Philip Guston at Tate Modern (October 2023 - February 2024)
Originally scheduled to be shown in 2020 at Washington's National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern, and both the Houston and Boston Museums of Fine Arts, this Philip Guston retrospective was postponed following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of the same year. It was initially set to be delayed for four years due to its sensitive material and depictions of the Ku Klux Klan, but this was reduced to two years following a petition of 2,000 artists who criticised the museums’ lack of courage to show Guston’s work at this time, with its confrontation with the reality of white supremacism in the modern world.
Born Phillip Goldstein in Montreal, Guston was the youngest child of Jewish immigrants who had fled persecution in what is now Ukraine. He moved to the United States as a child and found early success as part of the Abstract Expressionist movement before allowing himself to submit to his impulse to represent the figure in his art. This began subtly at first, in Painter III (below), a block of black paint projects the image of a totemistic head emerging from a cloud of mostly abstract greys and reds. It was in 1970 when the style for which he is now best known was first shown publicly. An exhibition at Marlborough Gallery showed 30 works in cartoon style with an array of hooded figures, shocking critics and dismaying his friends with the new direction.
The paintings emerged from a series of small panels that are often referred to as Guston's 'visual alphabet'. Ranging from depictions of the everyday furnishings of his studio to the now familiar cartoon renderings of the hooded figure, the placement of these hoods amongst the everyday objects serves as a reminder of the banality of their evil. The Krazy Kat inspired eyes of the klansmen are recycled for the windows of buildings, the buttons on the back of a chair, words on the pages of a book. Institutionalised racism and systematic evil ingrained in the fabric of American life. The everyday objects and still lifes (which Guston called 'studio forms') bear remnants of this same visual language that he created for the KKK. Evil is hiding in plain view. Indeed Guston goes so far as to suggest in many of his paintings that he himself is the figure hidden behind the hood, and therefore that there is potential for evil within all of us.
Guston was co-chair of Artists for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and was grappling with the role that art could play in the face of violence and racism:
"The war [in Vietnam], what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
Most successful for me are Guston's Painter's Forms. Often composed in pinks and blues, these deformed amalgamations of objects sit in a desolate landscape often seen in surrealist works. The objects are abstracted enough for the viewer to be left questioning what they are looking at. Limbs or pipework? The top of a head or a sunrise? Evil or the everyday? Or both..? The ambiguity and open-endedness was important for Guston who aimed to portray the moment that something comes into existence where is might just change into something else, echoing Paul Valéry's belief that "a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning." ⓡ