The Philip Guston Retrospective organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is an ambitious and smart undertaking--smart for what it does not attempt as much as for what it does.
Wisely, the show does not urge a re-evaluation of Guston, the abstract expressionist turned figurative painter who died in 1980. It does not need to. As the catalog recounts, Guston's 1969-1970 turn from critically acclaimed formalism to a sort of mad cartoonish style was greeted with derisive howls and poisonous copy, but Guston's walk in the wilderness was relatively short. By the time he died, most critics had seen the virtues of Guston's late work, and young painters were citing him as a primary influence. Indeed, the '80s wave of neoexpressionism was in no small part a reaction to Guston's influence.
Nor do the show's organizers--chiefly the MAMFW's own head curator, Michael Auping--overstate Guston's influence on his own generation. Instead, they argue that Guston has been "discovered" by artists now in their 20s and 30s, a generation nurtured on "idea" art, the minimalists and their successors, post-minimalists and earth and video and installation and conceptual artists. As Auping puts it, "If Pollock pioneered the way into Abstract Expressionism, it was Guston who was most suited to lead the way out."
It's a subtle thesis, but provocative. It implies that the future belongs not to the minimalists and their successors--what The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman recently dubbed "the Dia generation"--but to Guston's idiosyncratic late work. For if one thing is certain, it's that the lion's share of critical attention over the past 30 years has gone to the "idea artists." In a cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Kimmelman pronounced the post-abstract expressionsts "the greatest generation of American artists."
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"They were the first Americans to influence Europeans," he wrote. "The work these artists made changed, or at least questioned, the nature of art: what it looked like, its size, its materials, its attitude toward the places where it was shown, its relation to architecture, light and space and to the land. The artists even questioned whether art needed to be a tangible object...suddenly art could be nothing more than an idea, a thought on a piece of paper that played in your head."
While Auping argues that Guston "showed the way" out of ab ex, the show does not suggest it was the only way, or even the prevailing view. By choosing to focus his energies and the spotlight of MAMFW's brilliant new space on a painter like Guston, however, and by arguing that Guston is of primary import to the emerging narrative of 21st-century art, Auping and company do imply that Guston's is the preferable path. It isn't an entirely unprecedented position; Robert Hughes argues something like it in his study of American art, American Visions. It is, however, a distinctly minority view; most art historians treat Guston with the mixture of curiosity and respect due a passionate dissenter. By staking out this territory, Auping and company set themselves, if not quite at odds with prevailing wisdom, at least on their own, idiosyncratic path. Like Guston himself, they are daring to take the road less traveled.
This quiet manifesto is set forth in brilliant, readable prose; once again, the catalog demonstrates that the MAMFW is that rarest of art institutions, one committed to putting out clear, literate essays that do not condescend. The text recounts that Guston, whose name was originally Goldstein, was born in Canada to Russian immigrants who soon migrated to Los Angeles. Money was short; Philip's father, a blacksmith, struggled to feed his family. Philip's father committed suicide in 1923 or 1924, leaving Guston's mother to raise seven children. Philip, then 10 or 11, found the corpse. Soon after, he began shutting himself up in a closet, copying cartoon strips such as "Krazy Kat" and "Mutt and Jeff" by the light of a single bulb. His poor but supportive mother signed him up for an art-school correspondence course. At age 15 he enrolled in L.A.'s Manual Arts High School along with his friend Jackson Pollock; after the two were kicked out for political agitation (they criticized the school's emphasis on sports), Guston never returned.
He set about educating himself. A voracious reader, he also traveled--to visit the Mexican muralists, to consult Hindu mystics, to study European modernism. He enrolled as a student of Thomas Hart Benton's and found employment as a WPA muralist. He befriended David Alfaro Siqueiros, who helped get him a commission to create murals in Mexico. In the mid-'30s he moved to New York City, and in the '40s he set up a studio in Woodstock, New York, and returned to easel painting.
Viewing Guston's early canvases helps place his celebrated turn as an abstract expressionist in context. We see the young Guston aping the styles of José Clemente Orozco, Benton, Siqueiros and Picasso; we see Guston detour into ab ex. But we also see that, throughout Guston's career, abstraction was the exception, not the rule. The abstract period was short, lasting from 1950 until the mid-'60s.
The story of Guston's late-'60s epiphany is by now familiar. Tired of the seeming irrelevance of abstraction, yearning again to make socially relevant art, Guston began experimenting with the cartoonish forms he studied during his youth. The show traces the influences on Guston's late style and analyzes his symbolic vocabulary, from hooded Klansmen to recurring shoes, even as it chronicles his increasing isolation and angst. As the critic and historian Arthur Danto has noted, however, "Ours remains an art world uneasy with content, and uncertain about how extreme content is to be addressed, in terms of either figuration or aesthetics." The art world did not know what to make of Guston's bloodthirsty Klansmen and lumpy rednecks and bulbous-nosed, unshaven Tricky Dicks. It preferred the sanctimoniousness, bombast and hyperbole of artists like Koons and Christo and Nauman and Walter De Maria.
Let us hope that the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is right, that the emerging generation of artists will prefer painting and sculpture to crop circles and cave art, will prefer art that relies on content to art that relies on the illusion of profundity. Let us hope that artists will, like Guston, look once more to the past as inspiration rather than as dead history. Let us hope that artistic merit will be measured not by whether Europe follows American trends, but by whether an artist has anything useful to say about the world. Let us hope that the MAMFW will continue to advocate its minority position: the notion that content and the object both still count. Here's hoping that the turnstiles will spin, that young and old alike will come to see this daring and smart show.
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