Looking at Philip Guston

Saturday 18 March 2006

About a year ago, I managed to screw up my application for Right of Abode in the U.K. and had to travel to Canberra to sort it out. The side benefit of the trip was getting to see four Philip Guston paintings, from different periods, in pretty much the same room at the National Gallery of Australia. Yes, I looked at Blue Poles again but it was the Gustons (and a honking great Clyfford Still) that floated my boat that day.

The first Guston I saw was one of his big, abstract expressionist canvases from the 1950s, back when I was an impressionable nipper. I didn’t realise how dramatically his style changed in the late 1960s until I found a book of his drawings, where over the years his abstractions became more and more reduced, sometimes to single lines. Then, out of this void, odd, bemused little hooded heads started peering out of a clumsily drawn, cartoonish world.
Were his arty mates cool with him going all impure, cartoony and representational on them? No, they were not. But today, it’s hard to resist the appeal of someone who turned his back on the artistic orthodoxy of his time and began to paint in a personal style so alien to convention, mainstream or alternative.
Guston was part of a postwar cohort of big, lumbering American men cack-handedly pulling off works of subtle beauty despite themselves, along with Charles Olson in poetry and Morton Feldman in music. Feldman and Guston were friends, but fell out when Guston resumed figurative painting. I love Feldman’s music, so my interest in Guston developed largely out of his relationship with Feldman, who often talked about how painters influenced his music.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m very happy that a gallery in London has been exhibiting 20-odd of G’s paintings and drawings, from the early 50s to the late 70s. First, I get to see a lot of Guston; second, I get a good chance to figure out just how good he is.
I found a useful article online about Guston’s development, although there’s some things in it I’m not sure about. G is hardly unusual among artists in have some early, derivative phases in his life’s work before finding a true, individual style; nor are late bloomers as uncommon as art writers often like to pretend. As for the deficiencies in his abstract painting, I find it particularly appealing how, in the best of them, he does reach transcendent effects through his short, heavy strokes. Like his other klutzy contemporaries, harping on his weaknesses until they become his strengths.
In the Timothy Taylor Gallery show, you can see that the weakest works were those where Guston tried to employ the long, confident lines which are the standard technique of ‘good’ artists. They feel sktchy, or straining for a striking effect. The awkward, lumpen heaviness in his lines and brushstrokes come into their own when creating his weird, cartoonish world. They start off hovering uneasily between whimsical and menacing, but by the latter half of the 70s the imagery has agglomerated into some of the most sinister, cryptic ‘last works’ of any artist.
He comes across as someone who had to keep painting until he struck upon something that worked. Some canvases are formulaic, or show more effort and fixing-up than other painters of his age usually liked to let on: the abstract works are much less forgiving of these failings. There are also some small, minor paintings, which are useful for showing G working up his vocabulary of shoes, books, heads. Often these works are overpainted, but this seems to be more about resuing the surface than second thoughts.
In one of the best, a large, late canvas called Calm Sea, his short, heavy strokes filled with reds and pinks transforms the flat planes of sea and sky into a roiling surface of red, flickering beneath a shimmering blue void.
I wonder now if you can build some sort of analogy between Guston’s return to representational painting to more definitely articulate the conflicted mood of anger and melancholy, and Feldman’s subsequent retreat from experimental graphic scores for his music, to increasingly conventional notation which more clearly presented his own, ambiguous sound world. Maybe not.
(As for where the cartoon influence came from, people keep namedropping Robert Crumb, although Guston’s world looks much more like George Herriman’s Coconino County to me.)
Ubuweb, bless ‘em, keeps a stash of Guston’s drawings and poem-drawing collaborations with writers, including the complete series of “Poor Richard” drawings.