ArtWeekend

Philip Guston’s Echoes

One of the defining features of Guston’s last decade is a paradoxical faith in the elusiveness of truth.

Philip Guston, “Green Rug” (1976), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Edward R. Broida in honor of Ann Temkin, 2005

The Long Run is a temporary reinstallation of the permanent collection on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. According to its press release, the exhibition purports to “chronicl[e] the continued experimentation of artists long after their breakthrough moments, […] suggest[ing] that invention results from sustained critical thinking, persistent observation, and countless hours in the studio.” 

Determinedly diverse, the reinstallation is an invigorating masterstroke curated to near-perfection by Paulina Pobocha, Associate Curator, and Cara Manes, Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, who have included a healthy representation of women and artists of color, proving once again that once museums cease reflexively returning to an established canon and approach their collections with a broader worldview, the results, more often than not, replace the so-so with the superb.

“The Long Run” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York: installation view with works by David Hammons, “Untitled (Night Train) (1989) and “High Falutin'” (1990)

It’s not that Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Willem de Kooning, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly are missing, but that their late works are met and matched by those of Agnes Martin, Melvin Edwards, Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Murray, Ed Clark, Joan Mitchell, and Joan Jonas, to name a few, who infiltrate the familiar halls of modernism with an unexpected aggregate of the ecstatic. 

Among the most compelling rooms are those dedicated to a single artist, which examine the liveliness of their mature output while suggesting that such maverick artists as David Hammons and Gego are being collected in depth (and, it should be said, with an unerring eye).

There are problems with the layout, however, stemming from the difficulty of displaying video alongside painting, photography, and sculpture. In a room devoted to abstraction, a high-speed-video (transferred from 16mm) by John Baldessari, “Six Colorful Inside Jobs” (1977), is mounted high on a wall adjacent to de Kooning’s magisterial calligraphic abstraction, “Untitled III” (1982). The flickering, fast-paced imagery of the Baldessari, in which the artist, viewed from overhead, paints and repaints the interior of a claustrophobic, windowless, doorless room, invades your peripheral vision, making it futile, at least for me, to attempt a deep look at the de Kooning.

But this is minor compared with the intentionally grating audio from Bruce Nauman’s ceiling-mounted, double-sided video, “Dirty Story A/B” (1987), which manages to bleed across two galleries and trash the meditative atmosphere of Agnes Martin’s sublime pale-blue-and-sand-yellow six-part painting, “With My Back to the World” (1997). While Nauman’s volume level is intrinsic to its can’t-play-well-with-others ethos, it creates a condition in which Martin’s work is fundamentally undermined, making it impossible to perceive it as she intended. (The soundtrack for Joan Jonas’s glistening, room-sized video/sculpture installation, “Reanimation” (2010/2012/2013), however, sited in one of the last galleries of the exhibition, did not present similar disruptions to its neighbors.)

Bruce Nauman, “Dirty Story A/B” (1987), two color video monitors, two videotape players, two videotapes (color, sound), and cable, The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheiser, 1996

Audio issues aside, the presentation reflects the focused approach informing portions of the fifth floor installation, where MoMA’s traditional timeline, from Cézanne to the New York School, has been redirected into a nuanced look at multiple works by individual artists. If you have the time to concentrate solely on these two floors of the permanent collection, the installation will unveil historical parallels and resonances that only a museum of MoMA’s depth and scope can provide.

A case in point is Philip Guston, whose paintings are arrayed in the second room of The Long Run, adjacent to a gallery filled with an eerily restrained interior environment from Louise Bourgeois and several understated works on paper by Robert Gober. While there was nothing particularly revelatory about the group of Guston’s pictures, all done in his late figurative style, the selection stopped me in my tracks.

Part of my response no doubt had to do with my recent encounter (from research into an outside project) with Hilton Kramer’s notorious flaming of Guston’s figurative paintings, published in The New York Times on October 25, 1970, on the occasion of their debut at Marlborough Gallery.

The review’s headline, “A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum,” is so well known that I had been living under the impression that I knew what was in it. But by the time I reached the middle of the third paragraph, after glossing over some expository wind-up, I realized that I clearly did not.

For one, I was taken aback by the sheer personal vitriol of Kramer’s attack: after citing Guston’s position “[f]or some years now, at least for some people [as] something of a sacred figure,” he goes on to state:

Mr. Guston had not earned this distinction through any historical priority. He has always been a latecomer, and he came to the esthetics of the New York School when it was already well established. He was a colonizer rather than a pioneer. The special virtue of his painting was said to be found not in facile innovations—from the very start of his celebrity on the New York scene, his work was curiously exempted from such “vulgar” criteria, which were nonetheless rigorously enforced in judging painters outside the magic circle. No, Mr. Guston’s special virtue was said to be his superior sensitivity. Jackson Pollock was the cowboy of the New York School, all muscle and violence, Mr. Guston was claimed to be its poet, all sensibility and shimmering delicacy.

