By Joshua Ascherman
In 1957, abstract expressionism was in its heyday, the art world was abuzz with talk of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and the artists of the New York School — and Philip Guston was tired.
“I got sick and tired of all that Purity! Wanted to tell stories,” Guston proclaimed later, describing a transitional period in his art career which is the focus of “Philip Guston, Painter: 1957-1967,” a new show at Hauser & Wirth’s 18th Street location in New York City. The show is open through July 29, and Guston’s dismissal of painterly “Purity” is its thesis.
Despite Guston’s claim, many of the pieces now on show at Hauser & Wirth are painted in brush strokes reminiscent of Monet’s, emotive strokes which are characteristic of much of Guston’s abstract work; in all of them, there is interplay between grey- and earth-toned backgrounds and sometimes colorful foregrounded organic shapes.
And yet, though these paintings are abstract and perhaps even “pure,” they attest to the imminence of Guston’s move toward figuration and of the development of his notorious cartoon-like style. (See “The Three” at the Harvard Art Museums, which features Guston’s oft-reviled white-hooded Ku Klux Klan figures and which typifies the artist’s late style.) These paintings are abstractions itching to become figures: in “Painter III,” for instance, a central black form is easily recognizable as a head, and bears a subtle resemblance to Guston himself. In the case of “Vessel,” a later work, the title suggests that the largest form in the painting, a black rectangle, is indeed to represent a real object.
These paintings are monumental in essence if not also in size, and they put on display the spirit of an artist whose life sometimes corroborates the cliche of the tortured intellectual. Indeed, the art world troubled Guston, and his generally somber palette — especially in the cool grey and black works of the mid-1960s, such as 1964’s “The Year” and “Group II,” from the same year — parallels his temperament. These are “smart” pieces, wrought with emotion.
Hauser & Wirth only relatively recently took over representation of the Philip Guston estate (the artist died in 1980), and they made the unusual but successful decision to borrow a large number of works from museums to supplement the pieces they own, with the goal of accurately representing this portion of Guston’s career. While this means many of the pieces aren’t for sale, it also makes for a museum-grade gallery show. The gallery’s Chelsea space is just severe enough in the interior to let the paintings pop.
The real highlight of the show is a series of Guston’s iconic line drawings done in acrylic on paper, some of which represent real-life objects and some of which are merely organic forms. An installation of 48 of these drawings, in three rows of 16 drawings, makes one alcove of Hauser & Wirth feel like a shrine to the artist. They are understated but extremely felt, and their simplicity doesn’t undermine their essential seriousness. Many of the quasi-figurative drawings also resemble later motifs in Guston: buildings and books in the artist’s late figurative paintings are represented by rounded rectangles with rows of vertical slits, and several drawings in the present show resort to these familiar vertical hatch-marks.
A move through “Philip Guston, Painter: 1957-1967” is a move through the disintegration of purity, and the impending approach of something which would ultimately shake the art establishment is palpable. However, these paintings are breathtaking in their own right, and “Painter, 1957-1967” is absolutely not to be missed.
(“Philip Guston, Painter: 1957-1967” continues through July 29 at Hauser & Wirth New York, 511 West 18th St., New York, New York. For more information, call (212) 790-3900.)