Sure-footed purist

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Philip Guston spent most of his life battling himself. On one side of his psyche was marshalled his lust for an almost spiritual kind of purity. On the other stood a hunger to depict tangible stuff – books and sandwiches and the material evidence of a debased world. Every one of his images was splashed with the gore of this internal warfare; each represented an act of will and a form of surrender. A new exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, Philip Guston: Works on Paper, chronicles his torment, revealing the way he tacked back and forth between the rarefied and the fleshly sides of his character.

Guston is known principally as a protean painter who plunged from one aesthetic period to the next. The standard narrative of his career has him starting with politically charged surrealist tableaux, forging a path towards the most refined abstraction, only to veer in the 1970s into vulgar, comic and poisonous pictures of hooded Klansmen perpetrating sadistic acts. What this show illuminates, though, is that in his drawings all those sensibilities coexisted. From the 1940s to his death in 1980, he returned again and again to the motif of the shoe, now lurking in abstract compositions, now posing for a fully fledged portrait. That literally pedestrian object was a talisman against his infatuation with the ethereal.

“Sometimes when my painting is getting too artistic, I’ll say to myself, what if a shoe salesman asked me to paint a shoe on his window?” Guston confessed. “Suddenly everything lightens, I’m not so responsible.”

If he looked for ways to ease the burden of making art, it’s because creation for him was a violent process. Even in the sparsest ink drawings, you can practically feel the nib streaking over the paper’s weave, yielding ruthless lines and thick, shadowed forms. During his most abstract period, familiar shapes keep trying to break out. A scribbled black blob recurs like an ominous hallucination; over the years it coalesces into a human torso, a brush heavy with paint, a glowering mountain or a hairy head. When you return to the paintings from the works on paper, they seem transformed and animated, as if the gauzy veil of shimmering colour were a lace curtain over a bed of snakes.

Guston belonged to a world that assigned virtue to abstraction, and he spent decades tamping down his shameful yen for graven images. He hinted at this unease in 1960. “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself,” he wrote. “Painting is impure ... We are image makers and image-ridden.” It was a truth he seemed more comfortable expressing on paper than on canvas.

In 1966, Guston reached a crisis point. He stopped painting for two years, confining his conflict to pared-down, almost minimalist drawings – just a few short scratches or a pair of fat lines. At the same time, he began to treat these indecipherable runes as elements of more descriptive compositions. A single mark on one sheet multiplies into a pattern of striations on another, eventually resolving into windows on a pair of twinned towers or lines of print in an open book.

“I remember days of doing the ‘pure’ drawings immediately followed by days of doing the other, drawings of objects,” he later told his biographer. “It was two equally powerful impulses at loggerheads. One day in the house I would tack up a bunch of pure drawings I had just done, feel good about them, and think that I could live with this. And then go out to the studio to the drawings of objects – books, shoes, buildings, hands – feeling relief ... So it went, this tug of war.”

Guston finally achieved a truce with himself at the end of the 1960s, when he abandoned his pretensions to abstract orthodoxy and started painting explicitly provocative scenes. In “The Studio”, a canvas that is not at the Morgan, a thick red hand pokes out from beneath the clumsily stitched sheets of a Ku Klux Klan costume. Instead of a noose or a crowbar, the hand wields a brush poised in mid self-portrait. His message to his colleagues could not have been clearer: you are masked, cowardly, mediocre and hypocritical. This new phase startled and offended his friends and champions in the New York art world, who were taken aback by his angry turn and his deliberate crudeness. The exhibit at the Morgan makes it clear that if they had been paying closer attention to his drawings, they would not have been so shocked.

‘Philip Guston: Works on Paper’, Morgan Library & Museum, New York, until August 31. Tel: +1 212-685 0008

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