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PHILIP GUSTON

by Judith Christensen

(Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood) Too small to be a mini-retrospective of a prolific artist, too varied to be a focus exhibit, this is, as the title indicates, simply Selected Works on Paper and Canvas 1951-1978. Although there are no examples of Guston's origins in representation from the 1930s and into the '40s, the earliest paintings in this exhibit portray the artist in transition. The abstraction in an untitled oil on canvas from 1951/52 is more tentative than in either Leaf [1958] or Wild Grape [1959]. The brushstrokes in the earlier piece resemble marks, as if the paint was drawn onto the canvas. In the latter two, individual brushstrokes are still apparent, but they make up large, bold areas of color. The colors themselves--sharp purple and a cheerful red-orange, for example--manifest a greater confidence on the part of Guston: In himself as a painter as well as in abstraction as a means of expression.

Almost half of the pieces included in the exhibit are drawings. Guston turned to drawing again and again, particularly in times of intellectual or emotional turmoil, as in the late 1960s when he began to explore simple images such as a book, chair or car. Most of the drawings here predate this period. Still there is a distinct difference between those Guston produced in the 1950s and those from the early '60s. The mostly vertical marks in an Untitled drawing from 1954 appear in clusters of varying density. The energy here derives from the intensity of the clusters. In the drawings from the early 1960s the energy derives from the shapes that the lines delineate, as well as the density of the clusters. The longer, curving lines in Drawing Number 2 [1961] appear as precursors of the objective shapes that became definitive in the late 1960s and '70s.

"In the Studio," oil on
masonite,48 x 54", 1973.

 

"Drawing Number 2", pen and black
ink on paper, 18 x 24", 1961.

"Pink Sea," o/c, 48 x 60", 1978.

 

"Untitled," ink on paper,
18 x 24", 1954.

Critics usually describe the objects in Guston's late work as cartoonish, but this characterization diminishes the serious-mindedness of the content. Guston's concerns dealt with moral and intellectual questions, not popular culture. Pink Sea [1978] elicits a deep sense of uneasiness. Heads, some partially submerged, and shoes are piled in a tight heap. The wide expanse of emptiness that surrounds this heap enhances the feeling of claustrophobia. So does the mix of faces and feet, the two extremities of the body. There's no regard for people's dignity in this pile. The heels and soles of shoes, fully articulated with nail heads, was a frequent motif in Guston's late work, as was the hooded figure. Both had appeared in his very early work during the crisis decades of the 1930s and '40s.

When Guston's late paintings first appeared, he was assailed for turning towards the slick irreverence of Pop art. Hindsight reveals there's nothing slick about this work. Rather than embrace easy solutions, Guston gravitated toward the issues that he grappled with when he first began painting. Struggle and uncertainty, rather than resolution, continued to engage him until his death in 1980.