…there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all
The painter’s first duty is to be free
In 1970, New York City was the undisputed center of the art world and 57th street in midtown Manhattan was the epicenter of New York’s art world with its plethora of blue chip galleries. Art and theater critics reigned supreme — they could and would ruin careers with a gleeful flourish of their poison pens. When Philip Guston, acclaimed Abstract-Expressionist, showed his new large-scale paintings at Marlborough in October, 1970, he was roundly excoriated for his switch from abstract art to figuration. Not only was the work (horrors!) figurative, it was rudely cartoonish and crudely drawn.
I was lucky enough to actually have seen that very show. I remember being astonished. I’d never seen anything like it. Wonderfully lugubrious, the imagery was an oxymoronic cocktail of vaguely horrific, KKK–like cone heads, disembodied feet, and piles of upside-down shoes (which I now know is a cartoon symbol of death). Mounds of shoes and piles of bricks were eerie ghostly reminders of the concentration camps as well as collections of shoes from the deceased and the rubble of war-torn European cities.
The subject of some of these pictures was the artist himself in a funk of profound melancholia, sleeping (or not sleeping eyes wide open in anxious insomnia), eating and chain smoking in his studio amid piles of wood, disembodied arms and legs with blank canvases all stacked up in disarray. The bricks, cups, wood and other abject objects were positioned cheek-by-jowl, like a Looney-tune version of Morandi’s sober still life paintings, always on a plateau, a shelf, a fence or a wall, painted with Guston’s recognizable murky pink palette. At that infamous show, there was an eerie, large, horizontal painting of only a naked light bulb dangling from the top edge of the painting with nothing else in the frame (reminiscent of the light bulb in the 1953 POW movie Stalag 17). Apparently as a youngster, Guston routinely painted in a closet illuminated by a single light bulb. He preferred to be in what he called “the underground,” alone and set apart.
The year after that now iconic and breakthrough show, Guston went (or fled) to Rome for his second Prix de Rome (the first was in 1948) where he painted the mysterious works on paper that Hauser Wirth are exhibiting here in Resilence: Philip Guston in 1971, curated by his daughter Musa Mayer. Unbelievably prolific (he actually sat around and pondered in Rome for two months, gathering himself, before creating what seems like hundreds of images, with some forty-odd works on paper here on display.)
Guston developed a private lexicon of objects, each imbued with a secret and ambiguous meaning, leaving the viewer hopelessly confounded but ever more intrigued. There’s no totally comprehending them. They are relentlessly themselves and painted in a self-assured, purposely clumsy manner, since Guston was a masterful figurative painter (a prodigy really, who as a teenager, dropped out of high school, and with Jackson Pollack, went to paint social realist murals in Mexico.)
Hooded figures appear constantly in these works but are strangely benign. It’s as if a rabid dog was actually defanged. Guston, in 1978, while talking to students, explained that he was the man behind the hoods, trying to explore the banality of evil.
There is a prevailing sense of unease as hooded figures engage with inanimate shape-shifting objects. A painted canvas can look like a slice of white bread– soft and malleable — or be mistaken for a book. Guston was intoxicated with these humble everyday narrative objects as notes found by Musa in his studio (after his death dated September 1970), one month before that fateful Marlborough show, demonstrate.
Thickness of things. Rusted iron. Mended rags. Seams. Dried blood stains. Pink paint. Bent nails and pieces of wood. Brick walls. Cigarette butts. Smoking. Empty booze bottles.
How would bricks look flying through the air–fixed in their gravity — falling? A Brick fight.
Pictures hanging on nails in walls. The hands of clocks. Green window shades. Two or three story brick buildings. Endless Black windows. Empty streets.
At this point, it’s instructive to revisit Guston’s life. His parents were immigrants. His father was a junkman collecting refuse, which was work he found to be humiliating. When Guston was around 12, his father hanged himself and it was Guston who found him. Later in his life, when drunk or depressed he would ask people, “Can you imagine how it feels to find your father like that?” A subterranean stream of sadness understandably permeates his work.
However, there is an unrestrained glee and sense of investigation with this body of work that his daughter rightfully called “Resilience.”
Somehow, while painting these misshapen, lumpy clay-like objects, Guston manages to animate them and put them in conversation with the past, the present and the future. These bits and pieces of wood, nails and bricks suggest construction or things coming into being. Guston’s luscious paint quality, the robustness of the stroke, the pentimento richness of the surface all hold meaning and often suggest the rough surface of a fresco.
“The Picture” (one of the few titled works here), 1971, oil on paper mounted on panel, 30’ x 39 ¼”, has at its core only three images: the ubiquitous hooded man (the artist masquerading and/or hiding) being painted by a fat-three fingered hand coming in from the right side. The paper is vertical and is painted to look like a canvas, the staples showing on the left edge. Delineated in a black contour cartoon line, this manages to be both poignant and spiritual addressing the unknowable idea of creation. It represents the infinity of mirrors as the artist is painting a picture of the artist painting a picture.
Guston, in his interviews, has talked about being in a place, what we might now call “flow”, where time and self disappear. He describes painting with the help of a “third hand.” Clearly, this is a reference to a divine being or spirit who inhabits the creative person.
A short video, never before shown, of Guston in conversation in his studio with a poet friend, is widely instructive. The prodigious output of his Rome residency is apparent as the work is stacked floor to ceiling while a view into the other room shows hundreds more lying around in neat piles. The video (by today’s standards) is slow paced and unscripted as Guston and his friend ponder the works and struggle for words to describe the feelings the work evokes. Guston handles his work casually, even push-pinning through the paper to attach them to the wall. In this day where all artists have a one-minute slick elevator pitch, it is instructive to watch Guston try to put words to his images. He said during an interview ”… you see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too.” How refreshing. Perhaps that’s why the works look as robust, as vigorous, now as then and completely engage the viewer in searching for their meaning.
Lest the viewer think Guston too serious, there is a treasure trove of over 100 of his wildly comic satirical ink drawings of tricky Dick Nixon. Nixon’s nose becomes a phallus and his jowls become testicles (for starters!). One forgets what a political maelstrom 1973 was, with Watergate brewing and the war in Vietnam dragging endlessly and painfully on. Not shown during his life, as he didn’t want the world to think less of him by thinking of him as a cartoonist (though ironically that was the pointed but mistaken critique of his serious paintings.)
Philip Guston was the ultimate enigmatic outsider who was invited to be on the inside. He left New York to live in Woodstock and various other places that were not the center of the art world, much to the dismay of his artist friends, especially his boyhood friend Jackson Pollack. Heretical to the core, a rebel (kicked out of art school) he was most comfortable on the periphery or even underground. Convinced of the uniqueness of his new work, undeterred by scathing reviews, he bravely soldiered on creating the most important work of his life. This is truly a must-see exhibition.