Across 50 years, Philip Guston continually explored varying means of representation, ranging from figuration to abstraction and back again, as he never stopped questioning the place of the artist in society at large. His richly worked paintings resonate with a profound humanism, defined equally by themes that touch on what he called the brutality of the world and the profound commitment he made to the joy of painting.
Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in collaboration with the
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
(MFAH); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Tate Modern, London, Philip Guston Now is the first retrospective of the artists work assembled in nearly two decades. In Houston the exhibition features 86 paintings, and 33 drawings and prints, from public and private collections, including both well-known and rarely seen works. Among the highlights are foundational paintings from the 1930s that have never been on public view; a cycle of major abstract paintings of the 1950s; a multi-part array of small panel paintings from the late 1960s as Guston developed a new vocabulary grounded in ordinary objects; a reunion of the controversial paintings from Gustons groundbreaking Marlborough Gallery show in 1970; and a powerful selection of large, often apocalyptic paintings of the late 1970s that form Gustons final artistic statement.
Few artists of the 20th century remain more compelling or mysterious to contemporary viewers, said Gary Tinterow, Director, the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Gustons extraordinary turn away from the gorgeous abstract paintings with which he made his reputation in order to make inscrutable figurative paintings filled with doubt and anxiety align him with his hero, Francisco de Goya. Like Goya, Guston felt compelled at the end of his career to comment on society and the human condition in ways that break convention and require the viewers commitment. It is almost impossible to be indifferent to Gustons art.
The Artist and Exhibition Highlights
Philip Guston (19131980), born Phillip Goldstein, was the youngest child of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms that swept Central Europe at the turn of the 20th century, landing first in Montreal before making their way to Los Angeles in 1922. Gustons father died by suicide in 1923, and both cartooning and drawing provided a haven for the precociously talented young artist. Guston left high school during his senior year and was largely self-taught, taking inspiration from books on the Italian Renaissance and the flourishing Mexican Muralist movement. He also visited the superb collection of African and Modern art assembled by Walter and Louise Arensberg, who frequently opened their home to young artists.
Among the earliest works on view in the exhibition, Mother and Child (c. 1930, private collection) was completed when Guston was still in his teens, and it reflects in particular his admiration of Michelangelo and the Surrealist compositions of Giorgio de Chirico. It was also during these early years that Gustons political outlook was honed by encounters with the Los Angeles Police Departments notorious Red Squad and the citys Ku Klux Klan rallies, which prompted Gustons first paintings condemning anti-Semitism and racialized violence.
Guston cast off his birth name when he moved to New York in 1936, and he married painter and poet Musa McKim the following year. Swirling with energy and motion, Gladiators (1940, Museum of Modern Art, New York) typifies the work Guston produced while supporting himself as a muralist for the WPA (Works Progress Administration). An allegory of World War II, Gladiators demonstrates Gustons assimilation of American Modernism as he depicted masked and armed children locked in a Möbius strip of unending conflict. While living and teaching in the Midwest, Guston continued his consideration of the toll of World War II with If This Be Not I (1945, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis). Appalled by the revelations of the Holocaust, Guston presents children in the midst of a ruined city, many masked or hiding their features from the viewer, with a sole ray of hope for a better future personified by the artists young daughter, Musa.
After a period of personal and artistic turmoil, Guston made a commitment to abstraction in 1950, using vibrant colors and thickly worked brushstrokes to fill his canvases as if they were, in the words of critic Harold Rosenberg, an arena in which to act. Guston became a leading figure among the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, and the painterly lyricism he brought to his work over the following decade is mirrored in Summer (1954, Collection of Marguerite and Robert Hoffman) and Passage (195758, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).
By the mid-1960s Guston had begun to allow imagery to reemerge in his paintings, visible in canvases such as Head I (1965, Tate, London). The tension between abstraction and representation dominated much of Gustons work over the next two years, until drawings such as Book and Charcoal Sticks (1968, private collection) and an untitled self-portrait (1968, private collection) ushered in a new era of figuration in Gustons career.
Working in the late 1960s in the retreat of his Woodstock studio, Guston responded to the political and social turmoil of the era through a series of shockingly vivid depictions of Klansmen as cartoonlike figures, resurrecting imagery that had first haunted his early protest paintings. Much as philosopher Hannah Arendt had described the banality of evil in her writings about the Holocaust, Guston presents his Klansmen in everyday settingscruising city streets, invading the artists studio, and inhabiting schoolroom blackboardsto decry the toxic legacy of racism and violence across American history.
Guston produced very few self-portraits in the first decades of his career. But he took center stage in many of his paintings of the 1970s, including Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), as he contemplated his life, asking himself time and again, What kind of man am I? Many of Gustons 1970s paintings also revisited specific themes first explored in his earlier works, as seen in the MFAH painting Legend (1977), which shows Guston once again in bed, haunted by nightmares of violence.
One of the final paintings in the exhibition, Talking (1979, Museum of Modern Art, New York) powerfully summons the artists presence by the simplest of meansa hand holding two cigarettes, and a watch pointing backward, against a dark background. As Guston confronted his failing health, he upheld his faith in painting and in the artists voice to speak urgently to the present moment.
"Philip Guston Now"
Brown Foundation Galleries, Audrey Jones Beck Building
October 23, 2022 January 16, 2023