Philip Guston

McKee Gallery, through Dec 22

Untitled, 1969

Untitled, 1969 Photograph courtesy McKee Gallery

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Philip Guston’s transformation from Abstract Expressionist to narrative-driven figurative painter was one of the defining scandals of American postwar art. Yet despite the acrimonious response of his contemporaries, it’s the apostate Guston who has achieved posterity through his refutation of abstraction’s mandarin attitude. As this collection of 30 never-before-seen works on paper makes clear, the immediacy of drawing was integral to this near-heretical turnabout.

Guston’s early formalist, lyrical style and his subsequent allusive, symbolic one flow seamlessly into each other in the show, which spans the early 1950s to his death in 1980. Several untitled ink drawings from 1960, their loose arabesques dissolving solid form, hint at the coming repertoire of caricatures that followed eight years later: the shoes, hooded Klansmen and tumescent cigars. The formal concision and gallows humor of Guston’s late work is evident in the drawings, many of which predate his infamous first exhibition of figurative paintings in 1970.

If Guston discovered the closed contours and obstinate coarseness of his seminal work through drawing, he did so by virtue of his sensitivity to the symbolic weight of the familiar. Using a remarkable economy of line, he could turn a boot into a chair, or a hand into an entire figure. Collapsing the conventional divide between abstraction and representation, these drawings reveal Guston’s mastery of self-contained narrative and his unique gift for capturing the bathetic enormity of something as simple as an unlaced shoe. — Joo Ribas