Feature

Exhibition of the week

Philip Guston: Works on Paper

Philip Guston: Works on PaperMorgan Library and Museum, New YorkThrough Aug. 31

By the early 1960s, Philip Guston was “revered as one of the most soulful and lyrical abstract artists of his time,” said Mia Fineman in Slate.com. His delicate paintings were marked by “small, nervous brush strokes and vaporous clouds of color.” Suddenly, in 1966, “Guston stopped painting entirely” for two years. Instead, he began to draw obsessively, “abandoned his elegant abstract style,” and emerged with a radically new, cartoony style. Former admirers were scandalized that he had forsaken abstract art. Worse was the trashy subject matter he chose: “old shoes with heavy cobbled soles, naked light bulbs, rusted nails, and cigarette butts.” His gritty, comical paintings stirred enormous controversy and proved to be “a watershed moment in modern art—the visual equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.” Had Guston gone mad?

Not really, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. “This erudite cosmopolitan who revered Italian Renaissance painting” was trying to get back to basics. He was struggling to free himself from what he saw as desiccated intellectualism and capture something closer to the bone. An exhibition at the Morgan Library shows how he did it. Works on Paper includes drawings from throughout Guston’s career, but is most interesting for the way it illuminates his radical midcareer course change. “For two years Guston oscillated between abstraction and representation.” Several drawings from the period seem to stop just short of rendering recognizable objects on the verge of dissolving into pure pattern.

Finally “it comes, at first with trepidation and then like a flood: Books, shoes, coffee cups,” said Mario Naves in The New York Observer. Even trees and buildings can be clearly discerned. Letting himself go, the formerly austere abstractionist begins to introduce more darkly comic elements. “Disembodied limbs, spider webs, isolated masses of heads, legs,” and even a bacon-and-egg sandwich take their place in desolate, cartoon-like landscapes. An odd-looking, ill-shaven Cyclops, “Guston’s alter ego,” recurs in many drawings, often with a cigarette. A grotesque Richard Nixon even makes a cameo. In these late drawings, Guston is grabbing every weapon to hand in a blackly comic battle with mortality. They couldn’t be further in style from his meditative early paintings, but they are “terrifying and beautiful” nonetheless.

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