Imaginary Battles, Real Wars: Philip Guston at the Royal Academy

[This article was originally published on 24 January 2004, appearing here.]

’American Abstract Art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit. A mask to mask the fear of revealing oneself. A lie to cover up how bad one can be. Unwilling to show this badness, this rawness. It is laughable, this lie. Anything but this! What a sham! Abstract art hides it, hides a lie, a fake! Don’t! Let it show! It is an escape from the true feelings we have, from the ‘raw’, primitive feelings about the world — and us in it.’ (Philip Guston’s notebook, quoted by Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘A Maker of Worlds: The Later Paintings of Philip Guston’ in Michael Auping (ed.), Philip Guston Retrospective.)

”Our whole lives since I can remember are made up of the most extreme cruelties and holocausts,” [Guston] wrote to Dore Ashton after the CIA coup in Chile. “When I think of the victims it is unbearable.” And yet it is the peculiar fate of such an artist to want to see everything. Guston’s friend Ross Feld recalled going up to Woodstock and standing silently in front of a group of these new paintings. “There was a silence. After a while Guston took his thumbnail away from his teeth and said, ‘People, you know, complain that it’s horrifying. As if it’s a picnic for me, who has to come in here every day and see them first thing. But what’s the alternative?’” (Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being)

’I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, more in our time than in any other: that art-silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist’s part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else … As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society.’ (Clement Greenberg, 1949)

Myths and Legends
Had Philip Guston died, say, in the mid 1950s of one of the usual New York School calamities, he’d have been remembered as a fully-paid-up if not quite top drawer member of the most glamorous, glorious and legend-spawning movement that American art has yet produced — as an Abstract Expressionist, a Cedar Tavern regular and the beneficiary Clement Greenberg’s blessing — and thus would have secured for himself a comfortable, enviable, retrospective-worthy berth in art history. Guston had, after all, all the right credentials for AbEx apotheosis. These ranged from recent Old World origins (his parents moved from Odessa to California, via Montreal, producing young Philip en route) to a strong dose of psycho-sexual trauma (as a child he found his blacksmith-turned-failed-dustman father hanging dead from a rope) to a certain seriousness about the Old Masters (at least in black-and-white printed reproductions) to the left-wing politics (he was a John Reed Club member) to the time spent working alongside Mexican muralists and in Roosevelt’s WPA (painting works with titles like Building America’s Skills) to his informing sense of his Jewish identity (born Goldstein, his reactions to the Holocaust were as richly complicated and nuanced as those of Greenberg, Kristol or Kazin) to his dependence on an intelligent, visually-literate, supportive woman (his wife Musa) to his rugged good looks and high-functioning alcoholism (both, obviously, de rigueur for New York School high-fliers, for reasons never adequately explained). Unlike most of that turbulent fraternity, though, he possessed both basic graphic ability and a strong sense of self-preservation, and lived to a reasonable old age. All of that was necessary but not sufficient to generate the longish footnote this AbEx also-ran earned for himself, late in life, in the annals of American art history.

Legend overstates the seismic importance of Guston’s decision, somewhere in the 1960s, to drift away from the particular form of gestural abstraction he had made his own — a sort of obsessive overworked hatching, carried out in very thick oils and without standing back from the canvas, producing a sludgily shimmering, inconclusive surface vaguely reminiscent of Monet’s late landscapes and labelled ‘Abstract Impressionism’ by a few critics, although the influences perhaps had more to do with Mondrian’s plus-and-minus mark-making grafted onto the earthy physicality of Cezanne — into a mode of painting which was both frankly narrative and — well, there’s no other word for it — located on the ugly side of demotic. Legend has it that his first show of this later work, at New York’s blue-chip Marlborough Gallery in 1970, was met with disbelief, hostility and repugnance. Legend has it that this was an unparalleled act of bravery, honesty and self-sacrifice — and thus that Guston is, in every sense, a great and important artist.

But then American Abstract Expressionism always had as much, perhaps more to do with legend than it did with paint or canvas or metal — legend was, perhaps, its one great medium — and hence the art-historical footnote of Guston’s reputation only makes any sense when appended to the heroic legend of the artists and critics with whom he once drank, argued, enjoyed public accolades and largesse, and against whom he subsequently appeared to rebel. So with the benefit of art-historical ignorance, gappy hindsight and a lazily selective reading of Greenberg’s oeuvre, it is possible to believe that there was once a time when a unitary aesthetic reigned supreme in America that also reigned supreme — and, more to the point, that its hegemony was somehow important in ways that transcend art per se. Otherwise, why all the fuss? Surely it either mattered a lot when Guston found himself spitting on Greenberg’s Second Commandment — or it hardly mattered at all?

