Tragicomic Soothsayer: Philip Guston Rides Again

The painter envisioned America as a soaring ideal eternally threatened by a nail-studded club


And so we arrive at the beginning of a glorious end. Very few folks back then knew what was happening. Beliefs were shaken. Reputations questioned. Friendships sundered. Disparagements printed. 

But we still have the paintings, and although they are half a century older, they retain their power to anger and surprise, outrage and dazzle, appall and delight. This is how critic Hilton Kramer saw them, back in the October 25, 1970, edition of The New York Times: “For some years now, at least for some people, Mr. Guston has been something of a sacred figure…. If Jackson Pollock was the cowboy of the New York School, all muscle and violence, Mr. Guston was claimed to be its poet, all sensibility and shimmering delicacy.” Then comes the famous barb: “The spectacle of mandarin sensibilities masquerading as unlettered but lyrical stumblebums is now universally recognized as a form of artifice that deceives no one—except, possibly, the artist who is so out-of-touch with contemporary realities that he still harbors the illusion his ‘act’ will not be recognized as such.” Another jibe: “The primitive has repeatedly been called upon to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of ‘high’ art, and Mr. Guston is clearly seeking such a rejuvenation in turning to the popular visual slang of the old cartoonists as the basis of a new pictorial style. But it doesn’t work … there is no vitality here to rejuvenate.”

No vitality? 

For god’s sake—even if he didn’t like Guston’s bulbous, ham-fisted figures, could the critic not comprehend the rich marrow and elastic sinews of paint that underlie the cartoon characters, those luscious, breakneck brushstrokes? Could he not see, right there before his eyes, the wet-into-wet ecstasy that allows oil paint to summon the potency of flesh on flesh? Could the writer not sense a modern virtuoso reaching back to the Renaissance to find new realms for painting’s unique gravitational communion between artist and viewer? 

Fortunately, we can see all of this for ourselves at Hauser & Wirth’s current exhibition of Guston’s paintings from 1969 to 1979. Bumptious Klansmen are the common denominator here, just as they were when a number of these paintings were originally shown at Marlborough Gallery, from October 17 to November 7, 1970. Back then, it was the formal aspects of Guston’s cartoony imagery that upset his colleagues, who—even as pop art, land art, conceptual art, and other movements were vying for prominence—remained true believers in pure abstraction. “My painter friends in the New York School would come up to me,” Guston later recalled about the Marlborough opening, “and say, ‘Now what did you want to do that for?’ It seemed to depress a lot of people. It was as though I had left the church; I was excommunicated for a while.” 

Half a century later, Guston has been shunned again. Let’s call it the Klan Kontroversy, in homage to Krazy Kat, a comic strip that ran from 1913 to 1944 and that Guston greatly admired. Krazy Kat was created by George Herriman, an African American passing as white to avoid career-ending prejudice; it features a cat in love with a mouse, a dog who adores the cat, and the mouse who despises them both. These bountiful quirks are abetted by kaleidoscopically colored desert settings that surreally shift between night and day from panel to panel. Similar ambiguities run riot in Guston’s imagery of the Klan in this exhibition. Adorned in roughly patched hoods, one Klansman paints a self-portrait, two other pointy-headed figures lean closely together to converse (conspire?), a trio tools around in a dented jalopy, holding fat cigars between sausage-like digits. In another tableau, a chunky board studded with nails juts out behind two of these buffoonish ruffians, implying some very dirty work to come. 

In his youth, Guston (1913–80) had presented his Klan figures more realistically, once telling an interviewer, “I was working in a factory and became involved in a strike [in 1932]. The KKK helped in strike-breaking so I did a whole series of paintings on the KKK. In fact, I had a show of them in a bookshop in Hollywood…. Some members of the KKK walked in, took the paintings off the wall, and slashed them. Two were mutilated.” 

Last year, in response to Guston’s various depictions of the Klan, four major museums, citing worldwide protests against racism and police violence, decided to delay a planned Guston retrospective. Originally pushing it back to 2024 to allow time to “reframe our programming,” the museums, reacting to widespread backlash from the art world (and one of the show’s own curators), have now scheduled the opening for next year. 

