Publication: The Times
Philip Guston: 1913-1980 – Late Paintings
It’s no surprise to learn (from Michael Blackwood’s 1980 documentary, PhilipGuston: A Life Lived,which accompanies this show) that Guston’s late paintings, in their marked divergence in technique and subject matter, provoked a harsh response among critics, friends and the public. A number of these strange, cartoonish, almost naïve images, covering the period from 1969 to 1978, are shown here.
Gone are the thick loaded canvasses, some hinting at the human form, but retaining just enough ‘abstraction’ to keep us guessing, such as The Mirror (1957). Such works may have been seen as typical of Guston’s approach at the time, earning him the label as one of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists – but they held no clue as to his future direction.
In 1967, following a move to Woodstock, a small leafy town in upper New York State, Guston began adopting this radical new approach. In Blackwood’s film, Guston summarily dismisses his change in direction: “…. The appearance may change (comments about ‘style’ sound strange to me – you make work in this ‘style’ or that ‘style’ as if you had a choice in the matter). What you are doing is trying to stay alive….”
But what do these odd images, some with apparent references to the Klu Klux Klan, mean? Where is Guston taking us? Is this an elaborate joke or serious political commentary? Are the images a form of knowing self-irony or images painted from the heart because there was, apparently, no other choice? Such questions, and a plethora of others, jump into one’s mind. But more than one or two viewers must have wondered if they were somehow complicit in an intricate ruse.
Blackwood's film does provide some answers but, again, Guston’s statements can leave one disappointed and confused: “…I don’t feel any different now than I did in the early ‘fifties when I was doing so-called non-figurative paintings…but that’s not really the point…what is to the point is that I’m in the same state…. the rest is not my business…”
What is pertinent is that these works are now held in near universal high regard, in direct contrast to the prevalent opinions at the time of their creation.