Arts Review

Philip Guston in Boston, Houston, and Washington

The award for most anticipated and contentious exhibition of the past year and a half must go to “Philip Guston Now,” the retrospective jointly organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Tate Modern, London. The show was eagerly awaited as an opportunity to follow the long, wide-ranging evolution of a stubbornly individual, hard to pin down, and influential artist. Guston (1913–1980) began painting seriously while still in his teens and spent the next half-century exploring different conceptions and possibilities. In his twenties and thirties, he won attention and praise for politically charged social realist murals, portraits, and closely packed groups of children, trapped in ambiguous spaces or playing at war. Despite the enthusiastic reception for his early work, in 1947–48, Guston began to abandon recognizable imagery, first experimenting with blurred geometry, then with all-over webs, then, in the 1950s, with muscular, lushly stroked canvases that wrestled near-primary colors up through fields of off-whites and near-grays. These seductive images established him as one of the most compelling abstract painters of his generation, but his initial move from expressive figuration to equally expressive non-figuration signaled what would be a continuing pattern of shifting approaches.
Restless and, at some level, always dissatisfied, in the early 1960s, Guston began to step back from his acclaimed abstractions. The floating tangles of dense brushstrokes began to coalesce into dark, confrontational, ample ovals that hovered against murky webs like surrogate self-portraits, an association reinforced by titles like Mirror, Painter, and Head. A period devoted to essentially minimal drawing followed, as if Guston were stripping everything down to essentials, testing what a single assertive mark on paper could mean. Next, he concentrated on small “portraits” of shoes, books, light bulbs, hooded figures, window shades, and the like, with every image filling the available space and pressing toward us, a series that has been described as a visual lexicon, prepared for future works. Guston later said that he was provoked to make images by the events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, student uprisings, and police brutality during the Democratic Convention. He felt that worrying about color relationships and formal issues was inadequate to the situation.


Philip Guston, Passage, 1957–1958. Oil on canvas. 165.1 x 188.6 cm (65 x 74 1/4 in.). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Bequest of Caroline Wiess Law, 2004.20. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.


