East City Art Reviews—Philip Guston Now at the National Gallery of Art

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on August 17, 2023

“The only thing one can really learn, the only technique to learn, is the capacity to change.”

There are only a few weeks left to see the extensive retrospective exhibition of the work of Philip Guston at the National Gallery’s East Wing.  Because of its breadth—beginning with a few very early works that have never been exhibited before, through decades of development, to his very last works—and an excellent installation, Guston’s intention in the quoted epigram is made evident. As Guston suggested in this statement, used as a wall text in the exhibit, he saw his self-esteem as an artist, and an honest human being, in his ability to abandon what was fully explored for something else that represented a new path.  Unlike any other artist among his modernist contemporaries as well as those a decade or so younger than he, and also unlike the many who get stuck in one, usually successful, style, Guston had three very distinct stylistic periods.  The last of these shifts came when he was already in his 50s—a  very rare thing.

The exhibit was organized by four curators and scheduled in four venues. Each of ten contemporary artists were also recruited to contribute a short article for the catalogue which is commendable in its scope and scholarship.  This is the show that could not be mounted here in Washington DC in 2020, given the tumultuous atmosphere of protest and polemics after the tragic murder of George Floyd in May.  The irony, of course, is that Guston’s Ku Klux Klan imagery was his way of protesting the attitudes of white supremacy that continue to permit such incidents to occur—recalling the many murders of Blacks in the 20s and 30s, as well as the KKK’s terrorizing of Jews and other people of color in Guston’s early life.  In the 60s he began to feel an increasing fury over his inability to do anything about it, and a profound sense of complicity in that unwilling inaction.  He is quoted to have said:

“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?” [1]

All he could do was paint, and express that uncomfortable reality in his work.  As the child of Ukrainian Jews who escaped the pogroms for a new life first in Canada and then in Los Angeles, neither of which move was very successful, Guston felt a particular kinship with the persecuted and the oppressed that seemed to crystallize in the victims of the horrific organization that had seen a rapid rise in many parts of the country.[2]  Their actions had appalled him as a young person, even more so the violence and cruelty of those, including the Clan, who opposed the contemporary movement for civil rights that he saw and read about in the news.

This is the underlying meaning of a painting like The Studio (1969) which depicts the artist with a hood painting his self-portrait, hood and all.

Philip Guston, The Studio, oil on canvas, 48 x 42”, 1969.  Photo P. Hutinet for East City Art

One cannot help being struck by the continuity of the theme of masks and changed or covered identity in Guston’s work from the 40s all the way through the 60s and early 70s.   We see it in one of his most well-known works from the early part of this period,  If This Be Not I (1945).

Philip Guston, If This Be Not I, oil on canvas 42 ¼ x 55 ¼ “, 1945.  Photo P. Hutinet for East City Art.

Painted soon after the end of WWII in Europe, it shows a group of children rather seriously, and somewhat mysteriously, acting out some drama of their making.  They wear an assortment of masks, crowns and paper hats, giving the scene an oddly carnivalesque feeling.  Yet, in the left foreground a child looking ill with striped pajamas lies on a broken bed set against barbed wire—certainly a reference to the concentration camps of the Nazis that killed millions of children.  Although the scene is clearly in the city, there is a sense that it’s taking place on a ship, adding to the ambiguous mythical content the painting seems to convey.   This ambiguity is a constant in Guston’s work.  It is an ambiguity that emerges from an instability of meaning, especially in the later paintings.

The costumes and the masks do, to some extent, have a biographical parallel.  The artist was born Phillip Goldstein.  His Surrealist work dated 1935 (The Nude Philosopher in Space and Time) is signed with that name.[3]  However, in that year he changed  his name to Guston, dropping an L from his first name, to hide his identity as a Jew from his girlfriend’s family, and one supposes, from everyone else.  Having lived aware of the Holocaust in Europe, and widespread antisemitism in the United States, he most likely felt that that in order to succeed, one had to hide, or at least put on a mask.[4]

Guston moved to New York City in 1936 with the encouragement of his high school friend Jackson Pollock.  His first commissions there were for murals. Drawings and studies for some of them are included in the exhibition and are fascinating in their pastel colors and showing clear influence from his interest in Italian Renaissance painting, especially Piero della Francesca and Giotto.  Guston’s interest is probably also reflected in the stylization of his figures—not abstract, but not realistic either—that is common in Early Renaissance Italian art.  His surrealism was inspired by Dalí and de Chirico, but also by the work of the Mexican muralists Siqueiros and Orozco.  This was evident in his response to the bombing of Guernica in 1937; a tondo panel in surrealist stylistic mode and garish colors.

