Last spring, art curator Michael Auping had the rare experience of witnessing a collision between political power and artistic critique in the newly opened Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas.
Auping was guiding a group of national museum machers, which also happened to include Henry Kissinger, through the sprawling retrospective he had organized of painter Philip Guston. By coincidence the tour went up the escalator to the second floor, and there to greet them was "San Clemente," Guston’s portrayal of a grotesque Richard Nixon. Rendered in viscous reds and pinks, the disgraced president prowls a sunny California beach, his nose an enormous phallus, his testicular-looking cheeks adorned by a single tear, his loosely bandaged left leg immensely swollen from phlebitis. Several people advised Auping not to show the work in George Bush’s Texas.
"The painting stopped Kissinger in his tracks," Auping told The Jewish Week in an interview last week. "He didn’t know what to say." A deathly silence hushed the museum. "I thought I was in big trouble."
Lucky for Auping, Nixon’s secretary of state (and the subject of quite a bit of caricature himself) did not fume at the satire of his former boss. "It took him a few minutes, but he understood the picture," Auping explained. Painted in 1975, the year a humiliated Nixon tried to exploit his case of phlebitis to win sympathy from the American public, the work articulates Guston’s own conflicted empathy for the now pathetic man he had once satirized in a drawing series titled "Poor Richard."
"I don’t think Guston believed in evil as the other," commented Musa Meyer, Guston’s daughter and biographer. She agreed with Kissinger’s take on her father’s picture. "He saw it as a part of the human condition." (Kissinger was traveling and unable to comment for this article, according to his assistant at Kissinger Associates.)
Kept in a private collection, "San Clemente" has rarely been shown. It is now on view in the invigorating Guston retrospective that recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Met curator Nan Rosenthal installed "Philip Guston" with over 75 works, a smaller version of the Texas show. The retrospective, along with the first publication of "Poor Richard" in 2001, indicates the strength of the art world’s current embrace of Guston’s challenging paintings from the 1970s. "Guston is like Cezanne, having greater relevance to succeeding generations perhaps than to his own," Auping writes in the catalogue.
Philip Guston, nee Goldstein, was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Montreal in 1913. Several years after the family moved to Los Angeles when Guston was 6, he discovered his father’s hanging body: a suicide. He soon began hiding in a closet and copying comics like "Mutt and Jeff" and "Krazy Kat." In high school, Guston befriended Jackson Pollock, with whom Guston would later reconnect when he moved to New York in 1935 to work as a muralist for the WPA.
Like most artists of his generation, including Pollock and Mark Rothko, Guston’s style evolved from left-wing Social Realism ("Bombardment," 1937-38, depicts the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War) to surrealism ("Porch No. 2," 1947, shows, among other claustrophobic figures, his father’s hung body) and then Abstract Expressionism ("Painting No. 5," 1952, thickly painted red and orange ooze through areas of slate gray and beige).
Guston’s abstract paintings, first compressed and throbbing with colorful tension (famously dubbed Abstract Impressionism), grew increasingly dark. After a disappointing exhibition at The Jewish Museum in 1966, Guston experienced a major crisis in confidence. The next year Guston and his wife Musa McKim retreated to live full time in Woodstock, N.Y.
There, Guston stewed in his frustration with the limitations of abstraction and its claims to purity. His studio no longer felt immune from the turmoil of political assassinations, race riots, and Vietnam. Gaining confidence from Philip Roth, who had recently moved to Woodstock to escape the fallout of his literary H-bomb, "Portnoy’s Complaint," Guston overcame his fear of putting the abject images in his head on canvas.
Though 20 years apart in age, the two men bonded over their mutual adoration of American kitsch and anger at the hypocrisy and avarice of Richard Nixon. The manuscript of Roth’s satiric novel "Our Gang" inspired Guston’s "Poor Richard."
"Guston had in Roth’s bravery, brilliance, and delight in impurity a good match for his own," late novelist Ross Feld writes in "Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston" (Counterpoint, 2003), his posthumously published personal biography. Feld was one of several writers and poets who were drawn to Guston’s wooded retreat, where Guston held long discussions over vodka, cigarettes, and salami sandwiches.
Cartoon-like pictures of hooded Klansmen dominated the new paintings shown in Guston’s infamous 1970 show at the Marlborough gallery. With cigars and paintbrushes in hand, these cryptic figures seem unusual stand-ins for a Jewish artist, but they attest to his intense self-scrutiny. Whips for self-flagellation are one of Guston’s most potent and personal symbols, derived from his existentialist philosophy and love of Italian Renaissance painting. Guston, like his literary hero Isaac Babel, was disgusted with the world and his place in it yet too serious an artist to relinquish his commitment the formal challenges of his craft.
Guston was the first major abstract expressionist to reject the style that had made him famous. Though dismissed as clumsy gambits by many of his contemporaries, these unrefined images influenced younger painters, freeing them from the strictures of then dominant aesthetic of abstract art. Like pit bulls, pugnacious works like "Painting, Smoking, Eating" (1973) and "The Street" (1977) can never be fully domesticated.
Guston regurgitated the detritus of American modernism and his own imagination – street fights, trashcan lids, cigars, light bulbs, thick soled shoes – and fed these tough-painted forms to a new generation of writers and painters drawn to his exhibitions at the remote McKee Gallery, located on the second floor of the old Barbizon Hotel for Women. "He kick-started new image painting," Auping says.
The first Guston retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1980, which opened three weeks before his death from a heart attack at age 66, struggled to reconcile the seemingly irreparable break in his style, says Nan Rosenthal. The current show at the Met, however, deftly harmonizes Guston’s 50-year career. Here, Guston’s imagery of the ’30s and ’40s and expressive painting techniques of the ’50s are purposefully laid out as precursors that explosively combined in the ’70s.
Ross Feld may have best stated Guston’s complex persona: "Like a Marrano, a converso, one of the underground Jews of the Spanish Inquisition, he’d been a secret image maker all along, coerced into abstraction but never grounded there, outwardly observing but also inwardly undermining its rituals."
"Philip Guston" runs through Jan. 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. at 83rd St., Man. (212) 535-7710. Sun. and Tue.-Thu., 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat., 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. $12, $7.