In his last decade, Guston shocked the art world and made a lot of enemies by returning to figuration, not with the suave, introspective groups of his earlier work, but with gorgeously painted, bitterly funny, angst-laden narratives and pitiless self-portraits, probing the boundaries between satirical cartooning and what used to be called “high art.” Only Willem de Kooning, among Guston’s friends and peers, was enthusiastic about these works when they were first shown, in 1970, at Marlborough Gallery, perhaps because he, too, had been vilified twenty years earlier, when he first exhibited his Women. Otherwise, an audience convinced of the inevitability of abstraction was horrified by paintings inhabited by hooded figures smoking cigars, painting self-portraits, jammed into cars, or trapped on a blackboard. In one canvas, a vast space, both an interior and an exterior, is strewn with shoes, clocks, lumber, and indescribable stuff, with two scruffy hoods rising among the clutter. Others are punctuated by thick, accusatory pointing fingers, all of it conjured up with delicate, Rococo color and a sophisticated touch. Hilton Kramer described Guston as “A mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum”—a phrase clearly not intended as a compliment that proved prescient. For his remaining decade, Guston’s visual language was a fusion of Sunday funny papers and the Renaissance.
The extremely diverse work Guston produced at different times in his long working life can be discussed in relation to Mexican muralism, especially to David Alfaro Siqueiros, to Pablo Picasso, late Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Piero della Francesca, Pontormo, and Giorgio Morandi, among others. Both Guston’s images and abstractions can also be discussed as responses to the troubling events, domestic and international, personal and public, of his lifetime—his father’s suicide, the death of a brother, racial and political violence in Los Angeles, where he spent his early years, the Holocaust, the aftermath of World War II, American racism, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and more. There are recurring images throughout his work, now unequivocal, now hinted at—among other things, bare light bulbs, lengths of thick rope, window shades, hobnailed shoe soles, cigarette stubs, a thick-fingered hand clutching a cigarette, blunt heads, shields, masks, peculiar hats, and hoods. They shift scales and suggest countless associations, some more explicit than others. The piles of shoes evoke the Holocaust. The hand with the cigarette becomes a self-portrait. The hoods, inevitably, provoke thoughts of the Ku Klux Klan. They also trigger thoughts of the Spanish Inquisition, of penitentes in religious processions, of Francisco Goya’s figures in dunce caps, and more, while their visible patches suggest decay and seediness rather than power. But in the surge of awareness stimulated by the Black Lives Matter movement and the demonstrations triggered by the brutal murder of George Floyd, those hooded figures—any broader meanings notwithstanding—were deemed so problematic that the exhibition was nearly derailed. Guston, who constantly reinvented his art, who worked in many different ways, who had assimilated and transformed a wealth of diverse influences, and whose work over half a century resonated both obliquely and directly with everything from social history to the history of art, was reduced to “the painter of Klansmen.” Museum closures necessitated by Covid further complicated matters, leading to a proposal to postpone for four years so that Guston’s work could be “recontextualized” and any discomfort it might provoke be addressed. (Never mind that the catalogue was already printed, with essays dealing specifically with the artist’s provocative imagery by such politically engaged artists as William Kentridge, Glenn Ligon, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Trenton Doyle Hancock—a Black painter and multimedia artist who uses Guston’s Klansmen in his own work.)
Protests reduced the delay to two years—about 2,500 people signed a letter demanding the reduction—but anxiety about how museumgoers might react to confrontation with non-literal, satirical paintings and drawings of hooded figures continued unabated. Yet, when in September and October 2021, the New York gallery, Hauser & Wirth, mounted “Philip Guston 1969–1979,” a museum-worthy exhibition that included some of his most ferocious images with Klansmen, the show was embraced for its own merits and as solace for the overdue retrospective. Meanwhile, the original schedule of museum showings was rearranged, and in May 2021, a reduced version of “Philip Guston Now” finally opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it remained on view all summer. A larger iteration of the show was seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this past fall, while an even larger selection opened at the National Gallery, Washington, in March. A somewhat different version will be seen in London in the fall of 2023. The essential checklist remained unchanged, but available space determined what would be seen in each museum.
Perhaps because the Boston MFA’s place in the tour changed because of the postponement, making it the first venue, the curators and administration seemed not only (understandably) uncertain how the exhibition would be received after all the outcry, but also convinced that much of their audience would be terrified by having to look at the paintings of hooded figures. Fearful of distressing its visitors or causing permanent harm, Boston hired a “trauma specialist”—a profession I was previously unaware of—to produce a candy pink card titled “Emotional Preparedness for ‘Philip Guston Now,’” offered before you entered the exhibition galleries. “You have an opportunity to lean into the discomfort of confronting racism on an experiential level as you view art that wrestles with America’s past and present racial tensions,” we were told. “You have every right to feel your feelings throughout this exhibition.” I haven’t been able to decide which was more offensive, the condescension or the assumption that Guston’s work dealt solely with racial tensions. Anyone who looked attentively at the work on view, rather than reading the directive on the card, would quickly notice that his preoccupations were infinitely broader than that description and, I suspect, would also realize that the deeply held convictions that informed his abstract and figurative work alike were no more important than his passionate engagement with painting as painting. Boston also provided an escape route that allowed the timid to bypass pictures with hooded figures and return to the galleries later in the installation. I am cynical enough to wonder whether special routes were also established through the old master galleries, protecting squeamish visitors from the collection’s crucifixions and martyrdoms; I think there’s David with the Head of Goliath and Judith with the Head of Holofernes on view, also.


Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973. Oil on canvas. 196.85 x 262.89 cm (77 1/2 x 103 1/2 in.). Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, acquired with the generous support of the Vereniging Rembrandt and Mrs. Guston. © The Estate of Philip Guston; Tate, London / Art Resource, NY.


