New York — To have had one successful career in art is accomplishment enough. To have had three, and firt-rate ones at that, is rare indeed. Such, however, was the case with Philip Guston, whose multiple careers included WPA murals and figurative paintings in the 1930s and '40s, lyrically abstract works in the 1950s and '60s (for which he became world famous), and aggressively blunt and Rabelaisian representational paintings in the 1970s.
Although these switches in style were total, they did not result from professional opportunism, but were, rather, a matter of creative necessity. This is especially true of his most recent work, which, when first publicly seen in 1970, so disturbed and enraged many who saw them that he was snubbed by many of his fellow artists and critically reviled.
A small but representative selection of paintings and drawings from this last as well as his middle period is on view at the David McKee Gallery here. Entitled "Tribute to Philip Guston," this show is not only a warm posthumous tribute from dealer to artist, but also one of the outstanding exhibitions of the art season so far.
But that's not surprising, considering the quality and range of Guston's work , its authority, intelligence, rugged elegance, and blatant good humor.
To view even a small number of his paintings is to fall under the spell of a powerful but clear-headed creative personality. Even the intricately delicate abstractions of the '50s, those dubbed "abstract-impressionist" to differentiate them from the works of the more urgent and violent abstract-expressionists of that period, reflect a sensibility more willing to respond to choice than to chance.
Perhaps it's this quality of rationality, of conscious direction, that gives Guston's art -- even the recent cartoonlike canvases -- such a civilized and urbane character, and which causes us, once the initial shock has worn off, to see these huge and startling images as likable rather than threatening.
I personally would go one step further and admit that I find many of these recent works lovable and heartwarming. It's as though Guston had opened up his most private world to us and said, "Here I am. This is who and what I am. And this, most especially, is what I love, fear, and cannot do without."
There is a "teddy bear" and private fantasy-world quality to these late paintings which makes them very appealing and gives them a dimension of enchantment too often missing in major contemporary art.
Although I missed the 1970 exhibition in which Guston introduced these startlingly novel canvases to the public, I remember very clearly the chocked dismay with which they were, by and large, received. It was inconceivable to most viewers that such a lyrically elegant and responsiblem abstract painter, one of the very few Americans who could have passed as French, could so upset the apple cart by painting such huge, blunt, adn derisive cartoonlike pictures. The only reasonable explanation was that Guston was thumbing his nose not only at his own earlier work, but at the art world itself.
EVen though a decade has passed since that show, there are still those who refuse to take this aspect of Guston's art seriously. To them, these paintings are coarse and don't deserve the name of art.
My reaction to that is these people are missing a great deal, that they have cut themselves off from some of the most remarkable and original paintings of the past decade.
A handful of these works are in this show. His 1977 "Legend," for instance, resembles nothing else in art -- recent or otherwie -- except other Guston paintings. If it echoes anything else at all, it is the world of Rabelais, for where else would we find such gargantuan items related to human activity, such blunt and direct expressions of human experience?
This quality extends to all the other paintings as well as to the several drawings of this genre on view. To Guston, drawing was a full and dynamic creative activity, one that was related to, but separate from, painting. He enjoyed drawing, and was extremely good at it, with the result that he is almost as well known for his drawings as for his paintings.
"Wheel," one of his very last works, is an ink drawing that spells out in apparently childlike fashion the basic ingredients of Guston's most recent pictorial preoccupations.
It represents a landscape made up of fragments of our human world. In addition to the wheel we see a large pointing hand, the reverse side of painting , portions of a ladder and of a chair, shoes, feet, a partly unrolled manuscript , and other items not clearly defined.
Hardly, at first glance, a prepossessing subject for a painting. But in the hands of Guston the painter, the manipulator of seductively elegant color and monumental form, such objects in such compositions become marvelously affirmative statements about life and art and everything else under the sun.
This exhibition will remain on view at the David McKee Gallery through Nov. 12.