The climactic gallery of the Royal Academy’s Philip Guston retrospective contains some of the most vital, vivid and raucous pictures created by any American artist during the course of the twentieth century. “Laughing in the dark” was how the painter once curtly described what he was up to, in the work of his later years. The mood that emanates from these powerful, battered-looking paintings, with their emphatically weird and cartoon-like images rendered on a monumental scale, is a fierce hilarity, a manic, black humour, tinged by melancholia and an inescapable sense of the absurd. The experience of walking into this room is simultaneously exhilarating and unsettling, almost like encountering some wonderful but previously unknown cycle of frescoes – Giotto and Piero della Francesca were among Guston’s greatest heroes – on a theme which continues to resist precise identification.
Guston was a contemporary (and school-fellow) of Jackson Pollock who, by the standards of most New York School painters, lived his life back-to-front. Mired in self-doubt and paralysed by anxiety for much of his early career, he suddenly discovered an access of energy and iconoclastic self-confidence as he entered old age. He died in 1980 at the age of 67, having invented a whole world during the last ten years of his life. The dramatis personae who throng this place – Gustonland – are pathetic and generally abbreviated figures, resembling vestiges or dregs of humanity. Piles of scrawny, hairy legs, wearing hobnailed boots, accumulate mysteriously on distant shores under darkening skies. Disembodied heads cluster in a lurid, cadmium-red wasteland, the expressions on their distorted, comic-book faces suggestive of mute despair and resignation. An outrageously foolish-looking dog gorges itself on trash while wars are fought out between massed ranks of luridly veined forearms and raw-knuckled fists, brandishing dustbin lids instead of shields. Accompanying this clash of symbols, body parts fall into an abyss while fires scorch the land and an incongruously poised television set broadcasts the image of red rain, cascading into a red sea.
Meanwhile, in among all these scenes of perplexing strangeness and carnivalesque grotesquerie, the artist intrudes his own alter-ego, in the form of a huge, bruised potato-head, with a single Cyclopean eye. Unblinking, this stoical and melancholic creature contemplates the world around him with a palpable disgust. His flesh is often rubbed to a bloody red, as if flayed. He embodies, perhaps, the artist’s raw and inflamed conscience. Often, everything seems too much for him. In a tersely titled work of 1973, Painting, Smoking, Eating, he takes to his bed to smoke a cigarette and snack on some consolingly thick-cut chips, lathered in painterly ketchup. Guston’s relish in the physical stuff of paint, his appetite for its colour and texture and his tendency to treat it almost as if it were, indeed, a comestible substance, turns out to be one of the few constants of a turbulently variable oeuvre.
Although he is now widely recognised as one of the most gifted and influential artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation, Guston’s work has only rarely been exhibited in this country and he is still hardly a household name here. In 1982 a selection of his later paintings was shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Tate Modern, in the meanwhile, has to its credit acquired a few works from the Guston Estate, so he is at least fairly well represented in Britain’s national collections of American modern art. But until now no exhibition here has attempted to show Guston whole. There are inevitably some lacunae in the Royal Academy’s retrospective, for the simple reason that much of Guston’s juvenilia took the form of large murals on suitably patriotic American subjects executed for the Works Project Administration, under the patronage of the Roosevelyt administration. These can only be seen – in the cases where they still survive – in situ. But overall, despite inevitable omissions and compressions, this is a fascinating attempt to chart the circuitous course of Guston’s switchback ride of a career.
Guston was born Philip Goldstein to Russian Jewish parents who had fled to the new world in the early years of the twentieth century, from the pogroms sweeping through their native city of Odessa. Fearful that anti-semitism might eventually turn virulent in America, he was to chang his name to Guston, a few years into his career as a painter; and in one or two of his earliest works there are even pentimenti showing where he retrospectively changed his signature. His childhood was shadowed by his father’s suicide (according to family legend it was young Philip who found the body, swinging from a rope in an outbuilding, when he was eleven years old) so he may have had other reasons for wanting to forget his past. In any event, the habit of self-reinvention would stay with Guston.
The earliest works in the Royal Academy exhibition suggest an unusual melange of influences. Mother and Child, painted in 1930 when Guston was only seventeen, is part-Picasso, part-Leger, part-de Chirico, with traces of Magritte and Dali for good measure. In an outdoor setting of perfectly contrived oddity a vast and biomorphically misshapen mother manhandles her apparently terrified baby. The picture presumably reflects Guston’s excited first true encounter with masterpieces of European modern art, since earlier in the same year he had obtained permission to visit Walter and Louise Arensberg’s collection of Braques and Picassos, Legers and de Chiricos – the only serious collection of its kind in California at the time – in their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed L.A. mansion.
The work of the succeeding years follows an uneasy pattern presumably dictated by the shape of Guston’s life. A high school drop-out, he was expelled from the only art school that he ever attended and was reduced to working at a number of menial jobs so that he could paint in the evenings at weekends. In 1934 he and a friend, Reuben Kadish, went to Mexico to see the work of the politically radical Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera, and made their own contribution to the cause with a vast mural – it took them six months to paint – on the subject of The Struggle Against Evil and Fascism. This phase of Guston’s career cannot really be reflected in a museum show, so the hectic energy and writhing forms found in the art of his politically engaged youth have to be compressed within a single painting, Bombardment. Completed in 1938, a year after the sensation of Picasso’s Guernica, the picture is presumably Guston’s sympathetically outraged response to that work. Painted in the unusual form of a tondo (which perhaps also reflects his love for Renaissance art) it presents a fish-eye-lens view of military atrocity. Manneristically elongated figures flee, faint and fall as bombers fly in close formation through grey skies above them. At the centre of the painting, a mother clasps her encephalitic child as a shell explodes in a burst of colour beside them.