Surprisingly, given the elaborate measures to protect viewers from obviously invented, non-literal paintings, disturbing photographs and magazine clippings of Holocaust victims and Klan gatherings, videos of civil rights actions, and Vietnam footage were included without apology, as context, some of it shrouded and available only by choice. Videos of interviews with Guston punctuated the rather crowded exhibition, undeniably illuminating, but occupying a lot of real estate, as did a far less illuminating large-screen video of a conversation about the show that included the Boston curators. There was no shortage of outstanding works by Guston spanning his entire working life and encompassing everything from his early overtly political works to roiling abstractions to mysterious, economical images from his last years, but the installation was thematic, rather than chronological, which made it difficult to follow his evolution. Frequently, notable differences in the size, affect, and paint handling in works linked only by nominally similar subjects disrupted visual coherence. That Guston repeated some motifs, almost obsessively, is undeniable, but the point could have been made, briefly, with a small didactic selection, to encourage viewers to notice the recurrences themselves. Relief was offered by a gallery of four stunning, muscular abstractions from the late 1950s, a welcome opportunity to concentrate on a specific moment in Guston’s complicated history, coherently and informatively grouped.
Boston’s unfortunate choice of bubblegum pink as the wall color was another obstacle to concentration; mercifully, it faded almost to white halfway into the show, but it gradually returned to full strength. I’m fully aware of Guston’s fondness for a variety of juicy pinks made by mixing cadmium red medium—his favorite color, he said—with abundant white. But. Perhaps the most problematic part of the Boston installation was the section devoted to Klansman paintings, almost all of which had been seen at Hauser & Wirth the previous year. Smaller works, such as the enigmatic The Studio (1969), with its hooded smoker painting a hooded self-portrait in a room with a bare light bulb, a clock, and shaded window, were corralled in a small “room within a room” intended to evoke Guston’s Woodstock studio. The large works with Klansmen included the enigmatic Blackboard (1969) with its trio of bewildered hoods depicted as emerging from sludge, and City Limits (1969), with its three bloodstained, patched hoods, one concealing a smoker jammed into a jalopy with wheels studded like shoe soles. Among the most outstanding works in the show, they were relegated to the narrow space surrounding the “studio,” which made them difficult to see. No doubt that was the intent, to dull the impact of the imagery.
As installed at the MFA Houston by Alison de Lima Greene and at the National Gallery by Harry Cooper, both of them curators involved in the exhibition’s conception and realization, “Philip Guston Now” seemed like a different show than the one seen in Boston. As is logical for a retrospective, both Houston and Washington presented the works chronologically, with a very few pulled out of context—early and late self-portraits, in Washington, for example—as an introduction. In both installations, we could follow his evolution from haunting figuration to cool near-geometry to brushy abstraction to ferocious, open-ended narratives, beginning with the astonishing Mother and Child, painted about 1930, when Guston was seventeen—a massive seated figure with a robust baby—and ending with small, enigmatic portraits of food and battered, sometimes indescribable objects. We could note both the constants and the divergences along the way and be aware of undiminished intensity and of recurring images, of unchanging concerns and swerves in emphasis. We became absorbed by the way identical marks could suggest very different things and create different scales. Rows of repeated touches, for example, could read as the windows of tall buildings, as text in books, as appliances; dotted arcs could stand for shoe soles or architecture; and more. Guston said he had been a political painter only very early in his working life, but that his later work was informed by everything he was aware of. Cooper, the National Gallery’s curator, has characterized the early figurative works as evidence of Guston’s learning what to paint, while the gestural, lush abstractions of the 1950s and 1960s bore witness to his learning how to paint.
The Houston and Washington installations benefitted from more space than was available in Boston, but even given their larger galleries, both museums resisted the temptation to load the space with contextual material and the like. Both institutions did a considerable amount of preparatory work, discussing the parts of the show deemed potentially problematic with museum staff and the community; guards who said spending time surrounded by the Klansman images made them uncomfortable, for example, could ask for other assignments, and special programs and lectures connected with the exhibition were arranged in both museums. But for the most part, Houston and Washington trusted the intelligence of their visitors. Rather than handouts telling us that we had every right to feel our feelings—thank you very much—strategically placed text panels were designed to alert viewers to potentially disturbing content and create a context for that content, illustrated by occasional documentary and comparative images on extended labels. The introductory panel at the National Gallery, for example, tells us that “Guston wrestled with the world around him, by turns grappling with and retreating from a dynamic, violent century.” We were made aware of the persistent questions raised by his work, through the changes in approach and style over the five decades from 1930 to 1980—questions that suggest a range of meanings attached to his masked, disguised, and, especially, hooded figures, the Klansmen with their unsavory associations. “What are the uses of imagination in navigating an unjust world? How can one balance the imperative to bear witness and the need to find a retreat? Are the evils of the world outside of us or hiding in the mirror?” At the start of the exhibition, we are warned “Please be advised that this exhibition contains depictions of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, including images of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and victims of Nazism,” a necessary red flag that, however, makes Guston’s paintings sound infinitely more explicit than they are—apart from a 1930 drawing inspired by racial violence in Los Angeles. That warning is repeated before we encounter paintings from the 1970 Marlborough Gallery exhibition that so rocked the New York art world, although it was the recognizable imagery and vernacular style that most disturbed viewers, not the depictions of Klansmen. This time, we are offered another option: “If you prefer to bypass the large paintings with hooded figures, please walk through the hallway to your left, where the exhibition continues.” (The hallway is hung with small “object portraits,” so all visitors will want to traverse it.) Other text panels remind us of Guston’s early experience of Klan activity in Los Angeles and note that “although he rendered his ‘hoods’ in a cartoony style, perhaps to distance himself from the horror, he was well aware that the Klan was no joke.” Later we learn that Guston said that his hooded figures were self-portraits. Was it a self-indictment for remaining in the studio instead of taking action against injustice and evil? Or does it implicate us all?


