Get ready to see Philip Guston implode. Because over the course of this big retrospective of the American artist’s (1913-1980) work, you watch one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century fall to pieces, collapse in on himself, and then be born anew. It’s amazing.
He came of age in a time of political turmoil, a turmoil that would never cease. The child of Jewish refugees, he watched racism flourish on the streets of LA at the hands of the KKK and chose to create art of resistance. He painted revolutionary murals in Mexico, portable frescoes for left-wing events, murals for housing projects, a swirling tornado of a painting in protest at the Spanish civil war. Art for Guston at this point was a tool of revolution and protest. His style was sombre social realism; dark, hazy, angry and weird, like a hyper-caffeinated, angry de Chirico.
But he was hamstrung by figuration and realism. Post-war, things like Pollock and Rothko were happening, and Guston couldn’t resist the lure of abstraction. So he chipped away at reality until all that remained was big fleshy canvases smudged over with pink and blue and black, like vast bruises. They are gorgeous works of bodily abstraction. They feel like Guston imploding, taking everything that made him who he was and destroying it, a whole visual language swallowed up and turned to mush.
And they were necessary, because as he said ‘you know, you have to die for a rebirth’. So out of that destruction comes something new. Real, solid, forms start to reappear in works from 1960. Out of gloopy abstract colourfields, black shapes like heads peer out at you. Guston is being reborn. The room is soundtracked by a beautiful piece of Morton Feldman music written for Guston after his death. It’s incredibly moving, quiet, powerful. You sense Guston’s desperation to create something, but a struggle to know what he wants to create, what he’s meant to create. This is him scrabbling around feverishly for meaning.
Satirical, aggressive, caked in nicotine, paranoia and obsession
And by the late 1960s, he’s got it nailed. Late Guston is the best Guston. Figuration is back with a bang, or a cartoony splat, as he melds super simple, bold, comic book imagery with dark, tense social realism in a world of pink and red. His figures could be cribbed from early Disney animations with big floppy feet and huge slits for eyes, but they wear the white hoods of the KKK as they drive around town or smoke cigarettes. The ‘hoods’ are symbols of evil, and Guston sees them everywhere, sometimes they’re even him. Come on, he’d just seen the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the KKK, of course he thought evil was everywhere. It was, it is.
The same concerns of his younger years appear here, but he’s less constrained now. He paints himself as a cyclops smoking in bed, his wife’s forehead is a sunset, a pile of legs is a monument to what, the holocaust? His brother’s death? To nothing?
His simplified approach gives him freedom, space to say what he wants; everyday things, cryptic things, angry political things. They’re staggering, brilliant paintings, satirical, aggressive, caked in nicotine, paranoia and obsession.
But time is cruel, and the last works are blackened and miserable. Guston was wrestling with his mortality, and his wife Musa McKim’s declining health. Hands hold cigarettes belching out thick red smoke, heads are entangled in spiderwebs. A final painting shows Guston in bed with McKim, clutching her close, with his brushes in his hand. Through all the pain and injustice and struggling, he finally figured out what really mattered: love and art, simple as that.