Philip Guston : “It was too much of a painting.”

by Jeffrey Bishop

Waking Up, by Philip Guston, 1975

Philip Guston: A Centennial Exhibition


McKee Gallery, NYC, March 2nd – April 20th 2013

Few artists today are more revered by other artists, painters especially, than Philip Guston, (1913-1980). It was not always thus. For a decade or so, way back in the 70’s, no painter was more divisive than Guston. At a time when the art world was dominated by the emergence of Minimalism and Pop, this highly respected veteran of Abstract Expressionism struck out on a singular path that was a shock to his peers and long time admirers. He garnered praise for this bold move from some, but mostly endured derision for so decisively abandoning the canon of Abstract Expressionism.

Previously among the core group of Abstract Expressionist painters, Guston’s work was physical and sumptuous with delicious brushwork and a deft sense of coloration. Like many of his peers he had evolved to his Abstract Expressionist phase via WPA work that was politically charged, while acknowledging such modernist influences as Giorgio De Chirico and the Quattrocento painter Piero della Francesca.


To JS, by Philip Guston, 1977


These early paintings told grim stories of tough depression era times while also incorporating autobiographical images that would emerge in new forms in his later years. The disturbing images of KKK marches, for example, were among themes that found new expression as Guston sought to reconnect to the story telling of his early work in an entirely novel fashion. His Jewish heritage was informed by his fearful and domineering Ukrainian father who hung himself and was found by Guston at age eleven.

The Year, by Philip Guston, 1964






In 1967, somewhat dejected with the NY scene, Guston and his wife Musa withdrew upstate to Woodstock, where he lived out his life. There followed a fertile but difficult period of transition where the artist painted a series of quite small and now highly prized works that would secure the vocabulary that wed his expressionist and painterly impulses to the narrative strain that he sought to explore. In 1970 a new body of work was shown at the then very important Marlborough Gallery. The critical response was a firestorm of negativity. John Cage, a good friend, was horrified. Among critics, Hilton Kramer, then writing for the NY Times, led the way with a caustic headline that read “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.”

Robert Hughes, long time critic for Time magazine, was equally scathing in a piece titled “Ku Klux Komix”. To his credit Hughes later changed his mind. Many of Guston’s peers never did. But Willem deKooning, who’s own work had always retained elements of the figurative, instantly saw something new and inspiring, declaring “they’re about freedom” and scornfully questioned the conformity of the Abstract Expressionist purists: “What do they think, we’re all a baseball team?”

Earlier Guston himself had said, “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.”

Nonetheless the penalty for this drastic change of course was severe. Marlborough did not renew its contract with the artist. Fortunately he was picked up by David McKee who had been an admirer while working at Marlborough before opening his own gallery. Guston remained loyal to the McKee Gallery for the remainder of his life.


Shoes, by Philip Guston, 1972






As art students in Boston at the time, a number of us went down to NY to see shows and following all the uproar naturally went to Marlborough to make up our own minds. At the time I revered Mark Rothko in particular and was still recovering in my own way from the shocking news of his suicide earlier in the year. The Gustons were so loaded with such a different kind of content I found myself also initially confounded. Ominous, ambiguous hooded characters, old worn shoes, smoking heads and other body fragments, large blood-shot eyes especially, populated this new universe. And yet the lushness of the paint and the humor that somehow suffused the harsh and crude images were ultimately irresistible as we lingered, stared again and argued and within the day I was a convert. But I remember the conversation at the Museum School among students and faculty went on for months.

Today we may be amused at what the fuss was all about. Guston’s legacy is secure and his influence pervasive and liberating. Painters these days look reverentially to Guston as they embrace and incorporate the world’s messy affairs and contamination into the fabric of their work. Carroll Dunham and Steve DiBenedetto are among many who might exemplify the broader implications of his influence. As Guston himself said, “Nothing is ever solved in a painting; it’s a continuous chain that doesn’t go in one line, it goes in a serpentine line or in crooked paths, detours that have to be investigated. I felt like an explorer who almost got to the top of Mount Everest and somehow stopped just short and remembered and thought well perhaps maybe I forgot some gear, you know, I forgot some equipment but going down to recover this equipment I took some side paths that looked exciting and full of possibilities.”


Plotters, by Philip Guston, 1969


The always elegant and thoughtful McKee Gallery celebrates Philip Guston’s Centennial with an exquisite show not aimed at a mini-career survey so much as a “spontaneous celebration,” interspersing rarely shown works with some of his most widely known and classic large canvases. This show of one of our greatest painters is a rare treat indeed.



Images courtesy of the McKee Gallery, New York City

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