“Philip Guston Now” @ The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Philip Guston with The Studio in 1969; photo by Frank Lloyd
* * *

The painter Philip Guston (1913-80) likened the creative act to attending a party. “When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people there with you–your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics . . . one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.” “Philip Guston Now,” a retrospective on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, could be seen as the reverse. Guston hasn’t left the party; he was disinvited.

The exhibition has recently opened after an eleven-month postponement. The organizing institutions–the Boston MFA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas–put a hold on the July 2021 opening date in response to events surrounding the death of George Floyd. “We are postponing the exhibition,” the organizers stated last fall, “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

This announcement met with significant pushback among artists and collectors. An open letter sponsored by The Brooklyn Rail garnered over 2,600 signatures–among the signatories contesting the exhibition’s delay were the choreographer Bill T. Jones, performance artist Laurie Anderson, and Agnes Gund, President Emerita and Life Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s likely the letter helped occasion the rescheduling of a show that had already been rescheduled. From a projected 2024 opening date, “Philip Guston Now” comes to us in 2022 having been framed within the context of “each viewer’s lived experience.”

What might Guston, a dyed-in-the-wool Lefty who cast a mordant eye on culture and politics, have made of this hubbub? He was no stranger to controversy during his lifetime. The young Guston was an ideological animal, a Social Realist who took a keen interest in the work of Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueros and Jose Clemente Orozco. (Guston’s high school friend, Jackson Pollock, was also a fan.) In 1933, Guston’s painting Conspirators went on public exhibition and was subsequently destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan–not coincidentally, the subject of the painting.

Controversy followed Guston to the end of his days. After having established himself as a painter of luxurious abstractions, a body of work that carried him through the 1950’s and early 60’s, Guston returned to his figurative roots. When the resulting paintings were shown at Marlborough Gallery in 1970 visitors were puzzled when they weren’t shocked. What to make of these pictures of the KKK tootling around town in a boxcar sedan, smoking stogies or flagellating themselves with whips? The images were lumpy and cartoonish; the color palette, a garish range of pink, red and black.

Guston was vilified in the press; friends were lost. Only Willem de Kooning, his AbEx compatriot, took the paintings in stride, commending Guston for exemplifying the freedom inherent in the creative process. “Philip Guston Now” includes a section dedicated to the infamous Marlborough show amongst an overall count of seventy-three paintings and twenty-three drawings. A sharp light is being shone on a headstrong talent.

Guston was born in Montreal, Canada, the youngest of seven children. The family had fled Odessa to escape anti-Semitic persecution, later moving to Los Angeles to seek economic opportunity. It wasn’t forthcoming. Guston’s father committed suicide. Ten-year old Philip discovered the body. Philip’s mother encouraged her son’s interest in painting and drawing, and Guston enrolled in L.A.’s Manual Arts High School. He moved to New York in 1935, joined the Works Project Administration, and married the poet Musa McKim. Guston went on to achieve considerable success as first-generation Abstract Expressionist, but found himself increasingly frustrated by “all that purity.” He and Musa moved to Woodstock. Outside the social whirlpool of the New York City art scene, Guston got down to business.

“Philip Guston Now” traces an oeuvre that underwent a fair share of bumps even as it settled out according to its own ineradicable logic. Stylistic shifts that may have appeared capricious during the artist’s life reveal themselves to be organic and of a piece. That is, of course, the benefit of hindsight. The exhibition begins with Mother and Child (c. 1930), a monumental image that is barely contained by its modest format. In it, we see an attempt to reconcile the pittura metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico with the tight-lipped fortitude of Piero della Francesca, one of many Renaissance Masters Guston revered. The same impulse, albeit inflected by contemporary events, can be gleaned from Drawing for Conspirators (1930) a pencil study for the ill-fated painting.


Guston’s compositions became increasingly complicated during the 1940’s. Figures, objects and spaces became tangled, albeit choreographed with a steely attention to interval and edge. Children appear in the canvases, often seen battling on city streets. Guston’s love of vintage comic strips can be gleaned from the elasticity of form seen in Gladiators (1940). Dynamism eventually gave way to atmosphere. The children in If This Be Not I (1945), not-so-distant kin of Gladiators, line up and face the viewer as if awaiting judgment. Stillness reigns.


Guston found himself increasingly drawn to abstraction. The compositional underpinnings of the figurative work gave way to an infirm and cobbled geometry. The Tormentors (1947-48), a smoldering web of ratcheted forms, was a stepping stone from If This Be Not I to the magisterial “Abstract Impressionism” of canvases like Summer (1954) and Dial (1956). Touch took precedence during this phase, though not at the risk of structure. Imagine Monet meeting Mondrian in a post-Hiroshima milieu.

The 1960’s put paid to Guston’s relationship with abstraction. The era’s political and cultural tumult rankled his inner moralist.  “I was feeling split, schizophrenic . . . 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.”  For the first time in decades, Guston started painting objects and figures–or parts of figures, anyway. The compositions were blunt in their rendering, close to cack-handed. The signature Guston brushstroke–tha tenderly inquisitive slur of oil paint–took on a klutzy and comedic temper. Guston had always been a fan of George Herriman, the pioneering comic strip artist who created Krazy Kat. Herriman’s inimitable scratchiness came to the fore in Guston’s use of line. Sensuality was up-ended by agitation.


And then came the figures in hoods, galumphing pyramidal shapes that pick up where The Conspirators left off some thirty years earlier. These are the KKK pictures that gave pause to the organizers of “Philip Guston Now”–as well they should have: images are potent bearers of meaning. Certainly, Guston didn’t choose his cast of characters lightly; placing the KKK amongst them was, in no small terms, a freighted decision. It was also a provocation. Guston was never afraid to play with fire or, for that matter, ambiguity. Art was nothing without contradiction.


The Klan were soon overtaken by motifs that were alternately mundane (cherries, cigarettes, cities in the distance), personal (Musa, stuff in the studio), and bizarre (disembodied legs, cyclopean heads, bugs). The late work, in other words, isn’t altogether dependent on imagery that is potentially objectionable. All the same, the Boston MFA is skittish enough to provide an “emotional preparedness” warning for museum visitors. How that will skew the audience’s perception remains to be seen. In the meantime, “Philip Guston Now” offers an overview, circumspect and wary, of a profound and unruly artist.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

The article orignally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Art & Antiques.

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Comments

  • rozolution  On July 26, 2022 at 8: 25 am

    Like this very much. Emboldening and strangely, COMFORTING, to hear HIS words, his struggle within the context of the surrounding art world — ideas which of course are so evident in his work.

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