Painting doom and gloom

January 14, 2024

Philip Guston’s work from various phases of his life is on display at Tate Modern

Painting doom  and gloom


 few decades ago, I watched a documentary on Philip Guston. The artist walks across the museum, where his large canvases are on the walls, looks at them, comes closer and rubs his hand on paintings. On a question, how it feels to be at his retrospective, he answers: “Really good, because this is the only exhibition where I am allowed to touch the paintings.”

Seeing the American painter’s work recently at an exhibition (October 5, 2023 –February 25, 2024, Tate Modern, London), one can connect to Guston’s act and delight, because most of his work, especially the later paintings, invites the eyes of a viewer to come in contact with these surfaces. This sensation is created by layers of colours put with an ease, fluidity, clarity and pleasure. The exhibition, spread to 11 spaces, includes figurative works as old as from 1935 (Nude Philosopher in Space-Time) to his abstract expressionist canvases, and his later paintings such as Kettle, The Ladder, The Line (all from 1978).

The exhibition comprises work from various phases of the career of the artist who died in 1980 at the age of 66. His earlier paintings from the 1940s are about street urchins, faces hidden in paper bags and surrounded with junk and rubbish on the street such as If This Be Not I (1945) and Martial Memory (1941). In another painting, a boy is carrying a kettle on his head. The painting’s space is choked with discarded stuff against a background of ruinous structures. Ross Feld, in his book of memoirs about the painter, Guston in Time, notes that the artist’s “father had for a time peddled junk.”

In 1950s Guston emerged an abstract painter, but as Arthur C Danto observes “his distinct abstract style differed from that of any of his peers more widely than any of them differed from one another.” Danto speculates: “whether it was expressionist at all – whether Guston had not originated instead a form of abstract impressionism.” The paintings at Tate Modern, like Beggar’s Joy (1954-5) and Dial (1956), are assembled with fluid, urgent and loose brush strokes. In front of these canvases, one admires the predominance of pink and scarlets, marks that appear wet, fresh and fleshly even though the work was executed almost seventy years ago. He seems to have added an element of eternity through his brush, like that found in Chinese painting (Guston wrote in 1978: “My greatest ideal is Chinese painting, especially Sung painting dating from the Tenth or Eleventh Century.”)

Preference for the variations of red continues, actually taking over his later palette. But before the colour, one notices how the abstract expressionist artist moved to a narrative populated with people, objects, articles, anxieties and doubts. One observes the presence of a figure, mostly the artist (huddled in a hood, not too distant from his earlier paintings, such as If This Be Not I,1945, and Martial Memory,1941) and items of one’s normal – and nocturnal environment. Guston evolved a dialect to deal with the reality of our times, autobiographical in essence, and caricature-like in appearance. More than a newspaper cartoon, the work is an individual’s personal and private jottings: of things, acts and observations.

Painting doom  and gloom

The paintings at Tate Modern, like Beggar’s Joy (1954-5), Dial (1956), are assembled with fluid, urgent and loose brush strokes. In front of these canvases, one admires the predominance of pink and scarlets, marks which appear wet, fresh and fleshly even though the works were executed almost seventy years before.

The late style of Guston is about the freedom to denote what comes across a creative person’s mind, fancy, fears, imagination. In that respect, he is not different from the other Philip, his contemporary, Philip Roth, the writer who, like the painter, lived in Woodstock, and with whom the painter “forged a close friendship.” In the writings of Philip Roth, particularly in his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the Jewish-American author punctures the standard norms of ‘fiction.’ The language, structure, speed and frankness of the narrative is utterly uncommon – actually as unexpected as Philip Guston’s move to make figurative imagery in a freaky, free and feverish tone in the last decade of his creative life.

Like Roth’s books, Guston’s paintings dig deep into the solitude of being. Philip Roth, in an essay Pictures by Guston, deciphers the painter’s surge “to paint into nightmares that were imperishable.” The same nightmares had haunted Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett – and Philip Roth. In the case of Guston, the nightmare or anxiety is delineated – like a caricature, thus enhancing its brutality – with a “cigar-smoking Klansmen painting self-portraits in hideaways cluttered with shoes and clocks” (The Studio, 1969), or against a vent (By the Window, 1969).

The last body of work, aptly and impressively represented at the Tate Modern, is about the nightmare, a state of being that does not depend on any time of clock. You can identify with the feeling of desolation, disbanded-ness, disorientation in the large canvases produced by Guston. Crowded and intertwined forms on a horizon line (Wharf, 1976), a ladder against the water level (The Ladder, 1978), the painter lying in the bed and smoking with a tray filled with cakes and other edibles, along with paint cans, brushes, boots and a bulb (Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973). Borrowing a phrase from Roth, “In a sense one can find Guston in his American surroundings,” but “this popular imagery of a shallow reality Philip imbued with such a weight of personal sorrow and artistic urgency as to shape in painting a new American landscape of terror.”

One feels that like Franz Kafka, Philip Guston also introduces a universe of unease where nothing happens, nothing is certain and nothing is known, not even the characters (Joseph K, and the land surveyor K from Kafka’s books, or a figure concealed under a white hood in Guston’s painting). The world fabricated by Guston, which seems caricature-like, in its essence is painful, alienated and nihilistic. Exposed to the fate drawn by the Creator; alluded to in his painting, The Line, 1978, with a huge hand emerging from the cloud and inscribing a line. The religious and cultural overtones cannot be neglected in the painter’s background of “growing up in an immigrant Jewish family,” so shoes appearing in his work may relate to the Holocaust, in which only dresses and shoes of the victims survived. Just the fact that majority of these characters, situations and objects, like a steaming teapot (Kettle 1978), a hat (Hat, 1976), or the fire (Flame, 1979) as well as cars, beds, the studio, and the protagonist, are daubed in the modulating shades of reds, suggests Philip Guston’s reminding of death.

Of a painter who died in 1980, but who was heir to a community that suffered the Holocaust, and a history marred by displacement, persecution, inquisition. Thus the unidentifiable person, who could be from our times, but due to a hood – could be from any other era, is daubed in varying intensities and variations of pinks, reds, crimsons, which are colours, but deep down are about the tint underneath our skin. Paul Auster, another Jewish American author, states in his novel Oracle Night, “We excreted autumn and winter colours, but running invisibly through our veins, the very stuff that kept us alive, was the crimson of a mad artist – a red as brilliant as fresh paint.”

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Painting doom and gloom