Looking into the Past – Guston at the Met

“Guston’s stubborn resistance to the modernist’s narrow range of experience is central to his existence as an artist.” [Dore Ashton, 1976]

The Philip Guston retrospective, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, comes at an important moment in the history of western art. We’re living in a period variously described as one of “moral and intellectual exhaustion” [Harold Rosenberg] or (worse yet?) an epilogue after “the end of art” [Arthur Danto] and “the end of the history of art” [Hans Belting]. And if the received view of contemporary culture is accurate, we’re post-everything — condemned (or liberated, depending on your point of view) to being observers and producers of art “after Modernism”. Artists, we’re told, can only recycle the past, quoting but never re-inhabiting the sensibilities and urgencies of previous times and places. So, too, for the spectators who are dismissed as nostalgic if they attempt to bracket what they know of recent art history in hopes that they might achieve a fusion of horizons with Memling, Chardin, Malevich, or DeKooning. Must we accept this as true? Have the possibilities for experiencing art changed radically in the last forty years along with a shift in artistic production and critical reception?

A whole new generation of artists and scholars have come to maturity during a dramatic expansion in the size and scope of the “artworld” since the ’50s. Museums continue to be built, many new galleries have opened, more and more artists are being cranked out by MFA programs, and the writing on art shows no signs of slowing down. Painting continues to defy its premature obituaries, even though its periodic fragmentation masquerades as dissolution. The only generalization that one dares offer with regard to the contemporary art scene is so widely accepted that it appears self-evident: The art of today is pluralistic. There are no dominant tendencies or schools of painting against which one’s work must be measured.

The last truly imposing movement was abstract expressionism in the Fifties. Since that time and the strong reaction against the tyrannical rule of Clement Greenberg and his minions, young curators and critics have been loathe to talk about “quality”. A new, nonjudgmental impulse took root, particularly in American society where, among the general population, criticism of any sort is taken personally or avoided entirely. The conflation of critique with mean-spirited, ad hominem attack is reinforced in the moral imperative repeated to children throughout the country, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

But, in fact, the real conditions of individual, social, and cultural response are inconsistent with such imperatives. Critical judgments are being made all the time and always have been, particularly by artists who are most directly affected by the impact of those judgments. And while it may appear to be true that “anything goes”, there’s something for everyone, there’s a niche market for every style and taste, all we care about is what’s “interesting” and not what’s “good”, the situation “on the ground” feels very different and always has. In spite of the reigning ideology, people do make critical and aesthetic judgments about art. There’s even a sense today that we’re getting over our Greenberg complex. Discussions of “beauty” have re-emerged. In fact, it may even be that the so-called self-evident phenomenon of pluralism is attributable less to a shift in critical standards than to a change in scale due to an art market rapidly expanding and accompanied by an explosion of information and channels for its dissemination.

These were some of the thoughts in the back of my mind as I entered the Guston exhibition at the Met. After a one year, self-imposed leave of absence from the Chelsea art scene and the art journals, I’d been thinking a lot about recent painting shows including those by Thomas Nozkowski, Jonathan Lasker, Terry Winters, Shirazeh Houshiary, Howard Hodgkin, and Ross Bleckner. Some of the work I’d seen was unabashedly late modernist, some introspective and ironic, and others intriguing but aesthetically unappealing. Having been away for some time, I was a bit less cynical and willing to make a fresh start.

My first realization on entering the Guston show is that I’d forgotten how subtle and beautiful his paintings were in 1952 and how they’d grown out and away from the landscapes of the late Forties.

As you enter the second gallery, you walk directly toward Painting No. 5, a modest-sized work on the far wall, with White Painting I to the left and Painting No. 9 to the right — all done in 1952. What you don’t immediately notice are two small ink drawings that are also in the room behind you — Drawing No. 2 – Ischia and Ischia, 1949 — both from the late forties and hung just to the left of the entrance. The drawings and the paintings are positioned so that they are looking at one another, acknowledging their role in Guston’s transition from the precocious young figurative artist influenced by De Chirico, Benton, and Beckmann, to the mature, abstract expressionist. Drawing No. 2 is a highly abstract depiction of a small town on an island in the Bay of Naples. The image occupies the center of the picture plane and is made up of small lines and narrow shapes, barely discernible as a landscape. You can just barely make out the lines of buildings, stairs, stone walls, and walkways leading up to the small, remote village.

The paintings take their cue from the drawings and extend the elegant and delicately placed marks further into abstract space. In Painting No. 5, the buildings and hills are no longer recognizable. We’re left, instead, with paint — strokes of muted ochre, warm white, a touch of red, yellow, and green. Quiet. Understated. With craftsmanship so deft and unpretentious as to go entirely unnoticed. Guston knew precisely what he was doing and loved it.

He came back from his stay in Italy with a new palette and signature style. One can sense in the restraint and beauty of these images, something coming into being in a new way. He had found painting and the “purity” he would disavow almost two decades later. It was another moment both for Guston and for us.

His work developed in scale and exuberance through the Fifties but, to my eye, grew academic and nondescript in the Sixties, looking as if they were paintings that could have been done by almost anyone. They lacked the refinement, color, and style of the early Fifties. The thrill and elegance were gone. Guston was restless, unhappy, and looking for something else.

He could not have gone back at that point in the Fifties for to do so would have entailed a kind of self-plagiarism — a failure of artistic will, imagination, and principle. But does that prohibition apply to the observer of these works today? Can we go back to them?

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