Philip Guston, Bombardment, oil on panel, diameter 42”, 1937.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

 

Guston abandoned work like this toward the end of the 1940s, roughly the same time that Pollock broke with figuration and began his poured abstractions. This fact makes it clear that Guston’s turning to abstract gesture was not just a “falling in line” with the newest trend, but a conscious choice.  Some of his abstractions were lyrical; most, at least to my mind, lacked coherence and constitute his weakest period.  I believe that this is actually made quite evident in the exhibition installation where a small group of Ab-Ex paintings stand in contrast to his earlier and later work.  Nevertheless, he was an important member of the New York School, and when he decided to leave it for something more personally authentic many of his friends, and pretty much all the critics, abandoned him as a traitor.  He, on the other hand, felt that this abstract mode of painting was, for him, a sham.[5]

Philip Guston, The Return, oil on canvas, approx.. 70 x 78”, 1956-58.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Some of his pen drawings in the exhibit made during the period between c. 1947-68 demonstrate Guston’s innate need for figuration.  Some of them are quite delicate.  Many show evidence that cartooning, Guston’s “first style” in the cartoons he made from his junior and senior high school days, was still in his hand, and was itching to come out.  Guston constantly drew, most often brushing with acrylic in open, somewhat crude forms.  A self-portrait of this type in the show seems to show Guston at the crisis point he came to in c. 1967-8 at which time he closed his studio in New York and moved up to Woodstock permanently.[6]

Philip Guston, Untitled (Self-Portrait), acrylic on panel, 19 ½ x 16 ½ “, 1968.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

It was almost as if the cartoon impulse was catapulted to the foreground by the anguish Guston was feeling about the world at that time.  And with it, the vocabulary of masks and hoods and all of that, but in a new mode marked both by crudeness and striking originality.

Philip Guston, City Limits, oil on canvas, 77 x 103 ¼ , 1969.  Photo P. Hutinet for East City Art.

Guston’s City Limits of 1969 is a great example of this shift “into the hood” as Glen Ligon  framed it.  In Ligon’s catalog article, “In the Hood” he writes:

“Guston’s paintings take me there — to the outskirts, to the city limits — where white men in hoods ride around in jalopies, patrolling the borders of ‘sun-down towns,’ as in ‘Better get your black ass out of here before sundown.’ … To be ‘in the hood’ was a solution to a problem, one that enabled Guston to break from the elevated critical discourse surrounding postwar abstraction and dive into the muck and mire of the American experience…”[7]

On the exhibition wall next to this painting is a photo of actual clan members in California, possibly in the 30s, “patrolling” in an open car which is temporarily parked for the picture.  For me it brought a huge dimension to the ominous meaning of the painting, even though it is painted in pinks and reds and looks rather comical.  The ironic intent is clear.  Note the “blood stains” on the hoods.

Philip Guston, Blackboard, oil on canvas, 79 ½ x 112”, 1969.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Similarly, Blackboard, from the same year, features three hooded heads on a black rectangle in a sea of thickly applied pink paint.  The reference? Even children in school are at risk, either from their propaganda or their terror.

His last decade saw Guston using new motifs in these paintings.  Most prominent are legs and shoes, the “eye of the painter” (perhaps echoing Cézanne’s famous remark about Monet)[8] and his oversized head.  The paintings are still self-portraits, masked in his cartoonish style.