Go, Go Guston!
To its credit, the Royal Academy’s current Guston retrospective, coupled with its handsome accompanying catalogue, goes a long way towards answering some of these questions. It’s by no means a neutral account of Guston’s legacy. Of course a retrospective is never really neutral — why draw public attention to an artist if there isn’t anything very interesting about him? — but here the explicit claims made for Guston have a certain pom-pom-brandishing explicitness. Here’s a representative sample from the press release:

The renowned American painter […] had been a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism for almost two decades when he boldly returned to figurative work in the late 1960s. His uncompromising late paintings, which shocked the art world and baffled his admirers, ultimately inspired later generations of artists and invigorated American painting in the 1970s and 1980s.

That may seem to be quite a big claim, but wait, there’s more — not only magnificently fluent, intelligent text of the wall panels (written by art historian David Anfam, these are a standing reproach to some of the sub-literate slurry posted by Tate Britain, amongst others, in recent years), telling Guston’s story in the most sympathetically persuasive manner possible, but also the sheer beauty of the hang itself. Guston’s habitual palette, from which he diverged very little over five decades, is a narrow spectrum of blacks, dirty greys, scab reds, bird-shit white and a unique shade of pink that automatically reminds anyone who was raised in America of the smell, the chalky texture, the weirdly sickly sweetness of a popular antacid rejoicing in the name Pepto-Bismol. Quite clearly this is not late Monet, whatever the critics may have said. Yet hung as the works are here — widely spaced, under those triumphantly high ceilings with their elaborate gilt-and-plaster cornices, separated one from the next with those wide expanses of milky wall and shiny empty floor and, perhaps crucially, without anything else to look at by way of comparison — both the crudeness of Guston’s line and the fundamental ugliness of his colour are somehow tamed and aestheticised, conferring on them an aura both of importance and of preciousness. It’s not a new trick, but it’s one that the RA is better placed to do than most galleries, as various exhibitions in recent years — Aztecs, Frank Auerbach, Picasso’s ceramics, perhaps most of all Sensation — have illustrated again and again. If anyone can jolie up the hard-core laid to monumental effect, it’s the folks up at Burlington House.

The exhibition is set out in chronological order, but in a way that never forgets the demands of its central organising narrative. Not all decades in Guston’s development were, it appears, created equal. The first room includes some of Guston’s earliest work, including a drawing from 1930 when the artist was 17, but runs all the way up to 1952 when he was nearly 40. Twenty-two years of an artist’s working life is actually quite a lot, the room isn’t exactly enormous and the works themselves are a disparate, unfocused lot — unless one knows where the story is going to end, which is to say, in those late figurative paintings. Without this key, in other words, it’s ‘there’s a Picasso pastiche … there’s something with a lot of Siqueiros in it … there’s a Max Beckmann …’ — whereas with this key firmly in hand, it’s ‘look, there’s a hooded figure, just like in the late paintings … look, there’s a massive form, like in the late paintings … there’s a rubbish bin lid! And there’s a shoe! Imagine that!’ The former presents a portrait the artist as a young (and then not-so-young) magpie, collecting this and that, but due to the paucity of images gives little scope for us to gauge their relative impact. The latter, in contrast, conjures up an argument for life-long consistency, cohesive vision and thus integrity — an argument in which selectivity, ellipsis and the fast-forward button seem to be central features.

The Missing Link?
In a way, this is a shame. One apparently minor complaint here must stand for several others. Bombardment is one of the most striking works in that first room. A largish roundel, executed in earthy, ‘Mexican’ colours, it perhaps matters less for the quattocento Italian influences on which the catalogue and wall panels are very quick to insist, than it does for the long shadows cast by the great Mexican muralists Rivera and Orozco (whose work he sought out) and Siqueiros (with whom he spent much of 1934 painting a major mural in Mexico City). He read about the Italians in books. With the Siqueiros he mixed paint, discussed problems of composition and scale, learned in some crucial sense about what painting is supposed to do — about who the painter is supposed to be. And here the message, promulgated by a charismatic, intelligent and highly talented father-figure, was clear enough. Siqueiros was, first and foremost, a highly militant Marxist. In his student days he had helped to organise the memorably-titled Association of Soldier Artists; he spent much of the next few decades as a trade union organiser and thorn in the side of various Mexican governments; in Spain during the Civil War he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel; in 1940 his doctrinaire Stalinism led him to become part of a death squad that only just failed to murder Trotsky.

