New York — The Philip Guston retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art here beautifully documents one artist's creative journey from realism, to abstract-expressionism, and on to a highly idiosyncratic form of figurative painting.
It also serves as an object lesson to all who insist that unless an artist remains locked in to one style of painting, he will lose his creative identity.
But most of all, it presents some of the most disturbing blatant and yet hauntingly elegant paintings produced by anyone during the past decade. They combine imagery as stark and uncompromising as that of a child's, formal structure as sensitively attuned as a cubist master's, and as aggressively direct a style as any to be found among the brashest of New York's subway graffiti "artists."
Guston's earlier work, however, had been totally different. It ranged from youthful social protest paintings, public murals, delicately executed classical figure studies, romatically melancholy easel paintings which fused rigid geometric patterning with childhood imagery, to sensitive and vibrantly alive abstractions.
Examples of all these are included in this exhibition, with particular emphasis on the abstractions (which had established Guston's international reputation as one of the major abstract-expressionists), and on his drawings. These drawing played a crucial and frequently regenerative role in Guston's art throughout his career, and continue to serve as basic clues to our fuller understanding of his formal ideas.
The show's major impact, however, derives from his most recent work, the large, bold, and uncompromising paintings which first saw the light of day in the very late 1960s, and which created dismay when first publicly exhibited in 1970.
The art community couldn't believe its eyes when it saw what Guston had done. Instead of the freely brushed and elegantly colored abstract canvases for which he was famous, they found huge, hulking, cartoon-like paintings of hooded figures, shoes, feet, and legs of all sizes, ladders, bricks, pointing hands, etc. -- all mixed together without apparent rhyme or reason, and painted in the crudest of styles.
The reaction was intense and mostly negative. Guston was snubbed and reviled -- and critically assailed for deserting the cause of high art. Only a few friends, most notably painter Willem de Kooning, understood. "What's the problem?" he asked. "This is all about freedom."
Indeed it was, but that was difficult for most to see, especially those who had shared with Guston the postwar vision of an art that was classically pure and uncluttered with recognizable objects -- least of all objects painted in a cartoonlike style.
What these individuals fail to understand was that Guston had taken an inevitable step toward fusing the muscular energy and highly specific imagery of his early work with the coloristic and painterly sensitivity and elegance of his abstractions. What looked crude and gross was also witty, sardonic, humorously autobiographical -- and as extraordinarily vital as color and paint.
To someone of Guston's background and temperament, erupting outward with these images must have seemed like coming home, like finally utilizing his fullest creative resources after youthful gropings and after two decades of painting abstractions with one hand figuratively tied behind his back.
Now this is not intended to negate his abstractions, only to place them in their proper context. Lovely and impressive as they are, they pale beside his later paintings, with their brutal clarity, haunting intimations of universality , and sumptuous, if rough, paint handling.
Several writers have commented on the anguish present on these recent works, as well as on their sense of bitterness and frustration. These qualities are certainly present, but no more than in the works of any number of this century's most expressive painter. The only difference is that familiarity hasn't yet made these images as palatable as those by Nolde, Beckmann, Rouault, etc. They still remain too close, too raw, remind us too much of how almost "pretty" a painter Guston had been for over 20 years. Yet the art is there, the formal resolution that can take even the most painful of human experiences and transform them into symbols of harmony and grace.
These later paintings are of private matters share with us as straightforwardly as in a letter between very old and understanding friends. I find this refreshing, humanizing, -- and personally significant. I am involved in this work even though I do not share may of Guston's inner realities. And I do so because he makes me aware of how closely akin in spirit his fears, hopes, doubts, and simple pleasures are to mine -- and because I find these paintings totally honest, remarkably structured, shrewdly and sensitively painted, and often deliciously naughty.
I doubt that history will proclaim Philip Guston a great artist, but it will certainly have to acknowledge that he was a good and honorable one.
This excellent exhibition, originally organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and installed at the Whitney by Patterson Sims, will remain on view through Sept. 13.