The sooner the better. The show will reveal to anyone paying attention that Guston well understood the menace at the root of his KKK subjects. Hence, 1969’s The Studio, in which the hooded figure is painting a self-portrait. In a 1970 note written on a yellow legal pad he kept in his studio, Guston remembered those violent terrorists of his youth, and noted the connections to:

the flagellation pictures of Piero, Giotto, and Duccio. Violence in a formal painting. 

In this dream of violence, I feel like Isaac Babel with his Cossacks; as if I were living with the Klan. 

What do they do afterwards? Or before? Smoke, drink, sit around their rooms (lightbulbs, furniture, wooden floors), patrol empty streets; dumb, melancholy, guilty, fearful, remorseful, reassuring one another? 

Why couldn’t some be artists and paint one another?

Clearly, Guston was not afraid to peer into the abyss of the blank black hash marks that represent eye slits in his protagonists’ hoods. He knew that humanity is forever advancing toward the terminus of civilization—who knows that the end might not come tomorrow?—and painting was his contribution to staving off doomsday. During a 1973 talk, an audience member asked Guston about the tattered, coarsely stitched hoods his Klansman wore. Guston spoke about the Watergate burglars, who were recently in the news, and said that, like his characters, “They’re really dopey,” adding, “I’m going to bloody them up, you know? I’m a painter. I’m not writing political tracts.” 

Such sentiments remind us that Guston’s first art training came at age 13, when his mother enrolled him in a correspondence course from the Cleveland School of Cartooning. The emphatic drawings and workaday phantasmagorias on the comics pages were bedrock influences on Guston’s entire career. Equally formative were his early encounters with Klan violence and with the social inequalities that the unions were battling.

Throughout the 1930s and early ’40s, Guston’s work remained centered on issues of social justice: In Conspirators (1932), three men in hoods and robes lean in toward one another as if whispering, one holding a scourge, another a spiked pole, the third supporting a heavy cross. Arched walls in plunging perspective add classical gravitas to the scene. In a tondo from 1937, Bombardment, Guston depicts the Fascist air raids during the Spanish Civil War, the compressed, circular format emphasizing the terror of civilians with no escape from this new form of war. A few years later came integrated groups of city kids pretending to be gladiators and knights, waving wooden slats for swords and garbage can lids for shields. The figures are realistic, the compositions vigorously angular, the colors as carefully modulated as a Renaissance fresco, with rich ochres and bruised browns punctuated by orange, blue, and yellow accents. 

Then came World War II, and Guston did his part through dynamically composed gouache drawings documenting pilot training and survival tactics. In the postwar era, however, Guston, like artists all over the world, began to question the validity of the figures that had been used as propaganda on all sides—those heroic soldiers and stalwart workers boosting homefront morale as casualties mounted into the tens of millions. Along with such colleagues as Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Guston turned to abstraction to find a new basis for painting, and became known as a painter of exquisite sensitivity. His early abstractions broke his sturdy figures down into chunks of close-toned colors, which over the years evolved into glimmers of, say, an intense red flitting into pink flecks that disperse into a gritty fog, the vibrant textures and lively brushstrokes providing as intense a drama as his figures had in earlier years. Slowly, however, through the 1950s, the ever more meaty brushstrokes began coalescing and coagulating. Crude arcs of color writhing through a quicksilver ground hint, just barely, at the title of the 1957 painting The Clock. By the mid-1960s, ragged black squares drift through conjugal fields of pink and gray, with such titles as Heir, Stranger, and Inhabiter giving fair warning of the impending return of the artist’s dramatis personae. 

In the current show we get Klansmen, but also close-ups of worn-out shoes, of huge bugs trundling atop brick walls, of window shades and doorknobs and other mundanities. The years of abstraction had taught Guston to go for broke in his paint handling by laying down thick slabs of pigment, scraping it to the canvas weave here, smearing it into a froth there—roiling textures to invigorate the surfaces of his large late canvases. 

