a poverty of spirit” — a rebuke emblazoned on a wall in this show. Yet Guston’s defection from abstract expressionism may have come from the realization that such artists as Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock (who, oddly enough, was Guston’s high school friend) painted more powerful abstractions than he did.
By 1960, abstraction had already been challenged by pop art, some of whose practitioners also took inspiration from the funny papers. But where Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein emulated the clean, hard-edge look of commercial art, Guston continued to paint in a messy, intuitive fashion. And while Warhol and Lichtenstein depicted mass-market products and pop-culture characters, Guston burrowed deep within himself.
There was a lot there to excavate. Guston was a depressive and a heavy drinker and smoker who was haunted by two events: his father’s suicide by hanging — most accounts say a 10-year-old Guston found the body — and his brother’s death after developing gangrene because his legs were crushed by a car. His family’s escape from Ukraine a few decades before World War II also preoccupied Guston, who represented the Holocaust in his later paintings with piles of empty shoes. And then there’s the KKK.
What’s provocative is not simply the portrayal of Klansmen, simplified to little more than lumpy white triangles with skinny black rectangles for eyeholes. In one painting, Guston explicitly identifies with a KKK member, rendering himself as a hooded, cigarette-smoking artist painting a self-portrait.
Is this Guston’s way of taking personal responsibility for oppressive white supremacy? That’s what Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter and biographer, has said: “The paintings are essentially about White culpability — the culpability of all of us, including himself.”
It’s possible, however, that Guston used the hooded figures as more general symbols of evil, and identified with them as embodying the baser instincts that lurk within everyone. Whatever his motivations, the KKK paintings that temporarily halted “Philip Guston Now” reveal the thematic complexity of the work the artist made between 1968 and his death in 1980. The imagery in Guston’s later pictures is simple and crude, but the moral implications are as dense and layered as the thickly worked paint.
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