None of this, incidentally, is mentioned at the Royal Academy. Yet the Mexican muralists were, both terms of form and content, powerful influences not only on Guston, Pollock and a number of other American painters, but on American taste in general. Old WPA-sponsored murals display that influence in a crude and obvious, if by now somewhat ironic way. At the same time, once one has become used to the swirling Mannerism, the all-over compositions, the bold use of outlines and the heroic scale, one can never quite see a Pollock ‘abstract’ without thinking back to them. The same is even more poignantly true of Guston’s later work, where those famous ‘Italian’ influences seem often to be derived from a source somewhat closer to home — along with a powerful, lingering sense of the artist’s obligation to society. Instead of playing this up, however, the Royal Academy hushes it up. Are they afraid that mentioning Siquieros will make Guston’s late ‘breakthrough’ sound less remarkable? Are they afraid by showing the impact on Guston of specific living artists, they will make his individual response to events like the Holocaust seem less raw and authentic — indeed, slightly tame and even self-indulgent? Are they afraid that if the story becomes complicated in any way then the case for Guston’s greatness becomes somehow less persuasive?

Fade To Grey
In contrast, the second room of the exhibition covers only six years, between 1952-58. This, as it turns out, was the period in which Guston embraced abstraction. Yes, that’s it. Again, when one stops to think of it, a mature ‘breakthrough’ towards figurative painting, when one only actually painted abstracts for six years of a relatively long career, sounds less than completely impressive, which may be one of the reasons for according them a particularly central room and a particularly central emphasis. The non-cynical point, I suppose, is that some of these paintings — notably, Painting of 1954 — are rather attractive. In a sludgy sort of way, the paint does seem to float or shimmer here and there. They conjure up a mood of melancholy dreaminess without for a moment approaching the bleak majesty of a good Rothko or the self-destructive abandon of a good Pollock or the have-it-all sexy fulsomeness of a good de Kooning. Where they make an impact it is largely because they recall broadly similar, if better work. For anyone who loves the New York School, their B-list is somehow more appealing than other movements’ A-lists.

One can see why Guston never quite made the first team in AbEx terms. Yet the 1950s and early 1960s were, in some sense, good years for America, and perhaps the best years ever for American art, where a happy confluence of economic success, self-confidence and — yes, even in that most self-consciously free-market of nation-states — official sanction raised art to a pinnacle of popularity and good will it had never achieved before and has never achieved since. Time and Vogue put Pollocks on their front covers. Yet not every Manhattan townhouse owner or big provincial gallery could afford the biggest names; not every cultural mission to some inconveniently distant yet strategically essential country could secure its very own travelling Modern Master; there had to be someone to teach at colleges other than Bennington; the critics needed other targets and the group shows other content. Guston made friends with composer John Cage, allowed himself to be written about by the marvellous Dore Ashton, enjoyed in 1962 a major retrospective at the Guggenheim, drank with the sort of workmanlike persistence equalled only by his old pals de Kooning and Greenberg, and got on with creating his rather over-worked, dense, anxious paintings which somehow, in the scale of their brushstrokes and the centrality of their emphasis, seemed always to be about something, even when that something appeared painted over and unrecoverable.

Reality bites — but not that hard
By the late 1960s, however — a period covered in Room Three, which spans 1958-1973 — Guston was about to make what legend would posit as his marvellous and distinctive contribution to modern American art. To get the tone of this legend one need venture no farther than the little leaflet issued by the RA to visitors to this exhibition:

In the 1960s Guston began to aim his doubts at the art world, which had veered towards a belief in the absolute purity of non-objective form. This was the orthodoxy against which Guston rebelled, later recalling, ‘I got sick and tired of all that purity … I wanted to tell stories!’ Brute objects such as a shoe or a hand emerged, like letters or nouns, as the first particles of this new vocabulary. Next Guston wedded them to the scary mixture of radical rebellion and consequent right-wing mayhem that marked 1968.

