The American artist Philip Guston (1913 – 1980) lived through the major political, economic, and stylistic shifts of the twentieth century. From the outset, his art took its bearings from the political and social context and from American and European visual art, literature, and poetry. The ability of art to relate to the world was vital for Guston, but so, too, was its ability to create a world of its own. Effective art, real art, could do both at once.
The desire for an art that encompassed all that could be brought to the canvas, and that had the capacity to surprise the artist with revelations unleashed in the process of making, did not dovetail with the critical understanding of American abstract painting. This divergence of opinion comes to the fore in the work of the two critics who shaped the dominant view of painting in the postwar period: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. According to Greenberg, abstract painting was self-referential: the artist engaged with the special qualities of the medium of painting, not with the world of the emotions or the world outside. Rosenberg, by contrast, conceived a theory of “action painting” that focused on the canvas as an arena in which the artist acted out his or her emotions. Rosenberg was less concerned with formal qualities than with the artist’s role as a conduit for the anxieties of the postwar period. Despite their differences, Greenberg and Rosenberg’s views converge in putting the artist in charge of the process of making. Just as the artist exercised a strong individualism in keeping with the myth of the postwar American citizen (who lived in the so-called free world), so abstract painting achieved a kind of sublime transcendence of its time and place.
Although Guston would be celebrated as a member of the New York School of painters and his work would be associated with the stylistic category of abstract expressionism, his own view ran counter to the predominant critical understanding of American postwar painting. For Guston, “art” meant not only the work of art but also the force that took hold of the creator in the process of making. Here, it is not the artist who expresses the self directly in the work of art but the work of art that reveals to the artist, and to us, what the world is or can be.
Review, a large painting of 1948 – 1949, shows Guston taking stock of where he has been as an artist, where he is going, and what kind of painter he would like to be. The painting responds to what is happening in the world. Indeed, it is characterized in the literature as one of three paintings that represent a transition from figuration to abstraction. Its compression of space is said to be related to photographs then emerging of the aftermath of the Holocaust as well as to the anxiety of the postwar period more generally. Yet the canvas is also animated by subtle suggestions of light and potential movement that appear to arise from within the painting itself. The objects indicated on the painter’s table — a tacking hammer, paint can, brushes, and a quill pen — are shadowy elements in this painted world.
Indeed, the objects and the relationships between them never really disappear in Guston’s supposedly abstract painting. Rather, these relations are subsumed within a mysterious, quivering space erected through color and light. In the frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1415 – 1492), which Guston had known in reproduction but saw for the first time while working on Review as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1949, he encountered an art on the move. In three subsequent essays on Piero, he explored how fresco work of such stillness could be animated by forces seeming to emanate from within. Guston’s paintings of 1948 – 1949 do not track the transition from figuration to abstraction; instead they review the way in which painting can achieve mystery through the means of painting itself.
The two-month fellowship at CASVA enabled me to look closely at Guston’s paintings, prints, and drawings at the National Gallery of Art and, with the superb resources of the library, to refine my understanding of the particular qualities of his art. Guston’s career as a painter is narrated in the history of art as a series of stylistic shifts — from the figurative style of painting he practiced as a WPA muralist in the 1930s to abstraction in the 1950s and back to a mode of figuration in the early 1960s. Although previous scholarship has sought to explain these shifts in style, the book I am preparing will be the first to consider Guston’s body of work in light of his understanding of art.