And then he lowers the boom:

Such was the myth, anyway. […] He is one of those painters fated to serve a taste instead of creating one, and his latest turn suggests that his sense of timing—so important for artists who are always running races with the Zeitgeist—is not what it used to be. The taste his new paintings are designed to serve may already have run its course.

Philip Guston, “Cherries” (1976), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Edward R. Broida in honor of Glenn D. Lowry, 2005

Taking note of the predilection to seek “the primitive […] to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of ‘high’ art,” he bluntly concludes that, with Guston, “it doesn’t work. For one thing, there is no vitality here to rejuvenate. For an other, the particular form of primitivism Mr. Guston chose as his means of revival was already on its way to being one of the moribund conventions of high art when he caught up with it. The very ease with which he has adapted this slang to his own elegant usages is itself a measure of its established place in the pictorial vocabulary of our time.”

And there are still two more paragraphs to go, in which he calls Guston’s new paintings, “with their ‘funny’ Ku Klux Klan figures, their ‘innocent’ drawing and their ‘childlike’ rediscovery of the world […] the artistic equivalent of a ‘pseudo‐event,’” and compares them unfavorably with the work of the illustrator and cartoonist Saul Steinberg.

As epically wrong as Kramer was about Guston, he was also awfully persuasive, to the extent that I had to ask myself whether I would have looked at the late works differently if I had seen them in 1970 fresh off of reading the review. The ad hominem nature of Kramer’s rebuke — concluding that Guston had been a phony from the get-go — perversely reflects the summation of the artist’s life and work that these paintings embody. As Dore Ashton wrote in their defense in Yes, But … A Critical Study of Philip Guston (1976):

This was no posturing mandarin speaking. It was a mature artist, gathering in his resources from the beginning, seeking to express truths of which he had an intimation while still a boy.

After the blistering reception he received from the New York press, Guston removed himself from the scene, spending six months as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome (1970-71). Guston’s roots in Italian art run deep — “from the beginning,” as Ashton stated — a symbiosis memorialized in his 1973 painting “Pantheon,” in which he emblazoned the names of Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Giorgio de Chirico alongside a depiction of a hanging light bulb and a blank canvas resting on an easel.

Giorgio de Chirico, “The Nostalgia of the Infinite” (Paris, 1912-13?, dated 1911 on painting), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, purchase, 1936

When first confronted by Guston’s newly figurative work, Ashton glimpsed Piero and de Chirico lurking amid the funk, and perhaps Kramer did, too — both writers had art historical encyclopedias in their heads. The only difference between them was that Ashton was fascinated and Kramer was enraged.

I arrived at the room featuring Guston’s eight large oil paintings and three works on paper, serendipitously, soon after immersing myself in the de Chirico gallery upstairs, and it was remarkable to experience how deeply the two painters breathed the same air. Both unabashedly cast their pictures as windows into another world, while simultaneously reshuffling and undercutting the basics of Cubism: frontal planes and shallow space interact with the flatness of the picture plane, while pockets of the compositions empty out into far-reaching depths. And both artists relished throwing together oddball objects into surreal still lifes, indulging in black shadows to articulate their forms.

Another, more particular connection between the two men is their nuanced manipulation of the visual-verbal continuum. The importance of the word is expressed in de Chirico’s work by the slippery relationship between his titles and the paintings they describe, at times augmenting the imagery (“The Enigma of a Day,” “The Serenity of the Scholar,” both 1914) and at others importing parallel sets of meanings from outside the frame (“The Evil Genius of a King,” 1914-15; “The Nostalgia of the Infinite,” ca. 1912-13, but dated 1911 on the painting).

Philip Guston, “Moon” (1979), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Philip Johnson, 1998

With Guston, the titles often tell us where and how to look. One of the more fascinating, and de Chirico-esque, paintings on display combines aspects of still life, self-portraiture, and landscape. The foreground is littered with paintbrushes that look more like cigarette butts than anything else (Guston’s twin addictions?) along with white, green, and red lumps of paint (the colors of the Italian flag.

Giorgio de Chirico, “The Evil Genius of a King” (1914-15), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, purchase, 1936

Behind these tools of the trade, which also seem to include a scattering of pills, the artist is at work on two canvases, their backs turned to the viewer. His face is hidden by one of them, with only his ear, neck, and hair visible, while the canvas itself, graphically rendered in black on ochre, could have fallen straight out of the still life-cum-cityscape, “The Evil Genius of a King,” in which de Chirico uses the same colors to paint a tilted tabletop. White puffs of what could be cigarette smoke, drifting off to the right of the painter, or clouds encircling a muddy mountain range in the distance, recall the steam pouring from the locomotive’s smokestack in de Chricio’s “The Anxious Journey” (1913), also in MoMA’s collection. Topping off the inscrutable imagery is a short convoy of what appear to be giant black ants creeping along the mountain ridge behind the artist at his canvas.

