The Escape Artist

How Neo-Expressionist Philip Guston Mixed Modern Trauma With Renaissance Influence but Was Dismissed as a Cartoonist Buffoon

By Benjamin Ivry

Published January 21, 2011.
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During his life, American modernist painter Philip Guston’s artistic styles ranged from 1930s social realism to 1950s–60s Abstract Expressionism to his deceptively simple-looking last style, which has often been reductively described as cartoonlike. Despite being written off by such high-profile critics as Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer, Guston’s work has endured. And even though the painter died in 1980, his art is more current than ever.

Guston (born Goldstein, of Ukrainian-Jewish heritage) speaks, posthumously, for himself in the many previously unpublished texts collected in “Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations” which came out last December from the University of California Press. Most notable of the texts is a 1968 public conversation with his friend, composer Morton Feldman.

Guston is represented not just by words, but also by a string of exhibitions. The revelatory “Philip Guston, Roma” at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C., opens on February 12 and remains on view through May 15, underlining the intense importance of Italian painting to Guston’s artistic imagination. Previously seen last year at Rome’s Museo Carlo Bilotti, “Philip Guston, Roma” demonstrates how such early Renaissance masters as Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Giotto influenced Guston. Simultaneously, “The Narcissism of Minor Differences,” a group exhibit that opened on December 9 at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where it can be seen until March 13, illustrates the “dark side of intolerance,” according to exhibit curators, by juxtaposing the artworks of, among others, Goya, Leon Golub and Guston.

In his last phase, images of Klansmen, such as one now on view at the exhibit “The Narcissism of Minor Differences,” recur. During his childhood in 1920s Los Angeles, Guston witnessed a local Ku Klux Klan parade; in a 1970s text printed in “Collected Writings,” he explains: “The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in L.A…. In this dream of violence, I feel like Isaac Babel with his Cossacks; as if I were living with the Klan.” In “Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston,” published (Da Capo Press, 1998) and written by the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer, the author describes her grandparents’ “flight from the terrible pogroms in Odessa. There were scary stories of crouching in cellars, in fear for their lives, hiding from the violent attacks against Jews that raged through the city.” Clearly, Guston fused this haunted remembrance of violence with specifically American 20th-century images of intolerance.

Other modern Jewish historical tragedy also indelibly affected Guston. During the aforementioned 1968 public conversation with Feldman, Guston cites the 1996 controversial Holocaust polemic “Treblinka” by Frenchman Jean-François Steiner, still available from Plume Editions. Steiner blames camp prisoners for not revolting in this semi-fictional, misguided work, but Guston was deeply moved by the subject of Treblinka itself, confessing: “I began to see all of life really as a vast concentration camp. And everybody is numbed, you know. Then I thought, ‘Well, that’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this.’”

Guston’s escape from metaphorical imprisonment into art was not a solo effort; he depended heavily on allies and confidants. In a 1967 talk at the New York Studio School, Guston confided, “I need Feldman to tell me I’m not insane.” Together, Guston and Feldman were both critical of other creative personalities, as well as themselves. (In the same 1968 public discussion in which Treblinka is evoked, both Feldman and Guston concur that the music of the popular American Jewish composer David Amram is mere “kitsch.” These kinds of relentless standards and judgments may have made Guston’s ultimate stylistic transformation especially shocking for such hidebound art critics as The New York Times’s Kramer, who headlined an article about Guston’s last style: “A Mandarin Pretending To Be a Stumblebum.” What emerges from “Collected Writings,” as well as from such imaginative art historical studies as “Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works” by David Kaufmann (The University of California Press, 2010), is the extent to which art critics and even some artists become sclerotic when faced with the prospect of genuine change in art. A devoted reader of Kafka since the 1940s, Guston naturally retained implicit faith in the power of metamorphosis.

Such ever-evolving artists may frustrate observers who wish to typify and pigeonhole creative talents. In “Philip Guston’s Self-Doubt,” an essay posted on artnet.com, Donald Kuspit, professor of art history and philosophy at Stony Brook University, charges that Guston’s “loss of faith in fine art… symbolizes his loss of faith in himself,” caused by “unconscious guilt at repudiating his Jewish identity by changing his family name from ‘Goldstein’ to ‘Guston.’” This accusatory psychoanalyzing ignores some essential elements of Guston’s life. “Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston” explains how in 1924, at the age of 10 or 11, Guston discovered the body of his father, a failed junk dealer who had committed suicide by hanging. This brutal abandonment — by Guston father, not son — was infinitely more violent than any mere change of name or style.

Whether or not accompanied by (understandable) rejection of his father, Guston’s abiding obsession with Italian Renaissance figurative art is visible throughout his varying styles. Just as the Renaissance artists Paolo Uccello, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca investigated forms, so did Guston, with an ever-present awareness of the work of these predecessors. This formal inquiry is evident, despite the surprising drawing approach that deceived some critics, although not the most perceptive ones, into considering his works mere emulations of cartoons. “Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston,” written by the unjustly forgotten Brooklyn-born author Ross Feld and published in 2003 by Counterpoint Press, notes of Guston’s late figurative work: “Sometimes they’re rendered with a stillness that’s tragic, other times with an hilarious crudity — but even the most upsetting or disquieting imagery in late Guston has a shaggy, even goofy friendliness.” Feld further aptly praises Guston’s “consistent edge of philosophical humor and self-mockery…. Like a Marrano, a converso, one of the underground Jews of the Spanish Inquisition, he’d been a secret image maker all along, coerced into abstraction but never grounded there, outwardly observing but also inwardly undermining its rituals.”

Indeed, a “shaggy, even goofy friendliness” permeates Guston’s multiple 1971 images mocking President Nixon, collected in the volume “Philip Guston’s Poor Richard” from The University of Chicago Press. These satirical drawings — sharing a vigorously barbed political sensitivity similar to that which informed the still remembered 1936 Works Progress Administration mural that he painted with Reuben Kadish — are more than cartoons, because they are created by an artist who has a deep understanding of volume and human form, as seen in Italian Renaissance figurative art. The pathos inherent in such volumes in the art of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca is also uncannily present in what at first glance may seem a mere Guston spoof of Nixon’s rather phallic-shaped nose.

In Dore Ashton’s astutely informed 1990 “A Critical Study of Philip Guston” (University of California Press) — which lauds his Nixon series as “a suite of searing caricatures” — Ashton notes that even a few weeks before his death from heart disease, Guston had an avid appetite for inspiration from Jewish sources. In conversation with Ashton’s husband, the Israeli playwright Matti Megged — brother of novelist Aharon Megged and translator into Hebrew of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” — the subject arose of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, whose theory of creativity fascinated the dying Guston. The flurry of new publications and exhibits honoring Guston allow us to better appreciate every phase of the career of a unique American Jewish creator.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


Watch a National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., video homage to Guston:

Related links:

For Aaron Rosen’s review of “Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works” in Zeek, click here.


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