Philip Guston's teenage drawings reveal a lost world of funny pages
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Philip Guston's teenage drawings reveal a lost world of funny pages
File photo of a conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston inspecting Philip Guston’s “City Limits” (1969) during installation, April 25, 2022. (Tony Luong/The New York Times)

by Walker Mimms

NEW YORK, NY.- Before Philip Guston developed the loud and plush figuration of his renown, before he Anglicized his surname in adulthood, the 12-year-old known as Philip Goldstein joined the art staff of the Los Angeles Times Junior Club.

The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Montreal who had moved to Los Angeles, Philip was a student at Manual Arts High School, where he befriended a young Jackson Pollock and joined a youth organization that produced The Junior Times, a Sunday supplement in The Los Angeles Times for essays, poems, puzzles and illustrations by kids, for kids. From 1925 to 1929, in these pages, Guston honed his pen for an audience of the West Coast’s largest home delivery.

A few afternoons ago, I shook loose 20 of his drawings which — like “Steamboat Willie,” Winnie the Pooh and other classic characters — are now in the public domain. Could they add to our understanding of Guston and his art?

The Junior Club itself seemed the boy’s muse. In several panels from 1928, one of his characters, Kolly-Jit, an overeager schoolboy whose name puns on “collegiate,” welcomes new members of the Junior Club with a loud “Howdy!” In one strip, Kolly visits a Junior Times columnist, Tony Correra, who in real life lived blocks from Guston in South Los Angeles.

In a 1926 strip, we meet Skinny Slats, an ironically corpulent lad who squeezes out of an inkwell. Skinny is lonesome and confused until six Junior Club cartoonists — including Hardie Gramatky, who went on to become a watercolorist admired by Andrew Wyeth — walk into the frame and heartily welcome the boy.

The “jolly bunch of pen-pushers,” as Guston described the teenage illustrators in a sleekly drawn, George Herriman-esque panel of July 1928, would go on to arts careers themselves: Louie Frimkess founded the firm Advertising Designers, Philip Delara joined Warner Bros.; Bill Zaboly, a Minnesotan, inherited the design of Popeye after E.C. Segar’s death, while Manuel Moreno, the brightest face in Guston’s group, established a short-lived studio in Mexico after animating for Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker.

Art history is aware of Guston’s loftier influences — his mentor in West Coast Surrealism, Lorser Feitelson, or the Hollywood collectors of Duchamps and Brancusis, the Arensbergs — but these homegrown funny pages, with their collaborations and callbacks, were a laboratory for him and for budding artists of all predilections.

While Junior Clubs were “a generic form papers big and small could adapt” nationwide, newspaper historian Paul Moore said in an interview, “the LA Junior Times seems to be uniquely recalled in later decades as the starting forum for several artists and illustrators.”

Sandra Gabriele, coauthor with Moore of “The Sunday Paper: A Media History,” added by phone that “the symbolic indication is that this paper does more than simply bring you the news.” Through contests, prizes, subscriptions and events, Gabriele explained, Junior Clubs were “really about acting as a cultural and civic agent in society itself.”

Guston, age 13, effused to the editor of one of his first issues: “I have just joined your wonderful club and I have already won a prize for a comic strip. I just can’t express the feeling I had when I saw the mailman put a blue letter in the mail box. I am certainly proud to be a registered member of the largest, peppiest club in the world.”

Across political cartoons and inside jokes, Guston’s voice takes shape. His inkstrokes for New Year’s 1929 foretell the individualized daubs that would distinguish him among Abstract Expressionists in 1950s New York. Vocabularies mingled, too. See the weird Cyclops artist drawn by one Ronald Gwinn of South Pasadena, complete with the shaggy easel and blaring lightbulb recognizable in Guston’s own late work.

Race also stands out to the modern reader. Guston’s first comic for The Junior Times, a sparse strip drawn at age 12, introduced Little Snowball, a Black youth bearing exaggerated racial physiognomy and dialect. In his debut, Snowball quibbles with a Hollywood director. In the next issue, published on Guston’s 13th birthday, Snowball phones his girlfriend.