Guston was for a time seen as the great hope of a nascent school of American social realism. But he was no joiner of movements, and the forties saw him withdraw into an increasingly attenuated style of figuration. His subjects become clouded, mysterious and oblique. Mannequin-like children gather on street corners where they stage mock battles with pieces of lumber and dustbin lids (motifs that will recur, many years later, in the outpouring of Guston’s final work). Figures wearing masks and carnival costumes loiter melancholically in a stageset cityscape cluttered with rubbish. The influence of Max Beckmann, morbid allegorist of war-torn Germany, is heavily palpable.
But so too, gradually, is Guston’s discontent with his own indebtedness to other artists. Towards the end of the 1940s and start of the 1950s he discovers a language that begins to seem his own, and to make pictures that look like no one else’s; although his way of doing so is to retreat into an almost inchoate vocabulary of marks, scratches and gestures. The Tormentors is the painting that seems to mark this transition. The picture might seem entirely nonrepresentational were it not for the knowledge of what had come before, and what is to come after. Formed from a skin of dark paint criss-crossed, blackboard-like, by lines, and stained and veiled with occasional passages of red and ochre, it is a collage of concealed oppressive forms. Hovering at the brink of recognisability, these shapes include the outline of a hooded Ku Klux Klansman and the silhouette of the sole of a hobnailed boot. These would prove to be the last patently recognisable images, in Guston’s work, for a very long time.
At the end of the 1940s the artist won a Prix de Rome and spent the best part of a year travelling through Europe and seeing, at first hand, the work of the great painters he had hitherto mostly admired in the form of illustrations. The experience seems to have hardened him in his resolve to develop his own form of abstract painting. He may also have been influenced, in this decision, by the atmosphere in New York in the early 1950s, years that coincided with the first blossoming of Abstract Expressionism. What followed was a long period – nearly twenty years in, fact – of abstract experimentation, which is distilled at the Royal Academy to two sparely hung galleries of exquisite but at times almost unbearably hesitant paintings. Guston’s abstract work lacks the confidence and monumentality commonly associated with Abstract Expressionism. Unlike the works Rothko, Pollock, Newman and Kline, his abstractions are patently unsublime. Painted to the scale of easel paintings – Guston always worked with the canvas in an upright position and never painted on the floor – they do not evoke nature’s vastness but seem more suggestive of the painter’s own nuances of feeling. Dense, nervous little accumulations of paint are piled towards the centre of the canvas, worked and reworked, scraped off, reworked and worked again. They are like moods or feelings made palpable. It is as if Guston set out to create emblems of his own existential anxiety. What he acquired, in the process, was a profound eloquence with the very matter of paint, an ability to make meaning and feeling from texture and colour.
That long period of abstraction formed the backdrop to Guston’s surprising return to figuration at the end of the 1960s. To many of his peers, and to many of the critics who visited the bombshell of an exhibition with which Guston announced his volte-face – at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970 – this late change in style seemed almost inexplicable. One or two reviewers were cruel enough to suggest that the shift was purely opportunistic, a desperate last throw of the dice by an artist who had never quite been accepted into the canon of the Abstract Expressionist “greats”. In fact, Guston had become profoundly disillusioned with what he now saw as the straitjacket of abstract painting. He felt incomplete, unable to express the increasing sense of rage (and other, more mixed emotions) stirred up in him by the Vietnam War, the student unrest of the late 1960s in America and his disgust at the politics of Richard Nixon. “When the sixties came along,” Guston later wrote, “I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of a man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”
Out of that salutary rage came the sudden mad glory of Guston’s late pictures. During this final phase of self-reinvention, which begins with a series of cartoon-like pictures of absurd Ku Klux Klansmen and swiftly spirals into the polymorphous paintings of the later 1970s, Guston finally liberated himself from his own inhibitions, to such an extent that approximately half of his entire output can be dated to the last nine or ten years of his life. He might seem to have been an artist who had an almost bewildering number of different careers, but the Royal Academy exhibition reveals the unexpected coherence of Guston’s work. He himself said that he felt as if he had managed to make himself “whole” in his late works, and that is precisely the impression given by this retrospective. In them, he finally unites his sensitivities, his humanity, his instinct for storytelling, his feelings about the world around him, and himself, and does so using a language of painting in which thefigurative and the abstract – the late pictures are full of brooding abstract emptinesses, like moods made concrete – are finely balanced. In achieving this, he threw the traditional momentum of a high modernist career – paradigmatically supposed to evolve from figuration to the exquisite higher language of abstraction – suddenly into reverse. One of the reasons that his painting has come to seem more and more topical, and more and more influential, with the passing of time, is precisely because it now seems like a prophecy of general disillusionment – which is still current in art today – with the evolutionary myth of modernism. “I have evolved from something in flight to a grub,” Guston wryly remarked. His worm’s-eye-view remains something to behold.