Philip Guston’s socially conscious 1940s drawings of the downtrodden and their hooded tormentors evolved into searching, tender abstractions in the ’50s, spare graphics in the ’60s, and galumphing, cartoonish narratives in the ’70s. This terrific show concisely charts how concentrated bouts of drawing re-energized the artist’s broadly influential paintings. At age 13, Guston (1913–1980) was studying at Cleveland’s School of Cartooning, but he was soon in thrall to such Renaissance masters as Giotto and Masaccio. This mix of low and high oscillated throughout his career—the rock-ribbed compositions of early street scenes that imagined kids battling with wooden swords and garbage-can lids combine Piero with Barney Google. A 1947 ink drawing, Angel, hovers between abstraction and winged figuration, but by 1951’s Untitled, only sensitive, gestural flutters of the brush remain, creating airy, ungrounded forms. In Prague (1967), three vertical slashes inside a square placed high on the page can be read as pure, reductive design or as a prison window, while 1970’s Figure in Interior gathers all of Guston’s artistic powers: Beautifully rendered in pencil, the cartoon contours of a Klansman and his fringed lampshade resonate with the abstracted buildings outside his window. Guston filtered the classics through America’s rough-and-ready culture and distilled 600 years of pictorial invention into an ever-intoxicating brew.
Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: June 20. Continues through Aug. 31, 2008