Philip Guston’s Really Good Year
Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles
through January 5, 2020
By Lorraine Heitzman
Hauser and Wirth’s current show focuses on one year of Philip Guston’s life and work. That pivotal year was 1971, following the rejection and poor reviews for his first show of new figurative paintings held in New York City in late 1970. Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971 sets out to show how the artist not only rebounded, but flourished in the aftermath of that disappointment. Guston left for the American Academy in Rome immediately following his show in what proved to be an especially inspired time of his development. In the Roma paintings, we see the hooded figures that were present in his Marlborough Gallery show slowly give way to the influence of Italian antiquities and botanical forms. Later that year, upon his return to his home in Woodstock, New York, he embarked upon a series of political cartoons as a response to roiling current events. Combined, his Roma and Nixon series demonstrate Guston’s formidable resilience towards professional failures and his resistance to corruption in the political domain. In retrospect they both were heroic.
The construct of the show as organized by Guston’s daughter Musa Mayer is fairly straightforward. As installed at Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles, Guston’s Roma paintings are divided into four parts: HOODS, FORMS, ANCIENT FRAGMENTS and GARDENS and LANDSCAPES. What is neither simple nor easily comprehensible is how good the work is. Great, even. Starting in the first room, as you look at the small paintings on paper, the strength of the work hits you immediately; they are so deceptively simple it is hard to understand why. What tricks or magic does the artist use to make these modest paintings so powerful? There is no single answer to such a subjective question, but looking at his past work provides some clues.
Guston’s early career included a stint painting murals for the WPA. Afterwards, as part of the New York School, he gave up figuration for abstraction like so many others after WWll. In the mid-fifties, artists like Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan began to reintroduce figures, an act considered almost heretical at first, but Guston remained tied to pure abstraction. When he showed his hooded figures in 1970 they were startling, not only for his departure from his signature style, but also, one imagines, for the cartoon qualities of his painting. He earned the wrath of the art critics, but Guston was not deterred. When he resumed painting in Rome, he picked up where he left off but distilled his imagery to a simple palette and minimal forms. Here is the work by someone happy to resume painting things. The objects that Guston portrays, whether manmade or natural, are showcased without distractions. Every mark supports them, from the brushy backgrounds, borrowed from his non-objective paintings, to the line work that keeps things flat but emphasizes shapes and implied forms.
Guston had been to Italy earlier in his career as a recipient of the Prix de Rome, and was already acquainted with the city. But now having abandoned pure abstraction he could represent the things he encountered in museums and on the streets. His paintings from 1971 are his love letters to Rome; they show an artist smitten by brick, ruins and the Mediterranean landscape. The pervasive pale pinks of this body of work are active, but calming. The monochromatic schemes allow the outlined images to dominate yet keep the compositions integrated and supported with a weight of their own. In Michael Blackwood’s previously unseen 1971 footage of Guston in his studio, Phillip Guston: Moving in Another Direction, the artist discusses the work made in Italy. He speaks of moving in a more mysterious direction, depicting a provocative situation and making creatures more interesting. Above all, he claims that you have to trust your own instincts. Guston talks about his work in simple terms, but it is the same, uncomplicated attitude that imbues his work with the force of his vision. The simple style that critics disparaged him for is the very thing that rewards our imaginations.
Different tactics are at work in the Nixon drawings. When Guston returned to Woodstock, the country was embroiled in political dissent due to the release of the Pentagon Papers. Encouraged by his friendship with writer Philip Roth, who was actively critical of Nixon, Guston began a series of political cartoons with the intent to have them published in a book. Never seen during his lifetime, this series of satirical drawings are wonderful commentary, both humorous and biting. They are undeniably from the hand of the same artist, even though their intent is very different. Guston proved to be a great and facile caricaturist, emphasizing Nixon’s nose and stubble, and representing Kissinger only by his glasses. What remains consistent with his Roma paintings is his way of isolating his subjects, the suggestion of potential in static, immobile objects or figures, and his way of letting them speak for themselves in their most reductive form.
Resilience provides a rich experience, inexplicably compelling and infused with an inspiring message. Ultimately both the Roma paintings and the Nixon drawings are the endeavors of an artist who did heed his own instincts and we are rewarded by his trust in himself.