It is well known that during Philip Guston’s career and throughout his life’s work, he toyed with two opposing forms of art. There was the figurative cartoon style of his earlier work in the 1930s and abstract expressionism in the 1950s. Philip Guston’s career highlights what he believed to be the central concern in the career of an artist. No matter what anyone else says or does, Guston believed that “A painters first duty is to be free.” Free to make their own choice, that is said, “unless you’re the kind of an artist that gnaws on one bone all the time.”
After a decade of teaching Philip Guston became part of the Abstract Expressionists movement. Its art was about finding ways to communicate the emotional reality of life and portray more significant metaphors about the wider universe. Despite being involved in the movement from its beginning after several years, Guston felt unsatisfied. He thought that Abstract Expressionist’s were losing touch with everyday life. The group, instead of looking into the real current subjects of the time, were too busy wrapped up in their own conceitedness and making grand pronouncements.
Over time Guston began to have powerful yearnings towards figuration. He felt that what he was making as an Abstract Expressionist was unrelated to what was gravely distressing him. It was now the 1960s, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the devastation and calamity of the Vietnam war. Thoughts about the flawed political errors he felt where morally wrong. Rather than just feeling exasperated by what was in the news, Guston wanted to discuss and show the world what he felt really mattered in his work.
In the end, Guston had a sudden compulsion. After serious consideration, he concluded that abstract expressionism was a cover-up for the poverty of spirit. Figuration and his morality won.
Guston was held in high regard within the abstract expressionist community of artists in New York. He was there from the beginning. The friendships he had established had filled his soul and bolstered his place in the epicentre of the art world. He had felt content in the community, nourished and understood. Well almost!
Once Guston made clear his intentions to return to figuration, the warm swell of admiration changed. The richest of friendships were now laced with tension and conflicts. The strain was building up, and the common ground between Guston and the artists of his generation began to erode and fade.
Things started to get unpleasant. Guston’s friends and peers were shaking their heads, and uncomfortable statements became common. Elaine, Willem de Kooning’s wife, said when talking about Guston and his change to figuration that, “This is embarrassing, this is really embarrassing.”
Guston felt it was time to leave New York and the painting style of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism. He wanted to return to motifs of his earlier work, the cartoon style of figurative work. As long as Guston was content with what he was doing, and he painted what he wanted to paint, he felt everything else in his life would take care of itself.
Guston concluded that he didn’t need to worry about what other people thought; good relationships would survive. All he wanted and needed was to feel free and be true to himself. Even when he was part the ‘New York School’, a term he preferred, rather than ‘Abstract Expressionist’ s’, he always showed a great deal of individuality in his work.
Guston now wanted more freedom believing that “nothing is ever solved in a painting. It’s a continuous chain that doesn’t go in one line, it goes in a serpentine line or in crooked paths, detours that have to be investigated. I felt like an explorer who almost got to the top of Mount Everest and somehow stopped just short and remembered and thought, well perhaps maybe I forget some gear, you know. I forgot some equipment but going down to recover this equipment I took some side paths that looked exciting and full of possibilities.”
He went on to say “Comments about style are strange to me. You’re working in this style or that style in the matter. It is not as if you had a choice. You’re trying to stay alive, continue and not die. It’s circular you’re still back there. I don’t feel any different now that I did in the early fifties. When I was doing so-called non-figurative things. I know that they dissolve and they don’t have this figuration and all that, but that is really beside the point. Because what is to the point that I am in the same state.”
In going back to the figurative style, he now had what he wanted; he had a new solitude in Woodstock. Guston valued his freedom and independence; however, it came at a high cost. His friendships didn’t survive. The critics were outspoken about his work. Instead of continuing painting, Guston felt at a loss. After a few years and a period of intense self-reflection, Guston eventually went to Rome for a two year residential to find a new path, leaving his wife and child at home.
When Guston returned, a year early than planned, he was eager to start his new work. He had found a new way forward. However, this time rather than plains of abstraction, there was a playfulness that mischievously took on the immoral and evilness he saw around him. There was a viciousness under his new hooded figurative work. From the Klansmen figures covered in blood to the references to Nixon with a political punch. Guston defied expectations.
Guston’s work alluded to painful experiences. Grappling with personal issues and the way his father, a jewish immigrant, was treated when arriving in America. Guston’s father committed suicide in 1923.
For Guston it was the only decision. What was significant to him came out in his work. He had a massive belief in the conviction that the artist needs to be free. Now with Pop Art centre stage, the art establishment slowly recognised the strength of his decision.
Guston continued to make crucially meaningful figurative work up until his death in 1980. Thankfully Guston had the satisfaction of reading about the changing views of the critics. Robert Hughes, who had once called his work “Ku Kluz Komix” retracted his options with, “a figurative artist of extraordinary power.”
Philip Guston, “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art, that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself. Therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure’. It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and age-ridden.”