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, oil on canvas, 77 ½ x 103 ½ “, 1973.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The early 70s is the period that includes probably his most famous painting because it seems to epitomize a combination of these motifs.  Painting, Smoking, Eating is a large canvas covered mostly in thickly applied red and pink paint—his favorite colors.  (It made him feel like painting, he said.) In it the artist lies in bed, covered up to the neck.  On top are  two cans for brushes and a plate piled with chunks of some kind of food, possibly pieces of cake.  His enormous head balances on a pillow, one enormous eye looking up, a cigar burning in his mouth.  Behind him is a lamp and a huge pile of shoes.  In the upper left corner is a single light bulb hanging with chain.

A number of authors have connected the legs and the shoes to the innumerable corpses of the dead in the concentration camps, and, at the same time, to the traumatic memory of the death of his brother when a car rolled onto him crushing his legs.  The bare light bulb, which also appears in a large number of works in this decade, may refer to the closet that the teen-age Guston converted into his first “studio” that had one in it.  Both motifs may also refer to Van Gogh, an artist with whom Guston may have felt an artistic kinship.[9]

What all this spells out, once again, is the ongoing ambiguity in Guston’s work, the slippery meanings that rise and fall in one’s mind as one looks at the image.  The viewer is drawn into the curious content, but the color and the surface of the work also create a tactile sense that isn’t always pleasant.  Do the shoes behind the artist represent the ghosts of members of his family murdered by the Nazis that haunt him? Possibly.  Possibly much more.

Following the debacle of his exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in October 1970, Guston and his wife Musa arrived in Rome where the artist had a residency at the American Academy.  They traveled widely in Italy, rekindling Guston’s love for older Italian art.  His homage to the artists he admired were summed up in Pantheon (1973, only in the Boston installation) citing Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, Tiepolo and de Chirico.  An abbreviated easel and a light bulb represent Guston with them.

Philip Guston, Poor Richard, #37, ink on paper, 1971.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Coming back from Italy in 1971, dismayed as ever with the political and social situation in the United States, Guston made a series of 73 acerbic cartoons satirizing Richard Nixon, as well as his cabinet, whom he hated. He collected them in a book, titled Poor Richard that was not published until 2002.  They are exhibited together in a separate space on the main floor, although some are in the main exhibit. These caricatures definitively show how Guston had found the formal vocabulary to express himself deeply through the vehicle of the cartoon.  They are also hilarious.


Philip Guston Now, National Gallery of Art, East building, through August 27, 2023.  Open daily from 10 – 5.

This article was funded in part with a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation


[1] “Guston, cited by Harry Cooper,  Philip Guston Now, Exh. Cat., p.3.

[2] Guston’s father could not find decent work in Los Angeles, and committed suicide in 1923.  The story is that Guston, aged 10, found him hanging.  The trauma of that experience would remain. On the rise of the KKK in the post-WWI period, see Timothy Egan, Fever in the Heartland, Viking, NY, 2023 reviewed by Richard Just, Washington Post Book World, 05/21/2023 with a photo of 2,000 recruits taking the oath in Indiana in 1922.

[3] The themes of Jewishness and masked identity are covered thoroughly in the exhibition catalog, especially in Mark Godfrey’s “The Jewish Image-Maker,” and Alison de Lima Greene’s “The Mask and the Life of Art.”

[4] Years later, after his first heart attack he apparently regretted the name change as a “cowardly act” and told his daughter that he wanted the Kaddish said for him at his funeral.

[5] In a 1977 interview on the subject, Guston said: “I got sick and tired  of all that Purity! wanted to tell stories!”

[6] The artist had not been in New York continuously.  He had frequently stayed in Woodstock, and in the years after 1945 had had academic appointments in the Mid-West, notably at Washington University in St. Louis 1945-7.

[7] Glen Ligon, “In the Hood” in Philip Guston Now, exh. cat., p. 117.

[8] “Monet is only an eye – but my God, what an eye!”

[9] Van Gogh made a number of drawings and paintings of old boots that became an auto-biographical emblem.  His Potato Eaters of 1885 features one small lamp over the table as the lone source of light for the miners.  Picasso was inspired by this painting in his Guernica.