BOSTON — Phillip Goldstein (1913–1980), who anglicized his name to Philip Guston, was haunted by many things that he saw in his life. These hauntings (or shall I call them divine tauntings?) can be divided into two overlapping lists. The first focuses on the body and what humans do to it, often because of color, beliefs, perceived threats, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second list consists of aesthetic experiences that got under Guston’s skin, the ghosts that manifested in his studio whenever he began drawing or painting. Many of these latter experiences were responses to the former.
The first list starts with Guston’s family history. Born in Montreal in 1913, he was the child of Jews who left the Ukraine and pogroms and immigrated to Canada. In 1919, seeking a better life, the family relocated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. Unable to find work as a bartender in Los Angeles, his father, Louis Guston, collected and peddled junk. When Philip was 10, Louis hanged himself and Philip discovered the body. His brother Nat had both his legs amputated after his car rolled over him. In 1930, at the age of 17, Guston began working on a tall, vertical painting, “The Conspirators,” which no longer exists. The next year, the Scottsboro boys — nine Black teenagers between the ages of 13 and 20 — were falsely accused of raping two white women, and seven ended up serving prison sentences. Then, in 1933, during the Great Depression and as Adolph Hitler rose to power, Guston watched the Los Angeles police, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, destroy “The Conspirators.”
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On April 5, 1945, American soldiers entered Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. One week later — the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt died — Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower went to Ohrdruf and found more than 3,000 emaciated bodies in a shallow grave. Edward R. Morrow gave a straightforward description on the radio of what he and other journalists saw there. Back in the United States, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. More than a decade later, on April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Just months prior, North Vietnamese military commander General Vo Nguyen Giap had launched the Tet Offensive, a series of coordinated surprise attacks on American and South Vietnamese forces.
This partial list testifies to the 20th century’s domination by genocidal policies and struggles for freedom and liberation. Alongside these histories, we must place this aesthetic chronology. When he was 13, Guston’s mother enrolled him in a correspondence course run by the Cleveland School of Cartooning. He began reading comic strips, including George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff. He met Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, but was expelled and never returned; he also met Reuben Kadish (1913-1992), who attended a nearby high school. In 1930, he received a scholarship to attend Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, but he dropped out after three months. He began going to the Los Angeles Public Library to familiarize himself with reproductions of Michelangelo’s drawings, Mantegna’s prints and paintings, and the frescoes of Giotto, Masaccio, and, above all, Piero della Francesca. At the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, he saw the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and other modern European artists for the first time. Kadish introduced him to Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978), who had studied art in Paris and had firsthand experience of Cubism and Surrealism. Feitelson wanted to make rational use of the irrational elements and associations of Surrealism while rejecting Automatism as a process. Guston remembers Feitelson talking to him about Tintoretto and Raphael and encouraging his pursuit of Michelangelo.
From cartoons to Piero and Michelangelo to Surrealism’s enigmatic use of dream logic, to Cubism’s reconfiguring of space, these aesthetic experiences suggest the breadth of what Guston had absorbed before he turned 25, which helped him to survive in this world. That he did so without closing his eyes or turning away allowed him to become a witness to the century’s darkest and foulest experiences. In the paintings of his last decade, he enabled us to see and reflect upon what much of modern humanity had become: ravenous murderers.
I wish the extent of what he achieved was more fully suggested in the long-delayed show Philip Guston Now, jointly curated by Megan Bernard, Ethan Lasser, Kate Nesin, and Terence Washington, and beginning its tour at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (May 1–September 11, 2022). One day, most likely not in my lifetime, Guston will get the retrospective he deserves, as Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Mitchell, Wayne Thiebaud, and Frank Stella already have, more than once. Until that day happens, I recommend going to every Guston show you can.
A lot of issues are raised by the museum’s presentation of Guston, which have been eloquently discussed by Barry Schwabsky in The Nation and Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. My complaint is cruder. I got sick of the museum’s defensiveness, such as the “Emotional Preparedness” card by health and trauma specialist Ginger Klee, that preps visitors for the show, and of being repeatedly told by the the wall labels that Guston’s hooded figures are about America’s racist history, because I think they are more than that, and that is what makes them so powerful, necessary, urgent, and, most importantly, relevant to whatever present they live in.
