Guston’s Ghosts: ‘Out of Time: Philip Guston and the Refiguration of American Postwar Art’

In October of 1970, Philip Guston, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, already famous and admired for his quietly moody abstract paintings of the ‘50s, shocked the art world with a show of his new work at the Marlborough Gallery in New York City. The artist had returned to figuration after a gap from his socialist realist paintings of the ‘30s.

What welcomed audiences into the gallery were heavy, bulbous hooded Klansmen puffing cigars, disembodied hands and lima bean heads, piles of junk and worn-out shoes, all immersed in backgrounds of dewy pinks and rose. For the first time in a long time, a major American painter took some pleasure in unsettling his unsuspecting audience with dark comedy.

Most of the major critics were baffled and frustrated. The formidable Hilton Kramer was the most eloquent in his outrage, titling his New York Times review of the show as “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum”. Kramer declared that Guston’s new style was indulging in “a form of artifice that deceives no one—except, possibly, the artist who is so out-of-touch with contemporary realities that he still harbors the illusion his ‘act’ will not be recognized as such.” The new Gustons, with their strange duality, with their sense of the epic and the grubby, of their Piero della Francesca grandeur and their George Herriman comic strip zaniness, seldom failed to disorient and fascinate.

Kramer and the others proved to be disastrously wrong. The Marlborough paintings would become a touchstone in the political art of the late ’60s and would even transcend their moment, becoming part of the great art of the 20th century, in some ways bridging the paintings of Picasso and the gripping narratives of Paula Rego.

Robert Slifkin’s absorbing new book Out of Time: Philip Guston and the Refiguration of Postwar American Art, is an essential work in Guston studies and will be an essential go-to source for anyone interested in the artist’s work as well as the evolvement of mid-20th century American painting. Slifkin shows us an entirely new side of Guston. Through his lens, we see the artist as an eager emotional and cultural sponge, excited to absorb the “newness” of the times and the cerebral effervescence of the ’60s. Bob Dylan, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and the disillusionment of Nixon-era politics and the conflict in Vietnam were part of the zeitgeist of Guston’s Marlborough paintings. At 57, Guston was too old to be directly enmeshed in the radical student politics of the time and still too young to be a mandarin, as Kramer had called him. That limbo in some part inspired these extraordinary set of paintings.

One of the great insights of Slifkin’s book is his examination of the Marlborough Klansmen.They were emblematic of not only the larger evil that plagued American society during the 20th century, but also of the timeless oppression against minorities all over the world. “The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in L.A.,” Guston said. “In this dream of violence, I feel like Isaac Babel with his Cossacks; as if I were living with the Klan.”

Guston’s family memories of the pogroms of Odessa (Guston was born Philip Goldstein in Montreal, the son of Ukranian-Jewish immigrants who later moved out to Southern California) and the trauma of his father’s suicide (Louis Goldstein, a blacksmith, was forced to become a junkman during the ’20s. He hung himself and young Philip was the first to find his body) manifest themselves in the complex duality of the artist’s late work. Throughout the ’20s, the Klan was prominent in civic life throughout America, especially in Southern California, Glendale, Burbank, San Diego, where they were often the main feature of local parades. “The idea of evil fascinated me,” Guston said in an interview. “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot.”

The art historian Harry Cooper, now the Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. has an extraordinary, mind-blowing theory about the Freudian connections within Guston’s work (“Recognizing Guston (in four slips),” October, Winter 2002). His writings, as well as other outstanding critical insight from the best of the historians on Guston — Dore Ashton, Robert Storr and Bryan Wolf — are cited aptly by Slifkin as he expands upon Guston’s place as an artist struggling to break through the stifling confines of outmoded art world categories in the late ’60s.

Slifkin expertly unpacks the symbolism within the Marlborough paintings, a significant amount, which he argues, is metaphorical (here’s where your knowledge of critical theory might be useful):

This book argues that the figuration in the Marlborough paintings must be understood not in its conventional art-historical morphological definition—at recognizable imagery or, more particularly, the presence of a human figure—but rather in its rhetorical definition, as in a figure of speech.

Like Robert Smithson’s non-sites, which forge spatial and temporal networks between the gallery space where they are exhibited and the geographic regions from which their materials were taken, Guston’s Marlborough paintings constantly refer to things beyond themselves, especially events and objects from the historical past.

It’s these “things beyond themselves” that Slifkin elucidates so effectively. He argues that during the ‘60s, there was renewed interest in the historical events and artistic climate of the ’30s, “a thirties renaissance”. The Depression, the disillusionment with the Jazz Age, the commitment to documentary writing and art exemplified by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange, resonated with the artists of the ‘60s. Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads influenced some of Bob Dylan’s songs as Walker Evans’s Dust Bowl photos inspired photographers like Lee Balteman and Ralph Crane in their approach to chronicling events like the 1967 Detroit riots and the war in Vietnam. For anyone who wants to see more of Guston’s political commentary, take a look at his “Poor Richard” caricatures of Richard Nixon during the early ‘70s—they’re mesmerizing.

Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

As the carnage in Vietnam raged on, Guston began to think about other horrifying atrocities, especially one in particular that affected him viscerally as a Jew. Throughout many of the late works the legacy of the Holocaust is a palpable presence. In paintings like The Pit (1976), Rock (1978), and Hillside (1980) with their mountains of shoes, trash and detritus of the remnants of human life, emphasize the magnitude of waste as an inevitable part of history. The sense of sorrow in a late Guston is unparalleled, yet it’s always paired with glimmer of rueful comedy, as if the paintings were accompanied by Nino Rota’s muted trumpet theme to La Dolce Vita (Guston himself was a great admirer of Fellini and 1958 painted a dazzling homage to the director called simply, To Fellini).

Slifkin’s Out of Time is an expansive, sweeping account of Guston’s most complex set of paintings and an incantatory look at what it meant to be artist in America during the tumultuous years of the late mid-20th century. It’s an essential book for anyone who wants to understand more about American art and culture of the ’60s and ‘70s, and will be an important work for Guston scholars in the tradition of Dore Ashton’s groundbreaking 1976 critical study of Guston and Robert Storr’s 1991 interpretation of artist’s masterworks.

In the pages of Slifkin’s book we’re treated to the varying shades of Guston’s singularly sly and erudite humor and we come to realize that few people can explain Guston better than Guston himself. In a ’70s interview with a young aspiring art critic, Roberta Smith, now the Roberta Smith of The New York Times, Guston playfully answered questions about his approach to figuration: “Somehow from somewhere I got the chutzpa to be even as literal as possible and as narrative as possible.” This seemingly contradictory duality is at the root of Guston’s work and the source of mystery and dynamism in Slifkin’s book.