Basically, having withdrawn from the world to the sylvan safety of Woodstock — a pretty farming backwater and not yet the hippy legend it would later become — Guston started making figurative work again, which he displayed in a show the Marlborough Gallery in 1970. The resulting ‘uncompromising paintings’, we are told in the RA’s press release, ‘shocked the art world and baffled his admirers’.

More than three decades later, in the cold light of day, we can be less squeamish and say frankly that whatever shock was generated — of which, more later — it probably had less to do with figurative or narrative painting per se, than it did with the new signature style that Guston had developed for himself, which in turn was inextricable from the meanings legible in the work. Guston had worked his way up from painting shoes and hands to fully-fledged scenes, peopled with a cast of characters as stylised and habitual as those in a comic strip — hooded Klansmen with square holes where their eyes should be, a cyclopean and sometimes disembodied artist smoking a cigarette, a dystopian urban landscape full of rubbish — all executed in a purposefully sloppy, clunking, throw-away fashion in Guston’s habitual red-pink-and-grey palette. In other words, it wasn’t just that these were narrative paintings. They were bad narrative paintings, painted as if the person painting them couldn’t really paint properly — yet they were on show at the Marlborough Gallery as the work of a fully-paid-up Modern Master. Furthermore, their marriage of autobiographical obscurity with less-than-obvious political and ideological content slowed down access to interpretation. They were not easy works to like — and they still are not — both because they look rotten and because they don’t seem to convey anything of particular significance.

Perversely, of course, one could argue that this was the source of their ultimate critical success. Back, though, to October 1970, and to that legendary shock that Guston delivered to the art world. Here’s a brief account of it from a mainstream and broadly reliable survey, Jonathan Fineberg’s Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, the sort of thing one would find in any normal art library or on any middle-brow enthusiast’s shelf:

The critical response to his show was predictably withering and it took nearly a decade for even his friends to catch up with the total rethinking that these works represented.

So much for the legend. But as an absolutely excellent essay by Andrew Graham-Dixon in the catalogue for the RA show makes clear, Guston only received one really negative review of the Marlborough exhibition — from Hilton Kramer, in a New York Times review titled ‘A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum’. On the other hand, De Kooning — the Grand Old Man of the movement bravely attacked by Guston — welcomed the work as a celebration of ‘freedom’, while Harold Rosenberg, an extremely major figure, published a long and overwhelmingly favourable piece in the New Yorker. There was some discomfort with the new work — Guston’s daughter remembers an atmosphere of ‘embarassment’ — but nothing like the wholesale denunciation that folklore now records. Or to put it another way, if this is what counts as a ‘withering’ reception, one imagines that plenty of young artists would be delighted to be thus withered.

Yet the myth of the lonely, misunderstood genius remains central to our vision of the Great Artist. When the AbEx painters had been outsiders they were brave, bold and unsparing — but once the AbEx painters became the petted darlings of the same Establishment that went on to bomb Cambodia, shoot at nice middle-class college-students and otherwise disgrace itself, the smart money went elsewhere — and where better to spot the next lonely, misunderstood outsider than in midtown Manhattan, amidst the chilled wine and warm canapés of the Marlborough Gallery?

But myth this all was, and remains. It was not, after all, as if there had been any shortage of figurative and even narrative painting about in the 1950s and early 1960s. As any gallery-going schoolboy could tell you, Britain alone produced Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Andrews and Hockney — the first three, at any rate, working in a gestural, painterly manner with strong affinities to Abstract Expressionism — while continental Europe fielded everything from the realism of Guttuso to the haptic mudflats of Dubuffet to the queasy soft porn of Balthus to the wild and woolly world of CoBraA. How this came to pass is a story so brilliantly recounted in James Hyman’s extraordinary The Battle for Realism that it needs no exegesis here. Guston, unlike some of his fellow countrymen, travelled to Europe relatively frequently, while for European art writers visiting America the studio of this talkative, convivial artist was a landmark attraction. So there is little reason to doubt that much cross-fertilisation occurred during the course of these exchanges, or that Guston was well aware of a powerful figurative tradition persisting Over There.