In a painting from 1979, Entrance, which is roughly seven feet wide, we encounter a wall of piled-up legs wearing clunky shoes. Massive insects rumble along the floor. The limbs might be bodies heaped in a concentration camp, but a door on the left side obscures part of the scene. Still, the disparate forms are gorgeously merged by Guston’s formal wizardry. Perhaps the processional of legs had at first gone all the way across the canvas, and then Guston swiped the reds and blacks and oranges and whites into blurry swathes of cloudy pink. Over the smears, Guston drew the door panels, reversing the comic-strip practice of trapping colors within existing outlines. Here, warm grays at the top and smoggy pinks at the bottom drift beyond the portal’s contours. (Guston loved his pinks. In a 1972 talk, he told the audience, “I did this painting, a bunch of KKK in a room. It’s sort of in a nice pink Sunday comic color ground.”) 

An ephemeral door was an apt motif for Guston’s work, since he was always struggling with dimensions of time and space. Clocks and wristwatches appear in a number of paintings in this exhibit. In a 1958 artist’s statement, Guston wrote, “Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world.” Like Krazy Kat jumping from day to night and place to place in comic-strip panels, Guston (in accord with all great painters) strived to thoroughly meld the binders and pigments of oil paint with whatever the patches of color represented, using the movements of his own spine and arms and hands and fingers to create a thrum of bodily presence in the final image. 

And just what is that slightly rounded object near the bottom of On Edge, from 1978? My notes read, “Garbage can lid in the void?” Maybe it is one of those play shields from Guston’s pre-war urban scenes. But it’s the background of this roughly seven-by-eight-foot canvas that utterly fascinates. Maybe the shadowy plane had originally been a scene with figures that Guston blacked out with a broad brush, but the gloomy color is as livid as a blood blister, dark and throbbing. Slight shifts of the viewer’s position bring out glowing ripples of light, like shadows underwater. 

There is a primordial reach in Guston’s late work, a drive to bring something utterly new into the world. It may not be on the level of “Let there be light,” but one can’t help seeing in 1975’s Painter’s Hand Guston’s satirical take on godhood. A boiled red hand holds a canvas not much bigger than a cigarette pack. Does it depict an orange sun reflecting on water? Sunrise or sunset? Only the painter—the creator—could know. Such ambiguous humor pulsed through Guston’s late work, including a 1971 series of caricatures of President Richard Nixon, whom Guston viewed as a charlatan and a dangerous prevaricator. (The politician and the artist were born within months of each other, in 1913, and both rose steadily to the highest levels of their professions during the postwar “American Century.”) Guston’s opinion (along with that of millions of other citizens) was validated when Tricky Dick resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal. 

One can only wonder how Guston would have depicted an even more treacherous liar, Donald Trump, who, simultaneously bloated and pinched, already seems to be a funhouse-mirror reflection of Nixon. Guston nailed the tragicomic weave of history in his own day, and his exhilarating visions of America as a soaring ideal eternally threatened by a nail-studded club are equal to our even more perilous times now. 

So let’s go back to that legendary Marlborough show, with its miasma of disappointment and betrayal and malaise, to see it for what it actually was: an ongoing triumph no one reading these words will live to see gainsaid. De Kooning, almost alone among Guston’s peers, understood the huge breakthrough on display, telling his fellow painter, ”Well, now you are on your own! You’ve paid off all your debts.” Unlike the critic Kramer, the Dutchman had pushed a lot of paint around and knew just what a toll starting over and over again on an endless frontier of blank rectangles takes on any serious painter. It’s heartening to imagine that, in the exhaustion and uncertainty that an artist often feels at the post-opening dinner, Guston found solace in de Kooning’s typically pithy remark. It was mid-October in Gotham, the first year of the 1970s, which, with a glowering commander-in-chief and a spiraling, wrongheaded war, already seemed the benighted shadow of the tumultuous, luminous ’60s. But the new decade was gonna have its own grooves, ones that, like Guston’s new paintings, few saw coming. 

Except, a 33-year-old critic for this newspaper, John Perreault, who realized that something unique had just pulled into the station. In merely two paragraphs, the Voice critic summed up Guston’s breakthrough into the most dynamic and grand work of his questing career. There have been millions of words written about Philip Guston’s late work since, but these give-or-take 200 had already accomplished the job at the conception. From the November 5, 1970, issue of the Village Voice

Yep, we’re done here.   ❖


Philip Guston. 1969 – 1979
Hauser & Wirth
542 West 22nd Street
Through October 30


From the Voice October 2021 print edition.