Life & Culture

The Jewish artist who perfectly captured the turbulent world he was witnessing

Philip Guston has created works for more than five decades


He rubbed shoulders with the heavy hitters of abstract expressionism, a movement that he helped to pioneer.

But in the 1970s the painter, printmaker and muralist Philip Guston turned his back on the aesthetic philosophy of Rothko, De Kooning and Pollock in a radical return to figuration. Treacherous? Naive? Or the beginning of his most influential artistic period?

A major retrospective of Guston, born Goldstein, at Tate Modern that opened this month attempts to answer this question. It paints a portrait of an artist in constant conversation with himself, always evolving and always restive.

“This serious play, which we call art, can’t be static,” he declared at a lecture he gave at Yale University. “You have to keep learning how to play in new ways all the time.”

The artist, born in Canada in 1913 to eastern European immigrants who had fled there to
escape the pogroms, certainly did that.

When the artist was ten years old, his father took his own life. Art soon became his refuge and four years later he enrolled at Los Angeles Manual Arts High School. But after only one year, he was expelled alongside another titan of the abstract expressionist movement, and his close friend, Jackson Pollock.

Guston credits Rembrandt, Uccello and Della Francesca as his main inspirations, but it is the clean textures and dreamlike liminality of proto-surrealist Georgio De Chirico’s paintings that shine through mostly strongly in his early works.

In fact, Guston said it was seeing De Chirico’s The Soothsayer’s Recompense that in his words, made him “resolve to be, want to be a painter”.

In the 1930s, the young artist’s work took the first of many turns when he moved from the introspection of surrealism and pressed his skills to politics. A 1932 mural for the John Reed Clubs, an American federation of leftist and Marxist organisations, depicted a member of the Ku Klux Klan beating a black man. The work was commissioned to raise funds for the black defendants in the Scottsboro Boys Trial who had been falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

The work was destroyed by the Los Angeles Police Department, some of whose officers, it was alleged, had links to the Ku Klux Klan. It showed Guston that art could be a political weapon, an idea to which he would return later in his career.

That work might have been destroyed, but other murals brought Guston critical and commercial success. The Struggle Against Terror, which he painted in Mexico with artist Reuben Kadish, led to Time magazine declaring them “the most promising painters in either the US or Mexico”.

Stylistically, the work is reminiscent of a De Chirico dreamscape but the inclusion of hooded figures give the painting a political urgency and sense of lingering threat. The artist was sharing what he had seen first-hand.

When he created the work, Philip Guston was still Philip Goldstein. He changed his surname to make it sound less Jewish after he married the painter Musa McKim. Not for his wife, but for his new parents-in-law.

It was a decision for which he would express contrition. In her family memoir Night Studio his daughter Musa Meyer wrote: “I knew that my father had felt tremendous regret about having changed his name.

"In his eyes it had become a shameful cowardly act. After the Second World War and the revelations of the Holocaust it became crucial for him to reclaim his Jewish identity.”

In the late 1940s, Guston’s art underwent another radical evolution. The Shoah had had a profound impact on him, says one of the exhibition’s curators Michael Welland: “We know he and his friends struggled with processing the absolute torment of these kinds of images coming from Europe at the time. The very nature of art was called into question.”

If art had failed humanity — if, as Adorno wrote, poetry after Auschwitz was barbarism — then maybe Guston’s Porch Two proffers a response.

The painting’s stylised images of children portray agonised beings. You can just about make out figures twisting and turning, thrown about as if caught in a gale. Their faces are masked, barely human.

Yet a distancing effect, owing to rigid horizontal and vertical framing that cuts the image into almost mathematical portions, prevents us from feeling their suffering. We are distanced onlookers, cold and unengaged.

They mirror Guston’s own distance from the images of suffering emerging from Europe; a geographical distance but not an emotional one.

The work of his contemporaries also played role in this turn to abstraction. As Wellands puts it: “seeing his peers working in different styles and doing something that was freeing and different than what he had been working on for many years influenced him.”

One of those peers was Jackson Pollock. As fellow abstract artist Willem De Kooning put it, Pollock “broke the ice” and soon became a rival as much as a friend to Guston. But the pair would often clash.

And on one occasion, Pollock rolled up drunk to Guston’s first one-man exhibition in New York in 1945, lambasting him for betraying their shared commitment to modernism.

Although Guston fell in line with Pollock, his work from this period feels more timid and inward looking, than his peers, perhaps a vestige of his early interest in surrealism and its emphasis on inner psychology.

The organic rhythm of works such as his 1957 Passage hum from within. Quite different from Pollock’s action paintings, which channels their energy from the external movements of the artist or from the Jewish Rothko’s, whose work materialises an upwards-looking metaphysical sublime.

Yet throughout his career, Guston remained restless and in 1966, just as America was undergoing a crisis in the midst of the Vietnam war and racial violence, Guston was undergoing a personal struggle.

That year he retreated to Woodstock where he was haunted by the images of unfolding political turmoil around him, political assassinations, police brutality and protests in front of the Democratic National Convention.

Guston rejected art that pitched itself as an escape from everyday reality. He decreed abstract expressionism “a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit”. The final turn in Guston’s art was a U-turn.

His 1970 exhibition sent waves across the art world. He had fired a gun, and the hegemony of abstract expressionism was in the crosshairs.

The critics spat acid. Friends didn’t want to know him.

His new aesthetic was controveral not just for its cartoonish style, the exaggerated shapes delineated with thick brush strokes, but for the content itself. Mostly banal motifs, shoes, kettles, and lightbulbs, populate his later work together with his now legendary hooded white figures reticent of the Ku Klux Klansmen.

“The hooded figures are from a memory growing up in LA and the Klansman that really haunted that period of his life” says Wellands. “Suddenly he wants his art to jolt people into thinking critically and responding to the world in turmoil.”

The Klansmen are portrayed in trivial situations, stuffed into cars, grasping smoking cigars with oversized hands, pink and podgy flesh. In one a hooded figure is painting a self-portrait.

Despite never directly addressing religious themes in his work, it feels as if there is Jewish sensibility behind his return to figuration and politics. I’m reminded of what legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote of Arnold Wesker: “A Jewish playwright is one that thinks internationally yet feels domestically.” The same can be said of Guston as an artist.

In Wesker’s plays a kitchen is as much a debating chamber as it is a place to eat. The most banal of actions or images embodies an underlying politics.

For Guston the Klansmen going about their daily business blurs the line between the personal and the political; evil is banal, it drives cars to the shops like anyone else. It could be anyone under those hoods.

There’s also something Jewish in the dark humour. Gutted of their threat, the Klansmen are plush and cuddly, an absurd inverse of how we usually imagine them.

There is a loud echo of Mel Brooks here; the Klansmen are on the receiving end of countless gags in many of Brooks’ films because Brooks knows better than anyone that there is no weapon more dangerous for fighting fascists than laughter.

Put another way, Guston strove to create space for interpretation.To this end, the show’s curators point to the multiple meanings and readings for the works in the show while not trying to close it off into a particular view. “I think that’s what Guston wanted,” says Wellsand.

If that sounds frustrating then remember Guston’s own words: “frustration is an important, almost crucial ingredient. I think that the best painting involves frustration.”

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