Friday, June 2, 2017
Shape-shifter: The careers of Philip Guston
June 2, 2017
In Philip Guston’s “bed paintings”, on show at Venice’s Accademia, he and his wife huddle under the blankets—an old couple, here clinging to each other, there sleeping peacefully side by side. The tenderness of the works comes as a surprise, given that they’re painted in the curious, cartoonlike style that Guston developed in the late 1960s, and continued to work with for the rest of his life. But it’s not the only surprise in an exhibition that invites us to delve into the psyche of an artist best known for the storm of disapproval he prompted by abandoning abstract expressionism.
Guston (1913-80) grew up in Los Angeles. He began drawing at an early age and soon fell in love with the art of the Italian Renaissance. At high school, he met Jackson Pollock and the pair were eventually expelled for distributing satirical pamphlets. Guston’s progression from muralist with the Federal Art Project during the Depression, to successful abstract expressionist, then back to figurative artist makes for an individually absorbing tale, but is also telling in the wider context of what was happening to art in America.
In the early 1950s, Guston was one of the most influential abstract expressionists, delivering tightly composed webs of often pink or red brushstrokes that some critics thought evocative of Monet. In the following decade, however, he returned to figuration largely for political reasons. With the country embroiled in protest against the Vietnam war, he began to feel “schizophrenic”, asking “what kind of a man am I, sitting at home… going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”