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 to overvalue and undervalue the I, the specific identity that we hide behind and yet also are known by."
Guston’s artistic career was marked at several points by attempts to shed earlier, uncomfortable skins. Even as his reputation as the best of the second-generation abstract expressionists was at its height, you could feel him struggling to escape what was fast becoming a straitjacket: "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art," he wrote at the time. "That painting is autonomous, pure, and for itself… painting is impure."
Feld wrote of Guston "celebrating the crap of life not for its own ironic sake but as the ever-present still life that surrounds the embarrassingly, even tragically human." The objects – trash can lids, shoe soles, light bulbs, cigarettes – that recur in Guston’s late work have the thwarted presence of cartoon characters smashed over the head by frying pans: they convey a raucous, comedic sense that reality has been "stunned," as Feld puts it, "into temporary stasis."
Allegory, which was anathema to the abstract expressionists, became an integral part of Guston’s post-1970 work. But what makes his use of it feel bearable rather than out of date is the modern sense that (as with Albrecht D?rer’s allegory "Melencolia," or Samuel Beckett’s dialogues) Guston’s allegory opens on to an abyss; it points to nothing.
Tacked on to one of Guston’s many urgent, late-night letters to Feld, Guston wrote: "PPS: Pots of paint with red paint dripping down into pools of blood. But it’s only red paint… When all’s said and done – it’s… only a painting!"
I love this admission. Coming from a painter so immersed in the urgency and profundity of art, it comes as a surprise. He took art seriously – serious, indeed, unto death. It is life, in all its incoherence, that really gets his attention, life that he wants his painting to refer to – not some abstract, disembodied idea.
The bluntness and rawness of these late works can put you in mind of Picasso’s late, death-courting pictures. And just as Picasso’s late work, after the initial embarrassment, eventually found acceptance, Guston’s more plodding, and philosophically weightier paintings have come to be hugely influential on young painters today. For many, Guston’s preparedness to let real life back in made the whole game of painting easier to persist with and believe in.
It is usually embarrassing when critics dish out advice to "young painters"; but Guston’s "advice to myself" is not bad, if you’re willing to take it:
Do not make laws.
Do not form habits.
You do not possess a way
You do not possess a style
You have nothing finally but some mysterious urge – to use the stuff – the matter.