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BOSTON — Before 1968, when Philip Guston more or less began working on a new body of work that would define his late career, it could be said of him, as it was of Lord Dartmouth by the poet William Cowper: this was a man “who wears a coronet and prays.” Dartmouth, who was devout and sat for a portrait by Gainsborough in 1769, was viewed with the same high regard as Guston was until all hell managed to break loose. In Dartmouth’s case it was the American Revolution; in Guston’s case it was another type of revolution that emulsified and transformed his work and reputation. Indeed, as Guston was to say later, “It was as though I left the church…”
The 1960s was a pitiless and amorphous decade, starting late — depending on how you score the blows — with Kennedy being killed in 1963, and ending with the closing out of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal in the mid-70s. Argue with the placement of bookends if you like, but in between them the country and the great American psyche struggled mightily. This struggle, perhaps now viewed only in hindsight, is visible in the transformation that took place in Guston’s work and his now justly acclaimed return to figuration. At the time, however, this new body of work was met with a shiver of revulsion, and the critic Hilton Kramer famously captured that feeling when he wrote (among other things) that Guston was a “Mandarin pretending to be a Stumblebum.” In the great arc of American slang, the term ‘stumblebum’ was an odd slur that was conferred upon the worst sort of societal misfits. It was a word Nixon might have used and was a freighted, establishment wisecrack signifying failure and nonconformity.
Culturally akin to the moment Dylan plugged in, Guston’s move away from abstraction and into the depiction of the dingier aspects of American life was a puzzling and important signifier of change, despite it at the time being misunderstood and ridiculed. Now, roughly 45 years after the fact, the impact of his later work is being resized. And judging by The Guston Effect on view at the Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston, the painter’s influence is not only still being felt today, but remains a steady and formidable presence. According to Steven Zevitas, who developed the idea and curated the show, “The influence of Guston’s late work on artists who have followed him is more than purely visual. It is as if the anxiety he felt about the human condition has somehow been spliced into the DNA of younger generations. This phenomenon has always interested me, and with … Guston’s 100th birthday having recently passed, I decided it was time to write him a love letter.”
Entering the gallery, one is greeting by Guston himself, situated like a doorman directly engaging each visitor with a steady, weathered gaze. The portrait of the late artist by Jon Imber, done in 2010, captures the essential roughness of Guston’s appearance and the plainness of his long, furrowed face. The only thing missing is the cigarette that seemed to be surgically attached to the artist’s fingers. Stylistically speaking, this isn’t an homage to the work but rather the man who made it.
A lithograph by Guston is also in the show, and it too ushers the viewer into the densely (and expertly) hung exhibition, which features the work of dozens of artists, including some who were students of Guston. Amazingly, the density of the work, packed into the gallery and hung salon-style isn’t overwhelming nor does it feel chaotic, but rather it spreads out in a settled conversation, the various works committed to both a dialogue and the tensions of association. Or as Zevitas puts it, “In organizing the exhibition I knew that there were certain artists who ‘needed’ to be in the show: Carroll Dunham, Alexander Ross, Joyce Pensato, Dana Schutz, and Barnaby Furnas, among them. My hope is that the overall exhibition has a certain anxious buzz to it. Its salon-style installation is purposeful, and meant to actively promote associations and connections that might not be obvious at first.” The “buzz” Zevitas speaks of isn’t the language of a self-promoter but is instead the heady activation of a multi-layered conversation moving in several directions at once. An unbalanced and beautiful untitled Amy Sillman canvas sits near a roiling, then placid abstract work by Gary Komarin, who is a former student of Guston. There are two pieces by Carroll Dunham, both pencil on paper that pulse with Guston’s influence, mimicking him in subject matter and style, though lurching even further into disarray. One of the images, depicting what appear to be fish, testicles, and teeth, is an inexact rendering of things that capture the uncertainty and anxiety of modern life.
What this work shares with Guston isn’t any one thing that can be singled out or simply the “cartoonish” nature of the work. Instead the influences are subtle and scaled back. Of course, there is the rakish nature of the mark-making and an overt simplification of the subject matter, all serving to heighten rather than diminish the overall effect of the work. These artists change Guston’s visual narrative, while moving the conversation forward by broadening their gestural language.
There is also a loosely rendered gouache by Dana Schutz titled “Swim, Smoke, Cry” that captures the anxiety of Guston’s work. Despite the cartoonish nature of the presentation there is an element of dread and disharmony on display. And while the depiction is simple enough — a swimmer, smoking a cigarette and crying — the juxtaposition of the three actions is unsettling (and grimly poetic) to say the least.
What Hilton Kramer and many like him missed was that Guston wasn’t using cartoon-like images to tell simple stories. These were modern parables and powerful social critiques. The mistake was focusing on Guston’s style and what was then perceived as the irredeemable crudeness of his imagery. What Zevitas has done here is remind us of Kramer’s mistake while highlighting newer work that contains similar content and shows that the singular power of Guston’s influence hasn’t waned a bit. Indeed, as an exhibition like this reminds us, his late-career achievements weren’t those of a slumming genius but rather the cathartic musings of an artist fully in control of every aspect of his work. No wonder that power continues to resonate today.
The Guston Effect continues at Steven Zevitas Gallery (450 Harrison Avenue #47, Boston, MA) through August 15.