Philip Guston: Witness of the Century
Philip Guston said that the only reason to be an artist is to bear witness. All his life he has followed this principle, looking again and again into the abyss of tragedy, war and iniquity. Several times in his career, Guston has completely changed his artistic language in order to sound as accurate and honest as possible. The artist’s retrospective at Tate Modern shows him restless, perpetually doubting and questioning. It can be viewed as a glimpse into the anxieties and hopes of 20th century man, as a textbook on the art history of Western modernism, and at the same time as a manifesto for the power of art created by an uncompromising and fearless man.
The exhibition covers Guston’s entire career, from his early social realist murals to his late cartoonish paintings. It reveals the influences and connections that shaped his vision, as well as the challenges and controversies that he faced. It also highlights the themes and motifs that recur throughout his work, such as violence, racism, politics, identity and mortality.
Guston was born in Montreal in 1913 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was six years old. He was exposed to art from an early age, as his father was a sign painter and his mother encouraged his talent. He also developed a passion for comics, which would later inform his style. He attended the Otis Art Institute for three months in 1930, but was largely self-taught. He became interested in mural painting after seeing the works of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He joined the mural division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1934, and painted several public works that reflected his social and political concerns. One of them was The Struggle Against Terror (1937), which depicted hooded figures that symbolized fascism and oppression. This image would haunt him for the rest of his life.
In 1935, Guston married Musa McKim, a fellow artist and poet. They moved to New York in 1937, where they became part of a vibrant artistic community that included Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and others. Guston experimented with different styles and techniques, influenced by European modernism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. He gradually abandoned figuration and embraced abstraction, creating paintings that consisted of luminous fields of color and delicate brushstrokes. He sought to express his inner feelings and emotions through pure form and gesture. He also explored printmaking, producing lithographs and etchings that showed his mastery of line and tone.
Guston achieved recognition and success as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s and 1960s. He exhibited widely in galleries and museums, received grants and awards, and taught at prestigious institutions such as Yale University and New York University. However, he was not satisfied with his work or with the state of the world. He felt that abstraction had become too formal and detached from reality. He was troubled by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the rise of Richard Nixon. He decided to return to figuration, but in a radical way that shocked and alienated many of his peers and critics.
In 1968, Guston moved to Woodstock, New York, where he began to paint in a new style that combined elements of comics, graffiti and expressionism. He used a limited palette of black, white, red and pink, and painted crude images of hooded Klansmen, disembodied heads, cigarettes, shoes, clocks and other objects. He also made satirical drawings of Nixon and his associates, depicting them as grotesque caricatures with exaggerated features. He said that these works were self-portraits, reflecting his own fears and anxieties. He also said that they were a way of confronting the evil that he saw in himself and in society.
Guston’s new paintings were met with harsh criticism when they were first shown at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970. Many reviewers accused him of betraying abstract expressionism, regressing to childishness or pandering to sensationalism. Some even questioned his sanity or integrity. Guston was hurt by these reactions, but he did not give up on his vision. He continued to paint in this style until his death in 1980, producing some of his most powerful and poignant works.
The retrospective at Tate Modern offers a rare opportunity to see Guston’s oeuvre in its entirety, from his early murals to his late paintings. It also includes a selection of his drawings, prints and sketches, as well as photographs, letters and documents that shed light on his life and work. The exhibition is organized chronologically and thematically into eight sections: Early Years; Muralist; Abstract Expressionist; Return to Figuration; Klansmen; Nixon; Late Works; and Legacy. Each section features a wall text that provides an overview of the period and the main issues that Guston addressed. The exhibition also features audio guides, videos and interactive stations that enhance the visitor’s experience.
The exhibition aims to present Guston as a complex and contradictory figure, who constantly challenged himself and his audience. It also aims to demonstrate the relevance and influence of his work in the contemporary context, as it resonates with the current social and political climate. The exhibition invites the viewer to engage with Guston’s work on multiple levels: as a witness, a critic, a sympathizer or a provocateur. It also invites the viewer to reflect on the role and responsibility of the artist in society, and on the power and potential of art as a form of expression, communication and resistance.