When Philip Guston, a painter of tremblingly sensitive abstract expressionist pictures in the 1950s and 1960s (so trembling that his style was dubbed "abstract impressionism"), switched in the 1970s to cartoonish figurative pictures of clenched fists, bandaged heads, and Ku Klux Klan hoods, friends and critics alike thought he had lost it. The response was widespread embarrassment, and in some cases outrage.
One can think of a few precedents: Picasso temporarily abandoning cubism to take up a neoclassical style influenced by Ingres; Matisse abandoning his researches into flatness and saturated colour to paint gorgeous models in an impressionist palette of yellows and purples. But in the ideologically charged, Protestant atmosphere of postwar American art – dominated by belligerent characters like Clement Greenberg, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning – Guston’s defection seemed particularly abhorrent.
In fact, Guston, the subject of a long-awaited new show at the Royal Academy, was a veritable hero of inconsistency. His life was dominated first by the ideological absolutes of socialist realism, then by the equally absolutist Hegelian rhetoric of abstraction (which Greenberg, among others, touted as a logical end point in the development of art) and then by the anti-theatrical, bullying "shush!" that was minimalism.
Guston’s great contribution was to jam his foot in various doors that modernism’s obsession with purity seemed determined to close. He embraced the stupid, the obvious, the theatrical and the mongrel in ways that have enlivened painting ever since.
Guston’s determination not to indulge fantasies of artistic purity makes his friendship with Philip Roth particularly interesting. Roth’s fiction has been similarly enlivened by ferocious histrionics and an obsession with the "the human stain" – a raging avowal of life’s rudeness and rawness, its refusal ever to cohere or make sense.
The two men were close friends until Guston’s death in 1980. They lived near each other in Woodstock, where Roth moved to get away from the furore surrounding Portnoy’s Complaint, just as Guston sought to immerse himself in work after the brouhaha sparked by his "mutinous" 1970 show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York.
Guston had much earlier changed his name from Goldstein, ostensibly to appease his wife Musa’s Gentile parents. This was quite common among American Jews, but as the late Ross Feld points out in his marvellous book, Guston in Time: "There’s always more to such a thing… To change a name is both…