Philip Guston went from a successful, even iconic, Abstract Expressionist of the 1950s to a man without a movement in the decades that followed. A growing sense of the limits of pure abstraction, as well as a curiosity about the artistic tradition of Italy and the possibilities of political art and satire, pushed him away from the art-critical mainstream during the Nixon years. This journey, and the struggle that accompanied it, is the subject of an exhibit at Hauser & Wirth in downtown Los Angeles.
The show — Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971 — arrives alongside a book of the same title written by the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer. The book is both a traditional exhibit catalog and something more personal and less academic. “I’ve found no better word than resilience to describe this crucial year in my father’s work and life,” Mayer writes in her introduction, “and indeed to characterize his entire life, especially his early life, when he discovered the great art and artists of the past and quite literally drew and painted a new identity for himself, leaving behind — but never fully escaping — a family beset by tragedy.”
The exhibit is the artist’s first solo show in LA in decades, which has a certain resonance: though he was born to Ukrainian Jews in Montreal, and reached his greatest level of fame in New York and then Woodstock, Guston was — in a real sense — an Angeleno. He grew up largely in and around Los Angeles, and went to art school here.
In the conversation below, Mayer — who reads and signs her book at the gallery on September 22, 2019 — discusses Guston’s art, life, and connection to Southern California.
SCOTT TIMBERG: To start, can you give us a sense of what the period from late 1970 through 1971 was like for your father? He’d been an acclaimed Abstract Expressionist for decades but encountered savage reviews of his work for the Marlborough Gallery. How did it hit him personally, and how did it drive his next chapter as a painter?
MUSA MAYER: Immediately after the Marlborough opening in October 1970, my father fled to Italy, hoping to lose himself in the art and culture he had loved since boyhood, and to leave behind the rigid expectations of the New York art world. But the negative reviews from the Marlborough show followed him there, and they were wounding.
His new paintings of strange hooded figures were termed “crude” and “simple-minded” by the critics. A scathing New York Times review referred to him as “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.” My father despaired at the doctrinaire state of an art world that expected him to endlessly refine the abstractions that had brought him critical acclaim a decade earlier. “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth that we inherit from abstract art,” he wrote. “That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure.’ It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ which forces painting’s continuity.”
By 1971, my father had fully committed to the new images pouring forth from him since his return to figuration. He had learned to trust his instincts, whatever others thought. “I knew ahead of me a road was laying,” he wrote. “A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid . . . wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.” For him, the only antidote to the art world’s rejection lay in getting back to work. There in his studio, he found the strength to begin painting again. His resilience, coupled with the rich invention of the imagery, gives these small paintings their power.
In May of 1971, my father returned to his studio in Woodstock, in upstate New York. It was Richard Nixon’s first term as president and the scandal of The Pentagon Papers was unfolding daily in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, documenting decades of government deception concerning the war in Vietnam. How could he not respond?
“What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”
It often happened during my father’s career that an intense burst of creativity in his paintings would be heralded by drawing. He spent the summer of 1971 creating more than 200 satirical ink drawings of Richard Nixon, throwing himself as passionately into this project as he had into the Roma paintings earlier in the year. In these wildly inventive and rudely satirical drawings, not only does he manage to skewer Nixon the man and the president, but in doing so, he plants many of the seeds of forms that are central to the paintings created during the rest of his life.
In the fall and winter of the pivotal year of 1971, my father moved on to larger paintings, a few of which appear in the final large room of the exhibition.
What drew your father to Richard Nixon as a subject? Certainly, he was not the only artist alarmed by the Nixon presidency, but few devoted so much energy to it. There were some odd parallels between artist and president, weren’t there? They had Whittier and environs in common.
My father and Richard Milhous Nixon were born the same year, 1913, and my father spent his boyhood not far from where Nixon grew up, in Whittier. They both came from poor families who struggled; both dreamed of greatness, of transcending humble births. In other ways, they were very different. Nixon’s route was conventional. He went East to law school; my father was expelled from high school for protesting ROTC training and never went back. In his paintings of Klansmen, my father explored his fascination with evil. He loved the work of Isaac Babel, the Russian writer who concealed his Jewishness to ride with the Cossacks, and later wrote about it. What was it that had driven Nixon’s early ambitions to such compromises and hypocrisy? My father read Nixon’s biographies, finding in Nixon’s life a rich source for satire, and for pathos…
How did Southern California — the landscape, Otis College, the car culture, and so on — shape the artist your father became?
My father’s early life was steeped in Southern California culture and leftist politics of the period, and this is reflected in his earliest works. During the 1920s and 1930s in Southern California, the Ku Klux Klan was very active, with tens of thousands of members. In 1931, the so-called Red Squad raided the John Reed Club, destroying an early fresco my father had painted of Klan members whipping a black man tied to a post. He returned to these Klan figures in his late work, including some in the 1971 works in the current exhibition. These hooded figures are often riding around in jalopies (the car culture of that time) in the kind of dusty LA landscapes depicted in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.
Much of the work in the show was made in Italy. What kinds of influences — painters, sculptors, and other sources — did he find there?
