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The Unstoppable Paintings of Philip Guston

On the June weekend that “Philip Guston Now” was scheduled to open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, thousands of people were in the streets protesting the killing of George Floyd. The words BLACK LIVES MATTER had been boldly painted onto 16th Street, one block from the White House where a nasty, racist president sat fuming. It would have been thrilling to see Philip Guston’s work, especially his late ’60s, early ’70s paintings with hooded conspirators, in the immediacy of an historical moment like this. Imagine the deliciousness of a painting like Courtroom, 1970, hanging in the nation’s capital, when questions of culpability and justice echoed throughout the country. Talk about serendipity. There would, of course, be issues of interpretation surrounding this body of work. What would people make of the KKK characters? How about those who shouted down Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting, Open Casket? Could the dark humour and rich ironies of Guston be understood and embraced by the general public? Would he be seen as a “woke” artist, as Glenn Ligon suggests in one of the catalogue testimonials? Unfortunately, we will never know. On September 21, the four institutions involved with the touring survey exhibition issued a joint press communiqué officially cancelling the show, which would be revisited in 2024, not due to COVID-19, which had forced postponements, but because Guston’s imagery was simply too difficult to handle just now. It is ironic that “Philip Guston Now” was timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Guston’s infamous 1970 solo exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in NYC, where the hooded figures initially appeared.

Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, oil on canvas, 48 x 42 inches. All photos © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy of The Guston Foundation.

For my generation of painters, Philip Guston was an inspiration and a catalyst. The Marlborough show and the artist’s subsequent late works blew the lid off the complacent aesthetics of late modernist painting in North America at the time, challenging the notion of progress in art and the “keep it flat, Jack” mantra of Clement Greenberg. Like everybody else, I initially knew Guston as a first-generation abstract expressionist, the maker of tremulous canvases where brush strokes jostled for space, creating fragile networks of paint or coalescing into gnarly entities. For his delicate touch and lyricism, he became saddled with the rather derogatory label of Abstract Impressionist. Indeed, on the surface, Guston seemed the least likely NY School painter to rock the boat and emerge as the godfather of unruly representation. And yet, that is what happened. In the roughly 10 years before his death in 1980, he created a phantasmagoric universe of imagery in a style that married the language of early comics with his inimitable sense of touch and interval. Over time we have come to see Guston’s final phase as a consolidation and summation of past practices, rather than a rebuttal. The artist has gone from pariah to being lionized as a cultural touchstone, with the term Gustonesque used at art schools and occasionally popping up as a hashtag on Instagram.

Unquestionably, the Marlborough paintings still pack a punch. They resonate as much or more than ever, emerging from a similar period of intense civil unrest in the US. In the 1960s, like other Americans, Guston watched a nation in turmoil play out on the nightly news. Seeing helmeted police officers charge and beat protesters live on national television at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968 seemed to be a breaking point for him: “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.” The shocking thing was not just that Guston had “gone figurative” or embraced politics at this juncture but the strangeness of the imagery he proposed. The most commented-upon aspect of the Marlborough paintings was Guston’s casting of cigar-smoking Klansmen, or “little bastards” as he sometimes called them, as the principal protagonists. At the time, nobody seemed aware that Guston had used KKK imagery before. As early as 1931, as a teenager in Los Angeles, where the Klan was active, he had portrayed both a whipping and a lynching in the context of the Scottsboro case and later combined hooded figures with swastikas in The Struggle Against Terrorism, the 1934–35 mural he executed with his friend Reuben Kadish in Morelia, Mexico. While these initial works were rendered in the classical style favoured by social realists, Guston’s updated Marlborough Klansmen had a flat, deadpan aspect. Generally, the titles of the show’s paintings were similarly laconic: Plotters, Sheriff, Evidence, Bad Times, Day’s Work and Caught, becoming specific only with Central Avenue, which referenced the north/south axis that runs through Los Angeles’s Black neighbourhoods. Pointedly, it portrays two hooded figures in a car with clubs and a makeshift wooden cross. There is little doubt that Guston’s hooded men are involved in dirty deeds, but they are largely presented, after the fact, beside piles of corpses, sometimes with body parts sticking out of trash cans. Given the mayhem they have created, they remain surprisingly bland agents. Even when an accusing hand appears, their stare is neutral, matter of fact, as though to say, “There’s nothing special going on here, move along.” In Black Lives Matter America this is all too familiar territory.

Tower, 1970, oil on canvas, 72 x 80.5 inches.

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Volume 39, Number 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #155, published November 2020.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.