“Pictures should tell histories. It is what makes me want to paint. To see, in a painting, what one has always wanted to see, but hasn’t until now.”
In 1970, Philip Guston surprised the art world by unveiling 33 unconventional paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. Visitors, expecting his usual abstract canvases, were confronted with simple crude depictions of everyday objects and unsettling white hooded figures. The response was negative, with critics deeming the departure “clumsy” and “embarrassing.” Guston’s betrayal of the art world.
50 years later, the National Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tate Modern in London, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, postponed Philip Guston’s retrospective as they were concerned about the interpretation of his depictions of white-hooded Klan figures in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis 2020. The decision, suggesting potential misinterpretation, led to a protest from over 2,000 artists, historians, and critics who felt it reflected a lack of faith in the public’s discernment. Guston’s uncanny uniqueness, social justice concern and ghosts of evil give his work a thought provoking connection with today.
Philip Guston (1913-1980) was born in Montreal, the youngest of seven children of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. At the age of six, the family moved to Los Angeles and, at the age of 9, he discovered his father’s body hanging from suicide. Primarily self-taught, drawing served as his solace. He explored the works of old masters like Piero della Francesca, Uccello, and later European artist Giorgio de Chirico, attending cartooning courses (as a boy, he was passionate about comic books). Mother and Child (1930) reflects a landscape influenced by Chirico, holding special significance for him as he was just 17 years old and most of the work was completed inside a closet illuminated by a dangling light.
At the show, we have the privilege to see the mural The Struggle Against Terrorism (1934-35) at scale. The social realist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros secured Guston and his school friend Reuben Kadish a wall of their own. Three Ku Klux Klan like figures are included in the mural, stamping his position on social justice and racism. In 1936, he left LA for New York following his high school friend Jackson Pollock. The move to easel painting made him grow disenchanted with figuration. Drawing no. 2 (Ischia, 1949) shows the seed for his abstraction. White Painting (1951) is displayed side by side with Drawing No. 2 (Ischia), showing their similarities. This painting was a breakthrough for Guston. He painted it quickly in one go, intentionally not stepping back. He wanted to break his old habits and discovered that there would still be a subtle structure no matter what he did.
Guston’s journey from realism to abstraction reflects his exploration of the essential aspects of painting and the expressive potential of images. His abstract impressionist works positioned him alongside Pollock and Rothko in the 1950s New York School. Becoming successful helped him to realise he did not want to be an abstract painter. He was missing recognisable objects. Head 1 (1965) shows an initial departure from abstract to figuration. Heads became solid personages in his canvas. Maybe his own head? Guston said his return to depiction was triggered by the times (Martin Luther and Robert F. Kennedy deaths and Paris students revolt). Stating “I got sick and tired of all the purity! I wanted to tell Stories!”, the Marlborough show displayed paintings from Guston’s visual alphabet, small panels created from 1967 onwards. They depict everyday studio items and unsettling hooded figures, arranged as he kept them in his studio.
In Studio (1969), Guston shifted by portraying himself as a Klansman painting on an easel. Motivated to address societal injustices, he painted large hooded figures as symbols of evil. Not specifically depicting the KKK, he explored the concept of evil through satire, showing these figures as both ridiculous and disturbingly common. Guston challenges perceptions, making us think about who is behind the hood and how violent ideologies hide in society. Without clear explanations, he hinted at his own involvement, saying, “I see myself behind the hood.” The paintings also point to racism and society’s role in evil acts, suggesting shared responsibility.
In his later years, Guston enjoyed painting discarded everyday items like cigarettes or paintbrushes, his daily tools. In works like Kettle (1978), these abandoned objects create an unsettling vibe against a dark sky and red desert, forming a somewhat hellish scene. Stripped of context, the objects turn into surreal symbols, representing aspects of humanity, be it good or bad, pleasure or vice. A powerful hand from the clouds, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s depiction of God’s fingertip, serves as a reminder of art’s role and the artist’s influence. The Line (1978) transforms this idea into a giant hand marked by life’s challenges. As the hand draws a charcoal line, it symbolises the connection between art’s higher truths and the realities of human existence.
Maria Herminia Donato to London Art Walk