From boyhood, my father loved the painters of the Italian renaissance: Massacio, Mantegna, Signorelli, Piero della Francesca, Tiepolo — these artists spoke to him as much as or more than the Mexican muralists who were working in LA when he was beginning to paint. A recently restored fresco in Duarte, in the Visitor’s Center at City of Hope, completed in 1935 with a friend, shows his love for the Italian masters. The paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, which he was taken to see in the Arensberg collection, also spoke to him, and the grave presence of Morandi’s still lives can be seen in some of the Roma paintings in the show. In 1948, winning a Prix de Rome allowed him to spend a year in Italy, a country that he came to love and see as a refuge and a source of inspiration. The small oils in the current show, painted during a 1971 residency at the American Academy in Rome, are steeped in the beauty of the landscape, architecture and formal gardens of Rome, the hill towns of Tuscany, and the ruined fragments of ancient Rome.
Looking back, Guston’s move away from pure abstraction — as painful as it was to him and as shocking as it was to his critics — seems like part of a larger movement as artists began to see abstraction as a dead end. He wrote and spoke about that both before and after his pivot around 1970, didn’t he?
The courage to challenge the orthodoxy that gripped the art world in the 1960s and 1970s has inspired generations of artists to find their own way, and still does. Every period in art has its own form of orthodoxy. Artists always have to wrestle with themselves. My father once expressed the artist’s dilemma this way to his students:
“Each time he paints he must discover how to trust himself, his instincts, without knowing how it will turn out. It sounds easy until you try it. I think it was Picasso who was interviewed and was asked, ‘What has been the most important thing in your life, master?’ and he replied, ‘Self-trust.’ He said that it had taken him a lifetime to learn how to trust his inchoate urges and instincts. And it’s not easy to achieve because we don’t even recognize the extent to which we are victims of the institutionalized art which is all around us. Nor how often we check ourselves. You have a feeling or a thought — check, check, check.”
The once-controversial work we’re talking about here is now, I suspect, what most people associate with the name Philip Guston. He seems to have opened the door for neo-Expressionism in painting, to the politicized 1970s, and to the greater respectability of underground comics. That makes me wonder to what extent Guston — who died in 1980 — realized he’d been ahead of his time in some ways.
I don’t think my father ever felt he “fit in” with any art movement, really. He resisted being called an “abstract expressionist” and having his work lumped with that of others during the 1950s: “What do they think we are, a baseball team?”
He felt strongly that it was not his job to classify his work, or to see where it belonged in the history of art. Nor did he wish to analyze the meanings and iconography of his paintings. That was for others.
He wrote to a friend, with some measure of irony and more than a little bitterness, following the negative reactions to the Marlborough show, “Now I see how it feels to do something new and different.”
So, he definitely knew he was breaking ground, and that it would take time for critical opinion to accept his new imagery, if it ever did. Fortunately, in the year before his death, after by far the most prolific decade of his 50-year career, some in the art world were beginning to appreciate the incredible power of his late work. Sadly, he was already very ill, although he did live long enough to open a major retrospective right before he died.
No question that he opened a door — but it was his door inward into new territory. He would have been gratified to know that others found their way inspired by what he had done.
How did your father see visual art — or the arts in general — as functioning in the larger world. Was their work social criticism? The expression of an artist’s soul? A means of communication? A combination of all of these?
I think he would have said that great art comes from the fullest, most honest expression of an artist’s being, whatever that contains. In the case of my father, he possessed a strong social conscience. He felt the pain of the world very deeply. And so that suffuses his art and moves others — and calls to others to reach deeply within themselves in their creative work, whatever it is. His students tell me that was his most profound influence on them: to inspire the courage to work at that level of passionate commitment.
How well did he get to know Philip Roth, and what did they seem to connect over?
Philip Roth was one of my father’s closest friends during the early 1970s. A generation apart, they shared a wonderful sense of humor and irony, a certain enjoyment of what my father called the “crapola” of popular culture, great talks into the night. It was Philip Roth who (by sharing his manuscript of “Our Gang,” a send-up of Nixon’s cabinet) inspired my father to begin his own satirical Nixon drawing in 1971, almost all of which are exhibited in this show.
Guston knew many other artists, of course, but had an especially strong feeling for poetry and poets. Who were some of his favorites, and what did he find in poetry he didn’t get from visual art and other sources?
My father loved the immediate, felt responses of poets to his works and he loved their associations, which I believe stimulated his own creative process. There were always conversations into the night with his poet friends. He read poetry, and his wife — my mother — was a poet as well. He illustrated the poems of his friends and of my mother. Some of his poet friends wrote for the art magazines, like Frank O’Hara and Bill Berkson. Some of the poets he knew, like Stanley Kunitz, collaborated with him in writing chapbooks and publishing small magazines with his drawings.
In recaptured film shown as part of the current exhibition, and shot during the summer of 1971, my father discusses his Roma paintings with Clark Coolidge, the only surviving poet friend of my father.
The notion of resilience was important to your father, and you’ve used it as the title of your book. Tell us how your father saw it working in his career and for others. Was he resilient through all the difficulties of his life, or did that kind of strength come and go for him?
The strength that it took to wrestle his demons and keep on working did take a considerable toll on my father, and shortened his life, I believe. He drank and smoked to excess; he was an insomniac. He suffered terrible depressions, from which he pulled himself up with great difficulty. Like many creative people, the intensity and deep emotion of his work was both exhilarating and terrifying — as he tried to open himself up fully to his inner life.
Oil on paper mounted on panel
73.7 x 101.6 cm / 29 x 40 in
© The Estate of Philip Guston
Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanso