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Philip Guston: A Critique of his career and solo-exhibition at Tate Modern

Between the Thickness of Things and Tactfulness of People

By Melis Dumlu


Philip Guston 'The Line', 1978. Oil paint on canvas, 180.3cm xl86.lcm. Promised gift of Musa Guston Mayer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Give yourself a moment and think about how you see the world; situations, conditions, or any shape for that matter. Seeing typically comes before words, and it helps us to establish our place in the surrounding world. We try to explain with words only afterwards, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded.

American poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, "What we see, we see - and seeing is changing". However, this change only happens when we alternate how we look, or our tools for looking. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Philosopher Karl Popper famously explains one of the pillars of sense-making to be that "knowledge consists in the search for truth ... it is not the search for certainty". There are no absolute sources of certain truth. Any good solution to a problem may also contain some errors. The principle is based on fallibilism, which is the idea that all knowledge is provisional and subject to change. This allows for further criticism to occur in the future, even when at present we seem to be content with whatever solution we have found. It leaves space for creating ever-improving theories, stories, works of art, and music; it also tells us that errors are extremely interesting things to look for.

Philip Guston 'Bombardment', 1937. Oil paint on paper, 706.7cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art.© Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Philip Guston was a Canadian-American artist who applied the same principle throughout his career. Whether it was intuitive or intentional, he searched for ways to represent things in their multitude. Abstraction is one of these ways, as he tried to refigure the world whilst eliciting a response from the prospective viewer.

Guston later slowly transitioned from abstraction to more figurative paintings, explaining this adaptation in practice being due to the fact that "painters could put down some swatches of colour and everybody would respond. It needs so much sympathy, and it has such a sympathetic audience. I think I wanted something more rocklike, something more there, more of a thing; I wanted it to be more like the art of the past that I liked".

Philip Guston 'Female Nude with Easel', 7935. Oil on canvas, 706.7cm x 76.2cm. Promised gift of Musa Guston Mayer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston played a major role in the development of abstract expressionism inspired by the Mexican muralist Diego Ramirez, but became frustrated with abstraction, which as a result he became a prominent figure of the nee-expressionist movement. Representation in art was often another way of abstracting the human, including the deceit and violence we all harbour, to some extent, but also the void of identity that threatens us all. Guston questions this concept of void identities through recognisable representations.

Guston understood that a recognisable image by its existence excludes everything else that might have been depicted. He evaded depiction and included all imagery that had a potential presence in the painting, as well as including all his suspicions and disbelief in that imagery, the viewer is then faced with an unsettling image.

Philip Guston 'Sleeping', 1977. Oil paint on canvas, 213.4cm x 175.3cm. Promised gift of Musa Guston Mayer to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston would often take objects from his studio and aim to paint them as "solid" as he could, "not realistic but solid painted as though I painted as if I have never seen the object before, as if I was seeing it for the first time". This approach to painting can be seen in his works towards the end of the 1960s, when a definite subject matter entered the scene of his paintings, hooded figures of Ku Klux Klansmen. These hooded figures appeared and engaged in various non-threatening activities to show the proximity of evil.

Guston's simplified representational idiom allowed him to see that shapes have mutable identities. Meaning that the marks that indicate stitching on a Klansman's hood can also indicate the stitching on the back of an armchair. We get a sense of his thoughts and enquiry into the hooded figures in Guston's lecture notes from a talk in 7977, which his daughter Musa Mayer mentions in 'Philip Guston and the Privilege of Writing Badly'; "The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in LA. In those years they were there mostly to break strikes, and I drew and painted pictures of conspiracies and floggings, cruelty and evil ... In this new dream of violence, I feel like Isaac Babel with his Cossacks; as if I were living with the Klan. What do they do afterwards? Or before? Smoke, drink, sit around their rooms

(light bulbs, furniture, wooden floors), patrol empty streets; dumb, melancholy, guilty, fearful, remorseful, reassuring one another? Why couldn't some be artists and paint one another?".

Philip Guston 'Flatlands', 1970. Oil on canvas; 177.8cm x 290.83cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Byron R. Meyer.© The Estate of Philip Guston

He wanted to know what it would feel like to be evil, to plan and plot the corruption and violence in the world. Guston saw these figures as disruptive people who were hiding within society and committing senseless acts. These new combinations of forms helped to provide more objectivity in his work, and a new pleasure of narrative. In his notes, Guston meditated on the idea that he was reacting to being too imaginative and that he wanted everything to come from other things; a stronger contact with the thickness of things and the tangibility of everything.

Guston's experience of the brutality of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the weight of guilt made him question many things; changes in power, changes in art, and the way we look at things. But mostly, his position as an artist.

He questioned what kind of a person he would be sitting at home "reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue".

The desire to do something about the situation surrounding him was only growing, as he continued resting on the new hooded series. Guston's artistic career can be read as a humanistic response to the postmodern condition. He simplified grand narratives to the extreme and changed knowledge (in the form of wisdom) into narratives (in the form of emancipation) of the rational, working subject and the dialectics of spirit.

Philip Guston 'Couple in Bed', 1977. Oil on canvas, 20.6cm x 24cm. The Art Institute of Chicago.© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Guston sets small signifiers within his paintings to tell his stories, such as a paintbrush and cigar between fingers. He places these signifiers in new and different contacts which amplifies their significance. The restricted iconography represents a conflict over which images and which stories will be told or erased. It encourages the viewer to develop new ways of looking and change the way we see. Allowing one's self to know that there is always room for change, accepting the mutability of identities and being aware of the thickness of things.

It is possible to see the personal presence of the artist thinking his way back to the world through the canvas, being across time, and behind masked imaginations. His imagery is most likely to make the viewer uncomfortable at first glance, but it also has the power to make the viewer question their perspective.

You can experience the journey of his painterly career at the Tate Modern Museum from the 5th of October until the 25th of February 2024.


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