Philip Guston’s oeuvre cannot be designated to only one artistic movement. He had begun his career as a realist expressionist; however, after a move to New York in the forties, quickly delved into abstraction and gained fame as a part of the New York School. Guston’s views on Abstract Expressionism began to diverge from those of his peers. As Ab-Ex continued to sever the ties between abstraction and realism on a “march to flatness,” Guston was becoming disenchanted with painting what he believed could only be realized through painting itself—what only a painting could express. Grappling with concepts of abstraction and the very notions of painting itself, Guston turned back on his separation with realism to rediscover imagination within painting. While it may seem that the artist’s transition to his figurative, Neo-Expressionist works was abrupt, the pieces made during the preceding decade foreshadow his return to figure and object. During Guston’s metamorphosis, his works searched for form and solidity within an imagined space. Some of the pivotal works from this period are currently on display at Hauser & Wirth in an exhibition entitled “Philip Guston: Painter 1957—1967,” which directly explores the slow evolution that led to the artist’s return to figuration and his re-discovery of painting as an illusionistic, infinitely imaginative space.
The exhibition is a coming together of 36 paintings and 53 drawings, most on loan from private collections and major institutions, organized by Paul Schimmel—ex-MOCA Director as well as Partner and Vice President of Hauser & Wirth. Schimmel led a walk-through of the exhibition, discussing this transitory period of 1957-67 as the physical representation of Guston’s concern with the loss of object in abstraction and a display of the artist’s ability to, as Schimmel states, “push back on his own history.”
In the first gallery, colorful shapes floating on white landscapes greet viewers. The works from 1957 are energetic and colorful. In some, the colors clustered in the center of the work seem to wish to break out of their tight, constricted form. Guston’s Fable II from 1957 is an example of this abstracted, elegantly exuberant conglomeration of colors surrounded by soft, warm beige brushstrokes. By 1958, Guston’s paintings become murkier, his colors darkening—the reds deepen, the white tones become gray, such as in Last Piece and Untitled. However, splotches of color are still commanding forces within the picture. Vessel from 1960 consists of a dark rectangular form hovering close to the viewer, dominating the pictorial space—swatches of yellow, green and red peek over the black ridge. Blue and gray brushstrokes partially erase an underpainting, which consists of warmer orange tones.
By 1961, Guston’s longing for images takes over his paintings. Figures and objects arise in dark masses against gray backgrounds that stop short of the edge of the canvas. The masses loom toward the viewer, ambiguous and ghostly. The phantoms haunt many of Guston’s works from this period, shadows of the figuration the artist will soon return to. The bare space surrounding his pictures highlight the edge of the canvas, heightening the awareness of the relationship between the paint and the end of the physical work through a spatial exploration of landscape and background.
Guston’s Painter III from 1963 exemplifies the new changes in the artist’s work. The brushstrokes layer in loose knits, almost grid-like. In Painter III, a form emerges from a large swatch of grays and blues. Underneath, background layers of muted orange and purple peer out from behind the gray paint. A black figure compositionally portrayed in portrait style appears to raise a hand, the suggestion of a paintbrush in its grip implies an artist’s self-portrait. Although ambiguous and still embedded within abstraction, the paintings introduce ideas of landscapes and suggestions of portraiture, even the titles of his pieces start to relate more to physical nouns rather than concepts. Within these works, the viewer can observe Guston testing the waters for a move back to object and figure.
In 1965, Guston experimented with his last throes of color in works like Looking and Inhabiter—hints of dusty, salmon pink layers appear luminous underneath a smoky screen of paint. At the end of this pivotal decade, the everyday objects and enigmatic figures are their most mysterious. Shapes materialize from the space; these cryptic subjects loom forward in their settings, comprised of grays and blacks, the brushstrokes smooth and gentle, forming soft, slack cross-hatched patterns. There is a large sense of erasure in the works, traces of painting barely remain behind a smog-like haze of monochromatic color. The paintings are elusive, abstract enough to remain ambiguous but familiar enough where the implication of reality cannot be ignored.
The end of Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition features a wall of Guston’s drawings from 1967. Although the drawings mark a temporary end of painting for the artist, they actually symbolize the birth of Guston’s Neo-Expressionist style. The pure line drawings are skeletons of the cartoon-like realism soon to come. They also speak to Guston’s rejection of the art world’s expectations regarding his artwork.
The paintings exhibited at Hauser & Wirth display the artist’s search for spatiality and object, signaling his return to figuration. Each work proves to be a stepping stone that forms a cohesive understanding of the artist’s subtle, smooth transition to figure and form and away from the constraints of his previous works. Schimmel, during his tour, discussed Guston’s idea of freedom, stating that the artist believed that “only when you are at the blank white canvas, you are free.” Beyond the works in this decade attempting to reconcile gesture and color field painting, landscape and portraiture with abstraction, the paintings directly deal with the freedom of the artist—the ability to reject or embrace the past, or to create whatever one pleases. The artworks at Hauser & Wirth are inherent to Guston’s realization of freedom, and in Guston’s words himself, “that’s the only possession an artist has—freedom to do whatever you can imagine.”
“Philip Guston: Painter 1957—1967” is on view at Hauser & Wirth Gallery, New York, through July 29, 2016.