The 1970s did funny things to Philip Guston. Had he died in 1969, art history would remember him as one of the most delicately refined painters in the American canon, and a leading light of the New York School—something like the moon to Jackson Pollock’s blazing sun. Instead, he made it to 1980, long enough to complete an entire second career’s worth of art that has all the delicate refinement of truck-stop graffiti.
Guston’s work from the 1950s and 1960s tended toward silvery abstraction. The paintings that followed were bright and crudely figurative, comic-strip panels sapped of comedy. Every object was now bluntly—you could almost say mercilessly—itself: a shoe, a cherry, a clock, a trash-can lid, a hooded Klansman.
The effect of these paintings, taken together, isn’t the banality of evil so much as the evil of banality: the darkness hiding in sunny, soul-less stagflation America. Any artist can make a Klansman look menacing; not many can wring the same menace out of a pile of shoes.
Critics gagged at first, but time has been kinder, and in recent years Guston’s late-period work has been placed on so lofty a pedestal it casts a shadow over almost everything else he painted. “Philip Guston, 1969–1979,” a new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth New York, makes a strong case that this status is deserved—few artists have had such a walloping final act.
The paintings on display are, without exception, tasteless—chunky-lined, candy-colored—but Guston uses tastelessness like a weapon, slashing through stale aesthetics and trite politics. There may be no scarier self-portrait than The Studio (1969), in which Guston imagines himself under a pointy white hood, painting with one hand and casually puffing on a cigarette with the other.
Images such as this led a number of museums to delay their Guston exhibitions last year. The Hauser & Wirth show (overcompensating, understandably) takes the line that The Studio and its cousins, far from being problematic, work out to noble defenses of progressive values.
Maybe they do. Or maybe the real importance of these ugly, indelible works lies in their reluctance to tell well-heeled liberals what they want to hear, their refusal to disclose their secrets even to their creator. “I come into the studio very fearfully,” Guston said. “I creep in to see what happened the night before. And the feeling is one of, My God, did I do that?” —Jackson Arn