Philip Guston’s work as a painter is interesting in that it seems to divide quite startlingly into two disparate styles: first he was an abstract expressionist and then he was not.
I find his earlier, abstract paintings quite beautiful, if difficult to analyse or describe. Well, he was, at this time in his career, an abstractionist after all and that’s part of the point. Perhaps it’s easier to begin with what they were not. Not for him the aggressive, flung down marks that distinguish Pollock, not the formal, slowly reverberating heaviness of Rothko; not the cosying up to landscape of Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler. If there’s a comparison at all, maybe it’s with the geomorphic canvasses of Sam Francis. [Though my daughter has just wandered into the room, glanced at the above image on the screen, and said, “That looks like an angry Joan Mitchell,” so what do I know?]
What you do find in Guston’s paintings at this time – as in “Dial”, above – is a clustering of colour towards the centre, clumps and blotches of orange and red, the surrounding canvas fading into pinks and greys and blues. Is that the sky? Is that the sea?
In October, 1970, with an exhibition of new work at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, it all changed. Farewell, abstraction; hello, figuration. But this was the figuration of comic books, of Robert Crumb, of German artists like Max Beckmann; this was vulgar, grotesque, confrontational. The critics hated it; accused Guston of betrayal. Below is the famous self-portrait from this period, the artist as a member of the Ku Kluk Klan.
This was art in the age of Kissinger and Nixon, the continuing war in Vietnam. “What kind of a man was I,” Guston said, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything and them going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
Among Guston’s responses to the political situation was a series of some 80 cartoons under the title “Poor Richard”, which caricatured Nixon along with his close confederates Spiro Agnew and Henry Kissinger – the later shown merely as a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles. Nixon himself is shown as a sweaty self-publicist, with thick stubble and a phallic nose, elongating in Pinocchio fashion with each successive lie.
Originally intended for publication in 1971, the drawings were only published finally in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press. Until 29th July they are on show at the Hauser and Wirth Gallery in London, along with works from The Phlebitis Series of 1975 and the magnificent and coruscating painting, “San Clemente”, showing Nixon dragging his sorely affected leg along the beach in extreme pain.