Halfway through the exhibition, happy to see early works and all the stylistic possibilities he explored, I was once again stopped in my tracks. This time it was by an ink drawing on a torn piece of brown paper, titled “Sketchbook drawing” (1947). The date is not insignificant for a number of reasons. It is two years after photographs of bodies piled in concentration camp graves began to appear in newsreels, magazines, and newspapers, and the year that Jackson Pollock “broke the ice,” as de Kooning said, by pouring paint onto an unstretched canvas placed on the floor. As Guston saw it, the dilemma the artist must face constantly is not just the empty canvas; it is also what to include and what to leave out. Both blessed and cursed by a colossal visual memory, Guston was determined to keep his eyes open, to look at civilization’s end.
In the lower right-hand corner of “Sketchbook drawing,” Guston has drawn a portrait of a man (most likely himself) looking up at everything around him, right above his signature and date. The entire right side of the drawing has been torn off, so we only see one eye. A triangular section at the bottom edge is also missing. The drawing shows recurring tropes of Guston’s visual and conceptual vocabulary: a work within a work; hooded figures, including one flagellating himself; piles of stuff; a bare, inverted leg wearing a shoe; an oil-burning lantern; a masked and crowned head next to another mask. If you look closely at the drawing within the drawing, you can see a horseshoe on a table. What makes this drawing something more than a depiction of a man trying to comprehend all that he sees is the wandering line over the mouth, as if a thread is threatening to sew it shut.
In 1969, when two or three hooded figures sitting in cars started to appear in the large paintings, Guston often depicted them with stretcher bars. They are artists. They have vertical slits (reminiscent of jail cells) for eyes but no opening for the mouth. Guston knew he had become part of this secret society complete with unspoken loyalty oaths to various figures (critics, curators, and collectors), and that he was going to leave this club known as the Abstract Expressionists. What does it mean to suggest that artists are no different than a group of pathetic cigar-smoking men afraid to show their faces? The cars have no wheels, or ungainly and inefficient ones, because these people are stuck with each other, and Guston wanted something else.
Guston was not interested in pointing fingers at others. While many critics have stated that the figure in “The Studio” (1969) is a member of the KKK, I believe the artist is implicating himself because he had come to see his abstract painting as a retreat from the world. Guston is pointing at himself with a loaded brush. It was not until 1972 that he put away the hoods and became the witness he had always aspired to be, out of need. Like many figures, especially in his drawings of President Richard Nixon and his cronies, Guston saw authority figures as despicable buffoons.
The MFA exhibition omits a whole period of Guston’s work as an abstract painter. And yet, he could not have made the paintings on which his reputation rests without first exploring the possibilities of paint as paint and drawing in paint. As impressive and engaging as are a number of the paintings from before the late 1960s, I feel that Guston became a truly great painter after he abandoned the hooded figures, and all that haunted him spilled out onto his canvas. On the left side of “Painter’s Form No. 2” (1978), a disembodied mouth expels bare, hairy legs. The likely source of this painting is Fra Angelico’s fresco “The Mocking of Christ” (1439-43), in which a man spits on the blindfolded Christ, while doffing his cap. Inspired by sources as diverse as a cartoon figure bouncing a brick off another’s head to late de Chirico, Guston followed his own path from 1930 until 1950, when he became an abstract painter, and from the late 1960s until his death in 1980.
In the last eight years of his life, the paintings poured out of him, as piles of limbs, bugs scrambling down rocks, spiderwebs ensnaring his and his wife’s heads, pits filled with body parts. In “Painting, Smoking, Eating” (1972), he is a young man lying in bed, a plate of unappetizing french fries balanced on his blanketed chest. Behind him, spanning almost the entire canvas, are a pile of shoes, a paint can, and what might be a canvas. On the far right, the cord and round handle of the window shade suggest a noose. In “Couple in Bed” (1977), he is an old man lying in bed with his wife, clutching paint brushes, his shoes still on in case he is summoned by his ghosts in the middle of the night. Guston wanted to keep looking at the doomed, changing world until he died, and he did. He wanted us to know that you could keep your eyes open, no matter what. That’s what the museum did not celebrate.
Philip Guston Now continues at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts) through September 11. The exhibition was curated by Megan Bernard, Ethan Lasser, Kate Nesin, and Terence Washington.