Philip Guston, "Shoes" (1972), oil on panel, 11 x 14 inches

Philip Guston, “Shoes” (1972), oil on panel, 11 x 14 inches

There is still a story to be told about Philip Guston (1913–1980) and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), who met at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles in 1929, and were expelled the following year for handing out a broadside that ridiculed the English faculty for their conservatism. Pollock was later readmitted to the school, but Guston never went back. It is a story about acceptance and rejection.

As Robert Storr pointed out in his monograph Philip Guston (1986):

Guston’s first one-man show in New York, which took place at the Midtown Galleries in 1945, was warmly received by critics. However, the occasion was marred when Pollock showed up drunk at the dinner party after the opening and lashed out at his old friend for “betraying” their common commitment to modernism with his new and unquestionably traditional paintings. This was neither their first such confrontation nor their last.

Pollock and Guston were friends, and they were also rivals. While each admired the other, they were in some way deeply envious and competitive.  Pollock got to abstraction before Guston. He emptied space out of painting or, as Willem de Kooning said, he “broke the ice” when he seemed to have vehemently declared, in the eyes of some of his champions, that paint was paint.  Pollock began his “drip” paintings in 1947, and in 1948 Guston won the Prix de Rome and spent a year in the American Academy in Rome. At this point in their careers, they could not have been further apart.

Philip Guston, "Plotters" (1969), oil on panel, 30 x 40 inches

Philip Guston, “Plotters” (1969), oil on panel, 30 x 40 inches (click to enlarge)

It took another five years for Guston to jettison his traditional paintings and become an abstract artist, which he did with “Red Painting” (1950). It was during this period that Guston also got rid of everything but the line in his drawings. Rendering, modeling, shading and all the other methods that we associate with traditional drawing — things that Guston could do well — were no longer called upon. 

I thought about Guston’s relationship to drawing when I went to the McKee Gallery to see Philip Guston: A Centennial Exhibition  (March 2–April 20, 2013).  The exhibition spanned the last fifteen years of the artist’s life and included one painting from 1964, “The Year 1964,” an abstraction consisting two black, blocky shapes swimming in a largely gray field of vertical and horizontal paint strokes overlaid across swatches and scribbles in pink and red.  The rest of the exhibition included drawings, acrylic paintings on panel, small gouaches, and oil paintings. Two untitled acrylics were done the year he died.

In 1966, after his exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Guston   focused solely on drawing. For him it was a tug of war between doing what he called “pure” drawings and drawings of objects. Line is central in all of this. When drawing things, Guston knew that he had to put them somewhere, in some kind of space, however abstract it might be.  They had to be things, not emblems, which are flat. In an artist’s statement that appeared in the exhibition catalogue, Philip Guston: Drawings 1947–1977 (New York, David McKee Gallery, 1978), Guston stated:

Only when certain doubts cleared in 1968 and I began feeling more positive about drawings of the tangible world did I begin to paint again. Finally, only total immersion in painting “things” settled the issue.

This is the marvel of the exhibition — it is all done with line, drawn or in paint. Sometimes the line becomes a rounded shape (a cloud) or a circle (sun). Short horizontal strokes are words in a book or bristly hair sprouting from skinny, naked legs.

Philip Guston, "Waking Up" (1975), oil on canvas, 67 x 129 inches

Philip Guston, “Waking Up” (1975), oil on canvas, 67 x 129 inches

In “Waking Up” (1975), which I have never seen before, Guston revisits “Painting, Smoking Eating” (1973). In the earlier painting, which is largely dusky cadmium red and pink, the artist is lying in bed, his eye open and staring, a cloud of smoke rising from the cigarette in his mouth. A plate is lying on the bed, piled with small slices of pie or cheese wedges. (One could do a whole show of Guston’s paintings of food — including salami sandwiches and piles of cherries). On the other side of the bed, there is an empty canvas on an easel, a desk lamp, and a bucket for paintbrushes. Behind them is a pile of upside-down shoes, some of the soles outlined in black, with black dots marking the soles and heels.

The space in “Waking Up” feels more crammed. The ubiquitous cigarette protrudes from the pinkish, red head of the figure in bed, its eye open and unable to close. A red and pink sheet hangs down from the bed, a bloody cloth. Above the sheet, in an area that is largely black, Guston has drawn the outlines of heads and upside-down shoes in gray. One of the gray-and-black heads gazes toward the red-and-pink head, but without making eye contact.

(Theodor Adorno stated that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The pile of shoes — a reference to the Holocaust — says otherwise. It tells us how barbaric, urgent and stultifying it is to be an artist. Your intelligence cannot save you. This is what Guston has in common with his friends de Kooning and Pollock. This is what he recognized when he jettisoned sophisticated techniques and began to use only a line to draw.)

This is what I love about Guston and his work. He was haunted and did not try to hide it. He had ugly feelings, and was often disappointed. He loved all kinds of things, as his collection of old irons, which frequently appear in his painting, suggests. He loved the old masters and cartoonists equally and was not afraid to bring that love into his work. All he relied on was a line. With it he painted hooded men driving around in cars, transporting corpses and art, as if there were no difference between the two. (They were his symbol for men who hide behind the cloak of dogma, which you would think we should be sick of by now but clearly aren’t.)

Philip Guston, "Book" (1968), gouache on panel, 30 x 32 inches

Philip Guston, “Book” (1968), gouache on panel, 30 x 32 inches

When Guston was dissatisfied with what he had done, he wiped the surface with turpentine or scraped off the paint and drew something else — a book sitting open in an erased cloud.  Here is the contested space of painting. On one side are those who would empty it out, declaring that paint is all one needs. On the other side are those who would put everything back in, including space and all kinds of things, including cigarette butts and dirty paintbrushes. That’s the dual legacy that Pollock and Guston have left us, and if you ask me, it can’t get much better than that.

Philip Guston: A Centennial Exhibition is on view at McKee Gallery (745 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 20.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

7 replies on “Philip Guston’s Line”

  1. i enjoy the simple confusion of his works. and by simple i mean the objects painted, yet every inch of his paintings are thoughtfully planned.

  2. This was really neat. I’m not a fan of the art but there is more depth to each painting than initially seen. I also really enjoyed reading about the frontmost ideas of modernism and accepting this “barbarism” that is innate of paintings

  3. I enjoy the way that the artist compresses his space in the artworks shown here. Guston relies on line and color to get his point across in his paintings as opposed to a more literal approach. These works are compelling, beautiful, and disturbing all at once, and Guston’s “simplified” approach seems to highlight his skill as a painter rather than detract from it. All the depth here comes from emotion, both the artists emotions poured into the painting and the viewers emotions upon seeing the work.

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