What British readers might reasonably be surprised to learn, though, is that figurative painting was alive and well in the States, too. Actually, it had never really gone away. Now that no one really believes that art was inevitably ‘progressing’ towards some cold consummation of pure abstraction across the face of the picture plane, it is easy enough to see the hints of figuration or landscape painting that were always about to break through the surface of most of the great AbEx masterpieces. De Kooning’s relaxed attitude towards Guston’s late work makes a lot of sense once one remembers that as far back as 1953 he himself had ‘retreated’ from the abstraction flirted with in a painting like ‘Excavation’ by producing his own big-breasted, lipstick-smeared, mildly terrifying, joyously vulgar ‘Women’ series, examples of which immediately found their way into every first-rate public or private collection that could afford to buy one; sculptor David Smith had never given up on concrete subject-matter in the first place. But even outside the charmed AbEx circle, figurative art marched on, untroubled by New York’s imperial edicts. To anyone who claims that Guston revived figurative art, the following list of names ought to give pause for thought: Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Richard Diebenkorn, Red Grooms, Romare Bearden, James Rosenquist, H. C. Westermann, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, the Hairy Who …one could go on at some length, but the sheer diversity of these various artists, in terms both of their subject-matter and the style in which it was depicted, is really the main point at stake here. It simply is not right to act as if American figurative painting had somehow died with the WPA, Thomas Hart Benton and the bad conflated memories of fascist and Stalinist social realism, or that the only representational painting of the period was executed by Norman Rockwell or the studios of Walt Disney — it simply isn’t true.

Pop Goes the Painter
What was true, of course — and what explains a lot about the impact made by Guston’s apparent apostasy — is that throughout the 1960s the war being waged between Pop Art and its formalist enemies had become a very hot one indeed. Bright, funny, ironic, approachable, consumable and disposable, blessed with the smooth finish of commercial illustrations and easy access to popular culture, Pop Art was everything AbEx had set itself against — Warhol’s vatic dumb-on-purpose pronouncements set against the High Cultural legacy of Arnold and Eliot. In terms both of the prices it commanded and the museum space it co-opted, by 1970 Pop Art was, by any standard, a success. Worse still, in some ways, was the sheer whorish flexibility of its visual language. Whereas as a movement AbEx had taken pride in addressing only that which was, in Rothko’s formulation, ‘tragic and timeless’, by the late 1960s it was unsurprising that a painter like Guston might genuinely have felt some attraction towards an art capable, from time to time, of anecdote and topicality. And that, at some level, is what he unveiled at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970.

One could argue that Guston’s signal achievement lay in holding tight, against all odds, to that Arnoldian fig-leaf. This comes through more clearly than anything else in his response to claims that his late style was influenced in any way by cartoons and comics — George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, of which both Guston and de Kooning were fans — or, more damagingly, by Robert Crumb’s late 1960s Weirdo, with its cyclopean protagonist, hairy surfaces and hob-nailed shoes. It would be obvious to a blind man, tapping one of Guston’s late canvases with his white stick, that this most demotic and popular of genres was as much of an influence on Guston’s work as were the townscapes of de Chirico or the cluttered nastiness of Beckmann. But Guston denied this, insistently, to his dying day. Instead, he encouraged a sort of game — played, it must be said, very elegantly in the current catalogue, notably in an essay by Joseph Rishel — in which critics vie with each other to produce the most outlandishly High Cultural antecedents for the crude, lumpish, sporadically funny images of his later years.

This ritual evocation — Uccello, Masaccio, Signorelli, Piero della Francesca, Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Manet, Cezanne, Leger — is, after all, not a game that everyone can play. Yet perhaps in part for that reason, it’s a game that a certain sort of artist and a certain sort of critic particularly enjoy. Guston also made sure that any references to events in the actual world were carefully mixed up with the sticky stuff of his own psychological history, lest the ‘meanings’ of these works became too direct, too easy to read or too open to argument. Most importantly, though, to the very end he kept up that formidably po-faced self-centred seriousness about the importance of his own activities that was, perhaps, the most annoying tic of Abstract Expressionism’s second-string practitioners. The near-insane self-importance of the first epigraph to this essay bears ample testimony to that — but so, in a quieter but no less creepy way, does the first epigraph. Art never seems more important than when it is addressed in those terms. And however much some might try to deny it, it takes a strong-minded critic not to feel drawn to someone who, by inference, makes the critic’s job sound so important. It is nice to think that by toggling between styles one might gain access to honesty, clarity and virtue. It is nice to think that a better sort of painting might create for us all a better sort of world.

Too Pretty in Pink?
But there was also one more sense in which Guston’s late works were not as ‘bold’ or ‘unsparing’ as the myth — promulgated either by Guston then or by the RA now — would have us think. It lies in the nature of the commentary, such as it was, that these works offered up about the world around them. In explaining these works, Guston was adamant that by the late 1960s he could no longer remain silent about the civil rights movement, student protests, Vietnam and so forth:

When the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of a 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.