Philip Guston, Legend, 1977. Oil on canvas. 175.26 x 199.39 cm (69 x 78 1/2 in.). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Museum purchase funded by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund, 88.35. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.


Guston’s last, increasingly simplified paintings present characters and objects in relative isolation, sometimes against brushy expanses that suggest sky, sea, and flat plains. A veiny hand reaches out of clouds to draw. A ladder draped with detached legs in hobnail shoes looms against the sea, with an arch of center-parted hair, Guston’s emblem for his wife, Musa, rising like sun in the background. Or is it setting? The “sign” for Musa appears often, with small variations, while Guston presents himself as an oversized round head, featureless except for a giant eye, but able to smoke, like an exaggerated reminder of Max Beckmann’s self-portraits, variously costumed, bullet-headed, holding a cigarette. As we approach the end of the exhibition, schooled by what we have seen, we recognize now familiar motifs and allusions: brick walls, first seen in the background of the seated Mother and Child (1930), that create a narrow stage-like space, perhaps an homage to Beckmann’s “side-show” spaces; garbage can lids as shields, first wielded by battling children in Gladiators (1940), a knot of limbs that nods at de Chirico, with a dog that seems to have strayed in from Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, at the Museum of Modern Art. A battered kettle, worn as a hat by a boy in crowded 1941 street fight painting, becomes the sole protagonist, in profile against a black expanse, under a plume of steam, in a large painting from 1978. Shoes. Books. Skinny legs. Food. We catch echoes of Jean Siméon Chardin’s suave paintings of fruit at the same time that we think about George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and about Piero della Francesca. Everything is unequivocally Guston’s own, part of his enigmatic individual narrative, but it can also seem as if he were reviewing his entire mental image bank and using it as the basis for profoundly personal improvisation in his own idiom.
The installations at the MFA Houston and the National Gallery were both exemplary. They revealed the complex, often contradictory history of Guston’s evolution, underscored his obsessions and inventions, and made us aware of both the toughness of his imagery, abstract or recognizable, and the sheer beauty of how he could put on paint. The story was told in a visually satisfying and logical way. The National Gallery version of the show has a slight edge over the MFA iteration only because, as the largest venue in the tour, it has room for thirty more paintings than Houston, some of which have rarely or never been seen. Another addition in Washington, installed in a separate gallery, apart from the main exhibition, is the suite of angry, hilarious Poor Richard drawings (1971). Introduced by a warning about depictions of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism, the series is Guston’s savage comment on what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Nixon administration, as it courted Black voters and made overtures to China, a fierce indictment that he hoped would become a book. Nixon, all swollen jowls, stubble, and long nose, in a configuration that suggests other anatomical references, is often accompanied by Vice President Spiro Agnew as a conehead, Attorney General John Mitchell as sagging jowls and a pipe, and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger as a pair of heavy-rimmed glasses. The line quality of these jazzy illustrations is exciting, and the characterizations and situations witty, far more so than in the single painting Guston did of Nixon, San Clemente (1975) celebrating his impeachment and resignation. Installed in the center of the gallery, it shows him as an overscaled, disheveled grotesque conjured up with thick, airless layers of intense color. Even more than the Poor Richard drawings, San Clemente tips into pure illustration. Guston’s disgust is palpable, but the ambiguous, no less intense paintings in the main galleries of “Philip Guston Now” are far better. Still, the series must have special resonance in DC.
Get to Washington if you possibly can. I don’t know how the show will be conceived at Tate Modern, but past experience suggests that the lighting will be pretty awful. Even if it isn’t, it’s safe to assume that we’ll never again see such a rich selection of Gustons as beautifully presented as in Houston and Washington. And the catalogue, with its informative, provocative essays by the curators and contributions by artists, is first rate.