Given all that, it’s puzzling that the painting is called “Moon” (1979), for the dimly glowing orb impastoed at the very top of the canvas, directly above the painter. Why call attention to the least attention-getting element in the picture? But once you notice it, the complexion of the painting changes — from workaday to crepuscular — and in so doing, imbues an otherwise nonsensical situation with a looming sense of mortality, a visual correlative to the label “tragicomedy” that Samuel Beckett appended to his Waiting for Godot (1953).

Philip Guston, “Head” (1977), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, Musa Guston Bequest, 1992

In a public discussion with Dore Ashton that I attended when I was a student, Guston said that he had read “just about every word” Beckett ever wrote. In this regard, the hollowest accusation leveled at Guston in Kramer’s critique is the one implied in the comparison with Saul Steinberg:

Mr. Steinberg is an intellectual, and he has no interest in donning the mask of the stumblebum when he takes up his brush or pencil or rubber stamps. He knows very well that the mileage has long ago run out on that particular charade.

It’s absurd to suggest that Guston was not an intellectual — with Robert Motherwell, he was the most literary of the Abstract Expressionists — and while he didn’t wear his erudition on his sleeve (his deathbed portrait of T.S. Eliot aside), he certainly didn’t hide it under a bushel either. Each painting is another scene from a silent Theater of the Absurd, and the range of literature, politics, and history that inspired that movement, along with its untenable embrace of hope and disillusionment, informed his art as well. (It should be noted that Beckett’s wordless, actor-less play, Breath, which presents the audience with a static pile of junk animated only by the sound of a newborn’s cry and an intake of breath, opened in New York in 1969, just as the images that Guston would show at Marlborough were brewing.)

Guston’s unique sensitivity to word and image endowed his work with a cultural totality that lies at the core of his continuing influence. In perhaps the most bewildering image in the gallery, the artist has painted, in another instance of indirect self-portraiture, an arm jutting into the frame at an upward angle (we can tell it’s the chain-smoking Guston from the spatters of paint on his sleeve and the two cigarettes, one smoked down to the butt and the other burning like a volcano, clasped between his fingers) against a black background, suggesting that it is the dead of night (the 1988 memoir written by Musa Mayer, the artist’s daughter, about her father was called Night Studio). 

Philip Guston, “Talking” (1979), oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Edward R. Broida, 2005

The only other element is a chain, presumably from a hanging lamp, dangling from the center of the canvas’s top edge, further underscoring the impression of a spotlit night scene. What’s baffling about the picture is that the cigarette smoke, after rising a couple of inches, abruptly shifts downward in defiance of the law of gravity, until it disappears below the bottom of the frame. This doesn’t make sense until we read the label and learn that the title is “Talking” (1979), and that the smoke trailing from the cigarette is following the movement of the otherwise unseen artist’s arm as he gesticulates while conversing with an unseen guest. It’s a peculiar, to say the least, specificity of detail, but its off-kilter dance with signification opens up the mind to questions that a more straightforward depiction of human interaction would preclude. Like Breath, like “The Evil Genius of a King,” we witness something, but its meaning is offstage, implied, definitely somewhere else.

But even when his pictures are plainly titled, there’s a monkey wrench thrown into the works. Why is the row of oversized cherries in “Cherries” (1976) floating on an inky black sea? Why is the back of the cue-ball-bald head in “Head” (1977) cut open with a rectangular incision to reveal a suture job resembling a loom? Why does the green rug in “Green Rug” (1976), like the moon in “Moon,” get top billing, when the eye is drawn first to the (literally) rail-thin pair of naked legs appearing in sitting position from the left, and the two most loaded elements, the pile of shoes on the rug (evoking the Holocaust) and the cat-of-nine-tails jutting in from the right (redolent of the Passion of Christ) come across almost as afterthoughts?

A paradoxical faith in the elusiveness of truth, expressed through a hard-won pictorial vocabulary, is one of the defining features of Guston’s last decade. Hardly “childlike” or “innocent,” the late style instead emerged, as demonstrated by a 2016 exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, out of a period of personal and creative turmoil. After his retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1966, he stopped painting and drew in charcoal and ink for two years, reducing his vision to black lines floating on white paper — a time of compression that ultimately ignited and burst apart, unleashing a torrent of insight, invention, and seasoned, compulsive artistry.

The Long Run continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 4.

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