Philip Guston at Tate Modern
Three years ago, as the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests thrust race relations ever more into the cultural and social landscape, Tate Modern took the decision to postpone the major Philip Guston exhibition scheduled for that year. The British institution felt at the time, following discussions held with American galleries, that the painter’s controversial Ku Klux Klan imagery would be tonally out of kilter with the climate. Now, having initiated a reappraisal of the artist’s practice to bring in “new perspectives”, Tate Modern has finally opened this extensive Guston retrospective, the first in the UK for two decades.
The revised version of the show originally planned presents the visitor with a more chronological consideration of the American’s work as it evolved from the 1920s onwards. Spanning over 100 paintings and drawings from Guston’s five-decade-long career, the Tate provides new insight into his early years and involvement in activism. Born in Canada, the son of Russian Jewish refugees, Philip Guston (1913-80) moved to Los Angeles in 1922 as his impoverished family sought a better lifestyle. Here he found racism rearing its ugly head and the KKK exerting a greater influence. The double tragedy of his father’s suicide and brother’s death in a car accident led a young Guston to decide to become an artist as a means of dealing with the trauma. From his formative years one also finds him creating art as an act of resistance to racial prejudice and social injustice.
In 1934, the young Guston journeyed to Morelia, Mexico, with Reuben Kadish and Jules Langsner to paint their first mural commission and received direction from the muralist masters Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. The Tate curators have chosen to display a projected film of this work, The Struggle Against Terrorism (1934-35) in the opening room. Adopting figuration reminiscent of Rivera, the American and his compatriots depict scenes of torture and hardship inhabited by sinister members of the feared Spanish Inquisition and Ku Klux Klansmen who would feature in later career works. The Tate goes to great lengths to emphasise that the artist as a left-leaning Jew despised everything the notorious white supremacists represented. Guston moved to New York in 1936, changing his name from Goldstein and started painting frescoes for the WPA Federal Art Project funded by the US government.
In the 1940s, after switching to easel painting, we see Guston beginning to lose confidence in the effectiveness of figuration and realism to meet his own artistic demands. He is shown to make a decisive move in adopting abstraction, following the development of his school friend, Jackson Pollock. Befriending other key figures such as Willem de Kooning the artist evidently became a major player in the New York School, producing paintings on view here such as White Painting I (1951) and Passage (1957-58). By the mid-50s, thickly applied areas of his beloved cadmium red, orange, pink and black regularly appear together, often condensed in the centre of the canvas.
Ultimately, Guston was unable to resist the lure of a return to images. One room at Tate captures a period of transition in the 60s when he created a series of forms resembling black boulders in the middle of muted surfaces of colour that might also be read as heads. By the middle of that decade, he was caught in something of a creative crisis that led him to not paint for one and a half years. Then we find him producing simple line drawings, some abstract in form, others palpably being objects, evidently torn between the two polarities.
As that firecracker of a decade neared its conclusion, the ever-restless Guston became increasingly prone to reflecting on a world beset by problems. Disturbing hooded Ku Klux Klan characters, rendered in cartoon-like form, started to feature in his work as he sought to pose questions regarding the prevalence of violence and racism in society. In City Limits (1969), the artist seems to be belittling the three unpleasant “hoods” in an ancient-looking vehicle, which resembles something from the Flintstones. The following year saw the artist’s now notorious Marlborough Gallery exhibition in New York where his return to representation received roundly scathing reviews from most of the art establishment. Many of his peers expressed disdain for his new cartoonish style, with one close friend, the musician Morton Feldman, deciding never to speak to him again.
Following the bitter disappointment of Marlborough, Guston travelled to Italy – where he had previously found such inspiration in the Renaissance – and created paintings of Roman ruins, some being displayed in the current exhibition. He would return to New York and continue to develop his late style, depicting cartoonish symbols that would occupy him for the remaining decade of his life. Among the motifs to emerge from his imagination during that final period are huge eyes, ownerless shoes, scuttling spiders, empty bottles and cigarette butts. He lays his paint on lusciously thick with his favourite colour, cadmium red much in evidence. In one instance, he depicts himself as a cyclops smoking in bed. Elsewhere, what initially appears to be a sunset turns out to be the top of his ailing wife, the poet Musa McKim’s forehead.
Guston’s 1977 canvas, Couple in Bed, painted three years before his death of a heart attack at the age of 66, shows the artist grasping his brushes in one hand whilst tenderly cuddling his wife who had recently suffered a number of strokes. Playful and yet extraordinarily moving, we see the artist here reflecting on the suffering of human existence. This long-awaited exhibition reveals Philip Guston as an artist for whom categorisation was an anathema. Endlessly restless and boundary-pushing, his attitudes moulded by personal tragedy and social injustice, the American took inspiration from the troubled world around him to create a new and surprising body of work all of his own.
Philip Guston is at Tate Modern from 5th October until 25th February 2024. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.