Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / Philip Guston (1913–80) is best known for abandoning Abstract Expressionism – the style that made him famous in the 1950s – in favor of troubling, enigmatic, and morbidly cartoonish images of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. The youngest of seven children of Jewish immigrants from Canada – he was born Goldstein but changed his surname due to prevalent anti-Semitism – Guston first encountered the KKK as a boy in Los Angeles in the 1920s. A semi-realistic 1930 drawing of Klansmen (owned by the Whitney but unfortunately not in this exhibition) clearly illustrates the artist’s fear and abhorrence. In 1933, he was shaken when his exhibited work depicting Klan violence was vandalized by Klan-affiliated goons from the Los Angeles Police Department. Later, in the 1940s, Guston saw photographs of piles of corpses in Nazi concentration camps. The man was traumatized.
In 1935, at the urging of Jackson Pollock, who’d been his classmate at Manual Arts High School, Guston moved to New York with his future wife Musa McKim. His first fully abstract painting appeared in 1950, and in 1951 he participated in the famous Ninth Street exhibition that showcased Abstract Expressionism. By the late 1950s, Guston was making enough money from his art to paint full time. In 1968, however, Guston’s work swerved dramatically. He began painting very small canvases of ordinary things – a cup, an easel, a lightbulb, a nail – all in a plumped-up, parodic manner. One of the most poignant is Paw (1968), an image of a human hand holding a brush while a single line trails behind it as if the “paw” were a snail. By 1969, white-triangle-hooded figures with empty black slits for eyes emerged. In the early 70s came his trademark bulging “lima bean” heads with their enormous, staring eyes.
Guston explained the reasons for his aesthetic revolution: “So when the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The [Vietnam] war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.” When he first exhibited the new work at Marlborough Gallery in 1970, many of his AbEx contemporaries were aghast, as he seemed to have defected to figuration, their arch-enemy. Willem de Kooning, however, enthusiastically supported him, hugging him at the opening and telling him the new work was about, not just the subject matter, but also the “freedom of the artist.”
These days, that is no longer much of a rallying cry. Anything goes – certainly anything abstract because abstraction has become secondary to figurative art. But the latter, for its part, is embroiled in vexing sociopolitical issues. Who is making the images? Who has the power to interpret them in public? Who gets to control how they’re seen or even whether they’re seen? All that seems to matter more than the strictly aesthetic aspects of a painter’s images.
It did make some sense to me that after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the National Gallery in Washington – where the Guston retrospective was slated to open the very next month – announced that the four museums hosting the show on its tour were postponing it until 2024 to ensure that “the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” Organizers worried that Guston’s Klan images would upset some audiences, especially Black audiences unfamiliar with his oeuvre, even though the artist used them to decry bigotry and racism. The concern wasn’t merely that the images might be misinterpreted, but that they might cause actual psychological distress. It didn’t matter that the catalogue for the original exhibition included essays by Trenton Doyle Hancock and Glen Ligon – socially astute Black artists – or that numerous noted Black artists had signed a letter arguing that postponement signaled a lack of faith in artists and audiences.
In any event, only two years later, the show has opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Why the change of heart? In a (long) word, recontextualization. The museums scrapped their original plans in favor of new exhibitions – each institution is configuring its own show, and no two versions are alike – that take account of potentially fraught audience reactions. The revised Boston exhibition, with 73 paintings and 23 drawings, is a team effort mounted by the museum’s two curators, two guest curators, various museum staff and educators, the critic Homi Bhabha, and a trauma counselor who crafted a statement about “emotional preparedness” for the show. It begins: “The content of this exhibition is challenging. The Museum offers these words in a spirit of care and invitation.” Midway through the exhibition, visitors who find the material too disturbing can leave through a special exit before they encounter particularly vivid Klan imagery.
The Guston exhibition is also a departure from the retrospective model whereby curators gently follow an artist’s work from nascent musings through to a mature signature style (in Guston’s case, two of them), leaving viewers to interpret what they see and providing only broad, suggestive guidance about outside pressures. In the Boston show, Guston’s art and the social and political times in which he made it are equal players.
Assiduous contextualization may make sense in our volatile times, and can be an important corrective to any notion art is made in a vacuum. Yet the more emphasis there is on contextualization, the greater the risk that curatorial didacticism will rob the art itself of due appreciation. This Guston retrospective achieves a balance, but only barely. Although the work is hung in roughly chronological order, the show is organized primarily by themes. This disposition means that figurative and abstract paintings sometimes hang too near one another, and that Guston’s abstract pieces are subordinated to his figurative ones. Mercifully, the abundant narrative wall material is set back from the works of art and does not hover over them.
The first gallery is titled, “What Kind of Man Am I?” It’s a crisp adumbration of Guston’s entire oeuvre, with examples from his earliest figuration, Abstract Expressionist period, and return to figuration. Here the theme of the entire show is declared to be “Guston’s consistent desire to confront his shifting, fallible, and inescapable self.” Couple in Bed (1977), one of the most moving paintings in the exhibition, steals the spotlight. The artist’s head, along with that of his wife Musa, peeks out from under the bedcovers. His right hand clutches a few paintbrushes, and his terribly skinny legs, dotted with bumps, lie at a diagonal almost parallel to each other. Preposterously, he’s wearing shoes with soles aligned flat against the bottom of the picture, turned toward us as to show the painter’s stigmata. Guston’s unease is palpable. No doubt he was concerned about his painting, painting in general, and who he was. But I see the painting’s central theme as existential anxiety itself.
Guston was of a generation of painters who believed that if they could have articulated what their paintings meant they wouldn’t have had to paint them. “It’s not given to me to completely understand it,” he said. We can all natter on about the meaning of his “pile-ups” of pigments, or things like legs or bricks, and talk about how he probed the chromatic possibilities of red and pink. But we might be more enriched if we just focused the discomfiting ambiguity of his paintings. It may be enough to understand what this exhibition gets right: while Guston, like any artist, was of his own times, his work pushed ferociously against them.
“Philip Guston Now,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Through September 11, 2022. The show will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and Tate Modern in London.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.