Philip Guston: an Artist Who Dared Draw Things You Can Recognize

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Philip Guston was in his late 50s, he did a daring thing: After attaining great success with his abstract style of painting, he went back to figurative painting. At the time, he was severely criticized for that; he was going against the popular tide.

Since his death in 1980, however, Guston's later works have become his most celebrated.

``Philip Guston: 50 Years of Painting,'' the first full-scale retrospective of the artist's work, is now at the Dallas Museum of Art (through Jan. 14). The exhibition documents Guston's three stages of painting with more than 60 works dating from 1930 to 1979.

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Like other mid-20th-century artists, Guston moved from figurative painting into abstract painting. But, unlike his colleagues, he returned to figuration, concentrating on recognizable yet unrealistic cartoon-like images. These late works are prominent in this fascinating exhibition put together by curator Mark Rosenthal for the Cultural Ministry of Spain. (Guston is often compared to Goya and Picasso.) Dallas is the second and final stop on the American leg of the tour, organized by the St. Louis Art Museum.

Guston was born in Montreal, the youngest of seven children. His parents were Russian Jewish emigres. He grew up in Los Angeles and attended the Manual Arts School, where he befriended Jackson Pollack. During the '30s and '40s, he was a Works Progress Administration muralist, having been inspired by the Mexican murals of the time.

By 1950, he had moved to New York and embarked on a new style which, along with the work of Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, was tagged Abstract Expressionism. That style is represented here by such works as ``Room 112,'' ``The Mirror,'' ``For M,'' and ``The Year.'' Red became a color Guston would favor for the rest of his life.

Into the early '60s, Guston's abstracts, through their bolder colors and big black forms, hinted at the representational art that was to come. It was later in that decade when he rejected abstraction altogether.

His third and last style is a curious one. At once comical and grotesque, his symbolic images and everyday objects hint at Surrealism. Peak-hooded people (resembling Ku Klux Klansmen), piles of shoe soles, blunt fingers, stick-like limbs, bloated heads with large eyes, trash-can lids, bare light bulbs, clocks - all these images carry social and autobiographical references.

GUSTON witnessed the crimes of the Ku Klux Klan during the Great Depression and held to memories of the Holocaust. A heavy drinker, smoker, and insomniac, the artist often makes reference to these problems in the content and titles of his works - ``Head and Bottle,'' ``Painting, Smoking, Eating,'' and ``The Studio.''

His father, who committed suicide when Guston was a young boy, was a junk dealer, a job which may have influenced the artist's cluttered depictions in works like ``The Street.'' Musa, his wife, a constant supporter, is seen as a rising sun over the horizon in ``The Source.''

Critics have speculated that some of Guston's late, ill-proportioned and cumbersome images are character portraits of himself rooted in the ``Krazy Kat'' cartoons he enjoyed as a child. Guston himself was gravely disheartened by the angry disapproval art audiences expressed for these late paintings.

But despite the reception, Guston has left an inspiring legacy for a new generation of painters, who look to him as a pave-the-way artist - a person who was true to his instincts even if that meant daring to swim against the tide.

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