Yet the more one thinks about it, the more inadequate all of this begins to sound. Up in Woodstock, Guston had disconnected his telephone so that he wouldn’t have to be bothered with interruptions, and presumably his heavy drinking disconnected him in all sorts of other ways even if those three packets of untipped Camel cigarettes a day restored a sort of gappy focus. Was that split feeling really anything to do with Vietnam, or was it to do with Guston himself? Was ‘honesty’ really operative here? What kind of man was he, indeed?

Now, obviously, there was nothing very ‘bold’ about claiming discontent with the state of America in the late 1960s — East Coast liberal orthodoxy rarely got much more clubbably cosy than this — any more than there was anything brave about attacking the Ku Klux Klan or denouncing President Nixon. Anything else would have been a surprise. Anything else, however, was not forthcoming. Given that this was the case, then, the real shock Guston’s late work lies in how very gentle, equivocal even, his version of protest art looked both then and now. Guston knew this. Most of his critics know it too, saluting his subtlety. And it’s everywhere in his work. His hooded Klansman, driving around those empty street looking for trouble in one canvas, stand thoughtfully at their easels in the next, under a bare light bulb that alludes not only to ‘Guernica’ but also to the well-publicised fact that after his father’s suicide, the youthful Guston used to shut himself in a closet lit with a bare bulb where he would seek to lose himself in painting. His cyclopean artist figure, a kind of self-portrait, is an inadequate grotesque, while in his caricatures of Nixon the swollen leg is not only a trope for the septic condition of the American body politic, but also surely a reference to his own brother who died of a gangrenous leg wound. Even his last, least anecdotal narrative paintings (in Rooms Four and Five) where the clear goal is the creation of some sort of epic and absolute scale — ‘The Street’, ‘The Hand’ — are laced with symbols redolent of his own life — his father’s rubbish cart, his own chain-smoking. Everywhere, the stuff of actual violence, cruelty and viciousness is recycled into a jokey sort of shorthand for Guston’s personal unhappiness. Ultimately, Guston’s preoccupations were less with the actual world of 1960s America than with the exploration of his own wounded psyche. Or to paraphrase another one of those famous American comics of Guston’s early middle age, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’.

This, I think, matters, at least in terms of what it says about Guston’s own honesty in the claims he made for his work. Compare Guston’s most mordant satire with, say, anything by Hogarth or Goya or Golub, just to pick three names more or less at random, and the difference in impact is unmistakeable. Transcription into Guston’s own personal visual vocabulary domesticates and diminishes his critique of the world around him, softening the distinction between good and evil into aestheticised, High Cultural fence-sitting. For some, doubtless, this is marvellously subtle and intelligent — others may prefer the words ‘self-centred’ and ‘lazy’. The third epigraph to this essay comes into play here — words that some may be surprised to hear from the mouth of Clement Greenberg. And indeed, there is nothing in the RA’s retrospective that packs the punch of an old Doonesbury strip or a chorus of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, or even faded 1968 copy of Life magazine. Rather, this is the late 1960s as seen from within the comfortable world of Guggenheim Fellowships, teaching positions at Columbia University and a frequent dusting of art-world accolades. Did Guston ever really come to believe that he had done more, in these paintings, than adjusting a blue to a red? The more he tilted against Greenberg, the more he painted badly or inveigled against painterliness, the more his art was about art, rather than life itself. If he grew to hate the art-historical cocoon in which he came to be encased, he never really managed to fight his way free of it. It was the sad paradox at the heart of what seems, in some ways, a rather sad life.

It remains only to be said that despite all this — or perhaps more accurately, because of it — the RA was entirely correct in its decision to host this elegant, surprisingly compelling retrospective of Philip Guston’s work. As it becomes increasingly obvious that painting has survived the twentieth century with its faculties intact, the need to understand its recent history — the geopolitical context, the movements, the criticism, the lineages and feuds, the myths and legends — becomes ever more pressing. Like it or not, since his death in 1980, Guston’s prestige has become a matter of lapidary fact. A quick trot round European public collections of modern art confirms how solidly this is the case. The present exhibition, organised by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, includes canonical Guston works still in private hands — notably, those of Guston’s own daughter — as well as some relative surprises. It’s a good survey of the Guston canon. Thus it is worth spending time amongst these paintings, contemplating what it is they can and cannot do, how the claims made for them do or not add up, and what might, in a parallel universe, have been hanging in the RA’s handsome rooms in their stead. Their failures and inadequacies tell us at least as much as their occasional moments of clumsy, self-indulgent, faint yet unmistakeable charm.

