Photo: Philip Guston, Mother and Child, 1930 oil on canvas, Private Collection.
Aidan Jones revels in the ambiguity and power of The Art of Philip Guston: 1913-1980, a major retrospective at the Royal Academy.
The painting of Canadian-born Philip Guston, on show at the Royal Academy until April 12, brims with contradictions; suspended as it is between the figurative and the abstract, it’s dispassionate and angry, opaque and absorbing.
There is no consistency of motive or meaning in the 80-plus works on display at this major retrospective. Guston’s abiding strength rather, is to unsettle.
The artist, who spent much of his career painting in New York, encourages us to look unselfconsciously into our inner worlds through his own compellingly complex realm. Guston is indisputably original. However, in terms of politics, values and style he was very much a product of his time.
Photo: Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating. 1973oil on canvas, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
His work defies pigeonholes and is created by an artist whose politics demanded he fought for humanity and whose personal alienation called on him to withdraw from it.
Childhood brought two overwhelming tragedies to the young Philip Goldstein as he was then known. As an eleven-year-old he reportedly found the body of his father who had hung himself, while at seventeen his older brother died from gangrene that started in his leg after a car accident.
These traumas are imprinted in the recurrent motifs of ropes, limbs and amputated feet.
Guston was assertively left wing. "He was a man of very strong convictions," says his daughter and biographer Musa Mayer. "He was political but not in the sense of joining political parties. He had witnessed some of the most horrific events of the twentieth century."
"He was disturbed by racism, violence and totalitarianism and deeply felt the injustice of them. Of course, he was also a Jew and was profoundly effected by the holocaust – to which he lost family members."
Photo: Philip Guston, The Gladiators 1938Oil on canvas, The Edward R Broida Collection. Photo © 1986 Douglas M Parker Studio.
The influence of his collaborations with the politically charged Mexican muralists of the 1930’s can be seen in Bombardment (1937-38) – a powerful representation of civilian panic and horror at the moment of a bomb explosion.
Guston’s desire to capture human suffering intensified as he moved towards abstraction in the late forties. But the scratchy rake-like figures of children cooped together in a Nazi death camp in Porch No 2 (1947), perhaps ask for a more internalised response than the murals of his youth.
San Clemente (1975), a huge canvas grotesquely lampooning a crow-like, disfigured post-Watergate Richard Nixon in hiding at his beach home, epitomises his late period of political engagement.
Using cartoons, Guston satirised the corrupt powers that be. ‘Tricky Dicky’ frequently fell foul of his paintbrush in an American era dominated by domestic inequality, political corruption and The Vietnam War.
Photo: Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969, oil on canvas.Private Collection.
However, it is myopic to see Guston as a political painter alone. There is an unfathomable depth and intent to his work from the forties onwards, that is purely psychological – but not accessibly so.
His abstract expressionist period in the fifties is absorbing for the fleshy colours and thick paint lashed across beautifully eerie canvases.
These paintings, exhibited in the second room of the exhibition, have a raw and unsettling quality to them and put Guston alongside Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock in the pantheon of abstract expressionist greats.
That said, his most visually memorable and thought-provoking work arguably took place from the late sixties as style, and palette led Guston in a more introverted, sinister and engaging direction.
Photo: Philip Guston, The Line, 1978 oil on canvas. Private Collection. Courtesy of McKee Gallery, New York.
The Web, a disturbing cartoon-painting that depicts two spiders reeling-in a web cast around the painters’ bloodied head, now ritually reduced to a cyclopic eye, points to the artist’s paranoid isolation, at this time heightened by heavy drinking and drug-taking.
The power of these imposing paintings is to make the viewer feel, not for the artist, but for the human condition.
Somehow we can locate our own insecurity in the most unlikely guises conjured by Guston; the hooded faces puffing on the ubiquitous cigarettes, the absurd stacks of chunky shoes, and the bodiless spindly, stubbly legs that litter his paintings.
Photo: Philip Guston, Sleeping, 1977oil on canvas. Private Collection.
This large retrospective provokes and confounds in equal measure. Guston laid-out this challenge when saying of his work: “I want to end with something that will baffle me for some time.” Ambiguity is indeed everything at the RA this spring.
Tickets for the show cost £7.50 and can be booked in advance. Call 0870 848 8484 or click here to book online.