Phillip Guston Now
October 23, 2022–January 16, 2023
Entering the Philip Guston Now exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one faces a large photograph of the artist, taken by Edward Weston. Though only seventeen, Guston looks beyond his years. The exhibition unscrolls eras in Guston’s career that are distinct yet share a visual lexicon—the noose, the soles of anonymous feet, lawless children abandoned by society—that haunted Guston’s life as much as his paintings.
The first room showcases Guston’s early influences, including David Alfaro Siqueiros. Guston met Siqueiros when the artist visited Los Angeles in 1932. He arranged for Guston to participate in a mural project in Morelia, Mexico. The resulting piece, The Struggle Against Terrorism (1934–35), betrays Guston’s nascent attention to universal evil, from the Spanish conquistadors’ bloody reign to a shadowy Klansman climbing a ladder. Guston’s family had fled anti-Semitism in Russia and as a teenager growing up in 1920s Los Angeles he bore witness to Klan activity. The shapes of those encounters resurface repeatedly in his abstract and figurative works.
The painting If This Be Not I (1945) features disheveled children masked or blindfolded, alluding to North America’s negligence of Jews seeking refuge. It shares spectral hues with Guston’s 1941 Self Portrait, revealing an early connection between issues of global terror, personal accountability, and cultural passing that we see in The Studio, Guston’s self-portrait as Klansman. In The Porch II (1947), Guston drops the viewer into the airless space of a prison orchestra forced to perform in concentration camps. The reedy figures, weighed down by bulbous heads, are separated from each other by their own limbs and blocks of color. As Harry Cooper writes in his catalogue essay “Interior Exiles, 1940 – 1947,” “…the figures are not so much backed by the architecture as caught in it.”
With sweeping vistas from room to room, Philip Guston Now highlights the regenerative quality of the master painter’s work. One room is dedicated to Guston’s abstract period, which spanned from 1947 to 1966. The monumental canvases of Beggar’s Joys (1954–55) and Dial (1956) maintain the same intimate confrontation as The Porch II and If This Be Not I, and an enduring preoccupation with evil without directly re-affirming its likeness. The Tormentors (1947–48) traces the shape of the Klan hood as well as a series of white dots reminiscent of Guston’s obsession with piles of roughly-soled shoes, a symbol of the Holocaust and collective loss. The mid 1960s usher in Guston as linguist. In a narrow transitional space hang ink and charcoal drawings Untitled (1966) and Untitled No. 4 (1967), which bring to mind a noose and a scaffold, respectively. Guston toys with an alphabet of symbols, reinvestigating the single object and finding new logics to combine them. The noose held personal significance for Guston, a reminder of his father’s suicide by hanging in June 1923.
The exhibition layout then bursts open to reveal Guston’s return to the figurative in the late 1960s, contending with the Klan’s sinister legacy through a cartoonish style. Rather than flippant, the cartoon form is interrogative, poking holes into the predictability of violence, deflating some of its power. Time and again, Guston mined the self to find the Other within. Having changed his name from Goldstein to Guston in 1935, the artist “passed” in Anglo-Christian culture. The Studio (1969) positions the cartoon as a form of self-accusation. Painting himself as an in-process artist concealed behind a Klansman’s hood, Guston centers himself in his critique of social complacency.
During the 1970s, Guston turned his attention to corporality. Web (1975) depicts a cyclopic, balding avatar, his singular eye pressed to the ground, overwhelmed by the task of self-reflection. Two spiders build webs across his stubbly chin, punctuating his impermanence; Time marches through the figure’s deteriorating body. These later works retain Guston’s career-long preoccupation with collective pain. Rug (1976), a candy pink and ruby red tangle of disembodied legs laying upon neat wooden floorboards, delivers on the uncanny, both familiar and utterly strange within the domestic space. Rug echoes Guston’s early allusions to the atrocities of Auschwitz, yet here, the monster is inside the house.
Couple in Bed (1977) carries significant domestic weight. Guston and his wife Musa McKim are reduced to a bundle of innards tucked into their sheets, framed in black. One holds splintered brushes and wears the same clunky, crudely-soled shoes that Guston painted for years. The piece was created after Musa suffered a series of strokes and amidst Guston’s own heart problems. There is a troubled tenderness to the painting, a feeling of imminent loss yet profound love.
By 1978’s Painter’s Forms II, Guston had pulled his avatar, gathering, separating, then suturing his single object studies back together again to convey a deconstructed self. The piece features a feral mouth painted in a palette of light blue and sunset pink. The mouth munches on Guston’s signature shoes, cigarettes, and mangled limbs. Teethy jaws consume the symbols of Guston’s subconscious, from diseased organs to lonely, innocent shoes—Guston’s short-hand for shared grief. In Talking (1979), fingers splay a string of intestines garishly, like a pearl necklace, as if presenting them as a prize. The time on a watch points towards the unseen subject. Intestines, time, the cigarettes that killed Guston are rendered in his iconic cartoonish style, as the artist is laughing at his own fallibility, his own mundane yet deeply human lament at life’s shortness.
For decades, Philip Guston used visual logic to analyze and exorcise social ills. His work reminds us of the at-times grueling journey through cultural legacy. His orbital compositions and obsessive icons probe themes of nationalism, racial violence, and massive loss. In tandem with the socially attentive condition of his work towards the end of his life the artist’s pictorial vocabulary became increasingly self-referential. Whether mapping universal evil or the messy terrain of his own mind, he understood that an examination of society is always, even in small part, an examination of self.