As for Guston himself, while I don’t think I’ll ever really like his work — for me, his handling comes across as ham-fisted and his colour as muddy and predictable — I thought the RA did a splendid job of making as strong a case as possible for its quality and importance. Guston may well have had something of the Robert Motherwell Syndrome about him — a knack for being in the right place at the right time, coupled with a gift for getting on well with critics, curators and fellow artists. He painted the sort of things that art writers enjoy writing about. Yet only the last of these three qualities really has any chance of leaving its mark upon the work itself, and then only in front of a certain sort of viewer. Hence the unprepared visitor, wandering by accident into Burlington House and coming upon this sea of red and pink and black, this demi-monde of komical Klansmen and playfully disembodied limbs, without the right set of preconceptions, the right reading, perhaps even the unshakeable romantic attachment to the myth of AbEx, may wonder how these works came to be treated as great art. He or she may of course find some humour or even some beauty — who can say?

For my own part, and notwithstanding everything I’ve written above, there is just enough of that Cedar Tavern romance clinging to the surfaces, the ugly clotted paint, the self-centred narrative obfuscations to give the whole exercise a faint but discernable shimmer of glamour. And there are a few works — particularly those few late acrylics — where the drawing manages to fight free of the bombast long enough to deliver something approaching a memorable line. His cherries, while reminding me more of Richard Scary than of Chardin, seemed to me virtually the best thing in the exhibition — devoid as they were of that fiddly overdone brushwork and clunking symbolism. As an illustrator, had his career gone that way, Guston might have been a modest success. As it was … well, at the RA, the answer is there for all to see.

Yet perversely, the most powerful presence in this show is, all too obviously, that of the man who isn’t supposed to be there — Clement Greenberg himself. Dead now for many a long year, the target of much knowing sneering from those without the wit to understand his complexity or the energy to read more than second-hand summaries of his writing, largely discredited in the present-day High Art circles, he nevertheless casts the longest, darkest, most exciting of shadows over the Guston retrospective. How else to read so much of what happens here? How else, for instance, to read the airbrushing-out of a mainstream narrative tradition — that of the Mexican muralists — as a formative influence on Guston? How else to read the inflation of those few faltering years of abstraction? How else to read the tacit denial of an ongoing figurative tradition, alive and well and living in both Europe and America, at the time of Guston’s late, ‘bold’ apostasy? How else to read a story-line that attempts to link Guston’s figurative work to cartoons and yet hardly dare mention the phrase ‘Pop Art’? What are we celebrating here, if not the willingness of Guston to rebel against what still seems to be a curiously potent, persistent, compelling line of argument? Do we miss the retro-chic certainties of a time when — at least in retrospect — everything seemed a lot simpler?

And yet Greenberg, as those who have read him are well aware, was twitchingly awake to the relationship between art and the historical circumstances in which it was produced. If he championed an art that seemed to stand back from some sorts of fights as a way of engaging in others, he did so more knowingly than some of his stupider critics might think. Look, after all, at the results! He did not condemn all figurative painting — he only pointed out that with modernism had come the tendency for the best art to be an increasingly abstract art. Is there anything in the present Philip Guston retrospective to make one question that judgement? If there were, I do not think there would be so much anxious appeal to the pantheon of the western High Art tradition, or so much brilliant rhetoric explaining why these paintings are superior to the visual culture all around us today. Icons are only worth smashing if the iconoclast senses in their presence a real, imminent, potent source of danger. When, speaking to his friend Ross Feld about his late work, Guston found himself asking ‘but what’s the alternative?’, he knew the answers as well as his audience did. Thirty years on, we haven’t entirely forgotten them either.

The Art of Philip Guston: 1913-1980, organised by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, is at the Royal Academy from 24 January to 12 April 2004. An excellent exhibition catalogue, £22.50 softback, is available from the RA — nicely laid out, with an introduction by Michael Auping and essays by a number of important writers on Guston, it is certain to become a standard reference work.

Bunny Smedley, January 24, 2004 05:02 PM


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