Two years later, in 1928, Guston revived him across three issues as Snowball the Bell-Hop, this time sharply dressed, more deftly drawn, telling one-liners in his hotel uniform. Though his English now follows textbook grammar, Snowball’s minstrel qualities remain.

“Sambo” and related denigrations were, sadly, part of a long and pervasive graphic tradition. “Deviations risk being not published,” Moore said of the tropes’ ubiquity. “It’s speaking to existing ways of thinking, existing ways of being in society.”

Invented during Reconstruction to “muzzle” freed Black Americans, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., put it in “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” these caricatures continued to fill the funny pages of the 1920s, providing the Junior Club’s many young cartoonists with steady models — the mammy of Gasoline Alley, the primitivized natives from The Gumps, the ragamuffin of Winnie Winkle.

Sally Radic of the Guston Foundation, which represents the work of the painter, said in a statement that he “was devoted to drawing.”

“He submitted his work to the LA Times,” she said, “and he received first prizes. He was engaged with comics (drawings). Yet, not having saved sketchbooks or something similar we can’t say very much as to the artistic attitudes or social concerns. We know that as a young man he was socially conscious.”

Indeed, by 17, Guston had left the Junior Club for the leftist John Reed Club. As he recalled in interviews, the Scottsboro Boys affair of 1931 — a racial miscarriage of justice presaging the Central Park Five — drove him toward greater displays of racial solidarity. Guston’s social justice paintings from the 1930s depict Ku Klux Klansmen in unambiguous acts of terror, some with Black victims.

Could embarrassment over Snowball have fueled the intensity of those early paintings?

Robert Storr, author of a 2020 monograph on Guston, examined the early drawings with me. “Did he just get uncomfortable with his own prejudices as adolescents sometimes do?” he wondered. “Did he get scolded for it by his party colleagues? What is it that happened?” Guston left no record beyond the comics themselves.

After years as an abstract painter Guston returned to figuration in the 1960s. The Klansmen returned to his canvasses too, this time in play-school pinks and blues, performing pleasantries instead of barbarities: driving, smoking, socializing and — tellingly — painting at easels.

When this material persuaded curators to postpone his 2020 retrospective, saying the work needed more context, the debate resurged as to what these later Klansmen might have meant.

“They are self-portraits,” Guston said in 1978, in a statement much quoted since the retrospective. “I perceive myself as being behind the hood.” In a 1968 self-portrait in the show (which concluded this spring in London), he left a palimpsest of the hood faintly visible behind his face.

“I have long been puzzled by Philip Guston’s readiness to see himself under the Klan hood,” Storr wrote me later. “Was it an amorphous liberal guilt that many white people felt in the Radical Sixties or something else? Well, a quick perusal of Guston’s (then Goldstein’s) apprentice cartoons in the LA Times provides a cringeworthy answer.

“They are painful to look at and think about today,” Storr continued, “and must have been painful for their author to recall in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights era. His private shame and ambivalence are written all over the whimsical hooded marauders he deployed in later paintings and differentiate those figures from his raw, overtly political depictions of lynchers doing their dirty work in the 1930s.”

Unless some long-lost diary resurfaces, the possibility that Guston himself cringed at the memory — or recalled the cartoons at all — remains speculative. “By the turn of the century,” Storr cautioned, “Klan hate was as much against immigrants as Blacks. So there were many reasons to hate the Klan.”

But the drawings introduce a potential new reading. In confronting the banality of evil with his Klansmen of the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps Guston was excavating his own past in search of the raw American political unconscious. (His return to political cartooning under President Richard Nixon, starring childish reductions of China and Africa, would suggest he was still “doing the work.”)

“To ask for meaning is to misunderstand his process,” his daughter, Musa Mayer, said in a recent interview with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But as Guston settles deeper into the canon, with an enormous new donation and a display in the Met’s future Tang Wing, it is to be hoped that the full, unsparing sweep of his legacy — from the newspaper cartoon to the gallery — will embolden rather than frighten his curators. Let it be studied, following Harry Belafonte’s informal edict from 1963, addressing the crowd at the March on Washington: “It is the artists who reveal the society to itself.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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