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Philip Guston Works on Paper

The Morgan Library & Museum, May 2 – August 31, 2008

Philip Guston,
Philip Guston, "Untitled" (1980). Acrylic and ink on board, 20" x 30". Private collection.

In 1929, Philip Goldstein—he changed his name to Guston in 1935—enrolled in Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles, where he formed a lasting friendship with a fellow student, Jackson Pollock. The following year both were thrown out for handing out a broadside that ridiculed the English department. Pollock was soon readmitted, but Guston never returned. As history has proved, Pollock wanted to be accepted, while Guston wanted to be independent; and each paid a price. In the winter of 1935-36, Guston, swayed by Pollock’s entreaties, moved to New York and stayed with Jackson and his brother Sandy McCoy, who was best man at his wedding. This was Guston’s entry into the New York art world. In 1940, Guston and his wife, the poet and artist Musa McKim, moved to Woodstock, essentially putting a distance between his domestic life and the burgeoning Tenth Street scene. During the period that Pollock was making his breakthrough paintings (1947-1951), Guston was moving slowly into abstraction, finally reaching it in “Red Painting” (1950), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The link between Pollock and Guston is well documented, but what seems to get left out of every telling is how, in his art, Guston changed the terms of their dialogue, particularly when it came to line, image, and space. Starting around 1945 and lasting at least until his death in 1956, the conversation is dominated by Pollock. He was the first to take the image out of painting, and it was Guston who followed suit. Pollock, however, wasn’t completely successful in his attempts to put the image back into painting, while Guston, who got sick of how abstraction had become codified after his friend’s death, succeeded in reintroducing both image and space, but only after he stopped painting in the late sixties and focused solely on drawing. When he returned to painting, the result was the Ku Klux Klan figures (his symbol of artists who hid behind the cloak of dogma) that caused such a stink when they were first shown at Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Drawing, which was central to his practice, got him there. For Guston, image and space were lifelong concerns that he never completely abandoned, even at his most abstract.

Pollock’s innovations are the result of his radical redefinition of materials, while Guston’s innovations had largely to do with traditional issues accomplished through traditional means, and can be viewed as a contrarian response to what his friend achieved (this is one of the many gifts Guston gave to younger generations of painters and sculptors). The idea of privileging one’s materials over the image was mostly foreign to Guston. (The one exception was in the fifties, when he produced straw-like marks by dipping a bristle brush caked with dried paint into ink).

The other thing that gets left out of the discussion of these two artists is pedigree. Pollock, so it has been repeatedly stated, wrestled with Picasso and Cubism, but Guston wasn’t afflicted with these demons. He loved Piet Mondrian, Picasso’s classical period, early and late Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi, Carlo Carra, Max Beckmann, and the cartoonist, George Herriman. With the exception of Mondrian, these were artists or styles that had been dismissed for decades by those who believed that art had an identifiable telos of pure abstraction (Guston’s rejection of a goal defined by others is another gift to younger artists). For those who believe in pedigree and bloodlines, as if artists are entrants in a dog show or horse race, this, of course, is crucial. (Don’t think that this is something only critics fuss over—just look at Carroll Dunham, who has positioned himself to be anointed as Guston’s true heir).

The current exhibition of works on paper at the Morgan Library & Museum begins with “Untitled” (1946), whose iconography (shoes, iron, a prone, introspective figure) the artist periodically returns to throughout his career. It also includes the delicately linear “Drawing No. 2” (Ischia) (1949), done at a time when the artist was moving towards abstraction. In the early 1950s, he makes clusters of lines of varying thicknesses by drawing in ink with a paintbrush whose bristles are stiff with dried paint. The changing weight of his lines is something he got from Pollock that comes to full flower in the late 1960s. In these earlier drawings, which are central to his development, the negative spaces feel as physical as the forms made by the clustered lines. Also, the clusters come across as much as independent lines as ragged-edged forms, and they presage the clusters of forms that begin emerging after 1970.

Philip Guston,
Philip Guston, "Wave II" (1967). Ink 14" x 16 1/4". Estate of the artist.

By 1958, clocks and shoe-like shapes begin reappearing in abstract drawings of interiors. Clearly, Guston was never completely at ease with abstraction because it didn’t enable him to access his life, and this mattered more to him than doing the right thing. He believed that art had taken a wrong turn once space was squeezed out of painting, as it had been by Pollock, and further sealed shut by Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. This was the crux of his argument with his peers and their successors.

It is around 1967 that Guston shifts his dialogue with Pollock, who had died ten years earlier. Not only is he addressing Pollock’s use of line, but also the assertion of Minimalists and Color Field painters that drawing had become obsolete. In Guston’s drawings, Pollock’s tangled lines become tangled forms, piles (might not one source of these images be the Holocaust?). He gives weight and objectness to what had become weightless and airy. There is something sculptural about his drawings, the feeling of tangibly battered things in space, yet spread across a plane (that is often tilted toward us). His rough contour lines convey texture as well as describe a thing, bringing the tactile and the visual into close proximity. This is what distinguishes his drawings from 1967 until his death in 1980 from the earlier works—not their return to pictorial imagery.

These images attest to Guston’s belief that art was not separate from or more elevated than life (pure abstraction). Nor was it meant to instruct (political art). A hooded figure may evoke the Ku Klux Klan, but it is depicted in a studio, pointing at a drawing of a hooded figure; Guston implicates himself instead of lecturing the viewer. He was one of the artists who believed in dogma, even if only tacitly, but then he elected to leave. Eventually, the hood comes off, leaving behind a one-eyed head in profile, a lumpy witness rather than an accuser.

Can the line become both a thing in and of itself (as Pollock’s dripped skeins did) and a contour? Could the primacy of storytelling be honored, as it hadn’t been in years? Could space be put back into drawing and painting? Could drawing be open to sandwiches, shoes, cobwebs and the sea? Could clocks, irons, and pointing hands become both things and symbols? Could an artist use drawing to embrace his memories of, and affection for, all sorts of art, from Piero and Leonardo to late de Chirico and cartoons? Could he respond to daily events and public figures, as well as dreams and an awareness of mortality? He wrote on one drawing, “What I like to eat.” Of all the gifts that Guston bequeathed to artists, accessibility is the biggest. It recovered the two subjects, domesticity and the solitude of the studio, which added up to his life (the possibilities of the imagination and a belief in symbols).

As intelligent as he was, Guston didn’t find it necessary to show off or tell us how much he knew. He never acted snide or showed disdain for the viewer (Mel Bochner and David Salle). He didn’t find it necessary to drop names (Julian Schnabel and Joseph Kosuth). He rejected flatness (Carroll Dunham and Peter Halley). Guston’s true heirs are artists who don’t make work that resembles his, but share in the belief that art could be about anything and everything, as long as it isn’t pretentious.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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