VENICE — What more can be said about Philip Guston? America’s beloved painter of muddy pinks, cigarette-smoking klansmen, and dystopian dreamscapes died in 1980, but his Neo- and Abstract Expressionist works have continued to grow to a cult status among devoted fans, collectors, and museums. This postmortem popularity should be surprising, considering the artist’s apocalyptic fall from art world grace in 1970, after scathing universal reactions to his return to figuration in a solo exhibition at Marlboro Gallery in New York.
What salvaged Guston’s art practice after this soul-crushing defeat? Capital-P Poetry. At least this is the argument that curator Kosme de Barañano makes in Philip Guston and the Poets, currently on exhibit at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. Far from the Giardini and Christine Macel’s Viva Arte Viva, this exhibit is a deep and delicious treat, featuring over 50 paintings and 25 drawings made between 1930 and 1980.
It’s well documented that, after Guston’s fall from grace, he left Manhattan for Woodstock, and surrounded himself with young poets. “They [the poets] see without the jargon of art,” he said in the March 15, 1980 issue of the New Republic. “Sharply. Fresh. Sometimes they are funny or their reactions are funny and I enjoy that.” The exhibit in Venice includes a number of rarely shown collaborations where Guston illustrated the poetry of his wife Musa McKim and friend Clark Coolidge into capricious “poem-pictures” on paper. An added bonus: several reference his frequent travels to Italy — in 1948, he was the Prix de Rome winner, in 1960 he represented the US in the Venice Biennale, and in 1970 he was an artist in residence in Rome. His scrawled vignettes of Italian landscapes add a deeper layer to the context of the exhibit in Venice’s historic home to masterpieces by Tintoretto, Titian, and Tiepolo, among others.
The exhibit is loosely curated around the five poets who are said to have had the most significant impact on his work — Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence — and this structure provides unusual opportunities for thematic, rather than historical or formal, groupings. But at the core of the exhibit is an idea that’s both cohesive and revolutionary. The show argues that Guston’s staying power — grounded in fresh oddness, compelling authenticity, and dodgy compositions — was a direct consequence of his relationship with poetic language and form, as well as the ideas of the poets who wrote them. Rather than a romantic inevitability, Poets offers a pragmatic and collaborative handle to Guston’s career as a prolific artist and maker; it attests to the power of verbal and metaphorical language in nourishing his visual oeuvre. The exhibit also argues that silence is necessary for a visual artist’s development; it suggests that Guston’s leaving New York, the epicenter of the art world, was not only helpful, but essential to his work.
It begins with Guston’s earliest paintings of classically inspired figurative works with blocky, big-eyed portraits and narrative backgrounds. Although they directly reference the Italian masters who influenced him early on, there’s still a deliberate crudeness here, a willingness to sacrifice beauty and proportion for crowded, crushing compositions. However, this collection of early figurative portraits, including one heavy, bug-eyed self-portrait in ink, feel derivative and uninspired compared to the rest of the show. What’s most puzzling and also exciting about these early paintings is how un-Guston-like and self-conscious they are, offering few hints at his forthcoming transformation into one of the most lyrical and inventive painters of his generation.
Moving forward into the maze of Guston’s lush and fleshy abstractions, placed beside his figurative canvasses full of wonky hammers, light bulbs, and cartoon figures, you become immersed in a unique physical language. Snippets of poetry function as wall text and punctuate transitions between the works, allowing the curator to offer subtle and elusive commentary on specific paintings, most often without any sort of obvious connection.
Next to the Abstract Expressionist paintings “For M” (1955) and “Untitled” (1955-56), which features an ethereal web of thick red slashes on top of creamy, gray-blue fields, we see text from D.H. Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death” — a 10-part poem that chronicles one man’s journey towards demise. This idea of migration and change (“the long and painful death/ that lies between the old self and the new”) described by Lawrence was central for Guston at this point in his career. Despite the success and acceptance into New York’s hallowed Abstract Expressionist cabal, Guston transitioned his work to a new kind of figuration, a move that ended friendships and gallery representation, an intentional “death” in his career.
In another space, Guston’s seminal painting “The Studio” (1969), depicting a cigarette-smoking klansman painting a self-portrait in an art studio, is flanked by wall text from Wallace Stevens’s “The Sail of Ulysses” (1957): “The space in which it stands, the shine / Of darkness, creating from nothingness/ Such black constructions, such public shapes / And murky masonry, one wonders / At the finger that brushes this aside / Gigantic in everything but size.” Stevens’s lines succinctly explore the duality of the creative process depicted in “The Studio” and conjure up Guston’s consistent baked-brick color palette. However, this poem relates even more directly to “The Line” — the image used on all promotional images for the show — which features a giant, veiny hand parting a cloud to reach down and paint a line on the earth. Although it resembles a giant phallus, and this masculine claim to conception seems willfully sexist, Guston posits the act of creating something out of nothing as grotesque but also magic; the monumental scale implies the exaggerated magnitude of this act.
One of the most literal examples of poetic influence on Guston is T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second poem of his “Four Quartets” and which Guston used as a title for the 1979 painting he made just after his first heart attack. A passage from Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is posted on the wall next to the painting of a dying man: “Old men ought to be explorers / Here and there does not matter / We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity.” It depicts a ravaged and wrinkled head, laying on its back, with teeth exposed and a death rattle nearly audible. On a muddy brown background, the artist included what appears to be arbitrary brushstrokes in blue and dark gray just around the mouth and neck of the man, almost as if his essence were fading into the ether around him. The painting is a vision of Guston’s own forthcoming death. But by alluding to Eliot’s poetry, Guston grounds the piece in metaphor, rather than obvious autobiography, giving him the critical distance and language to paint such a painful and terrifying image.
As you wander the grand halls of the Accademia, full of large and, at times, repetitively similar paintings, as well as the smaller, intimate drawings, the idea of a poem and a painting becomes fused. In Philip Guston and the Poets, the curated relationship between paintings and poetic wall text successfully mirrors the relationship between this beloved artist and his linguistic muses; it focuses a visitor’s attention and deepens the mystery in each piece. Each painting exists as an experience to be had in itself — an exploration, both cerebral and corporeal, of the everyday. Like a poet, Guston offers us a fractured and contradictory vision, simultaneously beautiful, horrific, silly, and even holy.
Philip Guston and the Poets continues at the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Campo della Carita, 1050, Venice) through September 3.