Philip Guston Now
Philip Guston, “Legend,” 1977; oil on canvas; overall: 175.26 × 199.39 cm (69 × 78 1/2 in.) The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Museum purchase funded by the Alice Pratt Brown, Museum Fund, 88.35 © The Estate of Philip Guston

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Philip Guston Now, the long-awaited retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, opens with a young Philip Guston. Cast in a blue-gray light, the artist, in his self-portrait from 1944, meets the viewer’s gaze, tentatively. A disembodied hand rests on Guston’s face; his clothes, a mere suggestion of forms. Rimmed in deep shadows, his eyes provoke. Nothing, they seem to warn, is as it appears to be. 

The show, which opened last spring at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, was delayed by two years until Guston’s work—precisely his hooded Ku Klux Klan-like figures—could be “more clearly interpreted,” according to a joint statement from the museum directors originally intending to exhibit Now—the NGA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; London’s Tate Modern; and MFA Boston. 

The decision to delay the exhibition, announced in September 2020, followed the murder of George Floyd and a summer of national protests for racial justice. It also sparked debate across the art world: Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter, wrote in the New York Times that her father’s work “dared to hold up a mirror to white America” and was more relevant than ever. Darby English, an art history professor at the University of Chicago, said the delay was both “cowardly” and “an insult to art and the public alike.” Others, such as arts journalist Lee Rosenbaum called the decision “regrettable-but-necessary.” For Guston, it’s never been about race. It’s about dredging up what’s hidden—what’s rotting at the core—and bringing it to the surface in work that dazzles. To delay an exhibition like this, it is clear now, is to miss Guston’s primary impulse: It is better to see reality, however harrowing, than conceal it.

At the National Gallery of Art, where Guston’s candy-colored paintings are now boldly arrayed, the artist’s colossal oeuvre, traversing five decades and manifold styles, seems greater still. Here is a show to study, slowly, not least because the elusive Guston is at its blistering center.

Born in Montreal in 1913 to Jewish parents fleeing Ukraine, Guston lived a fractured life. When he was 9, his family moved to Los Angeles. A year later, his father hanged himself. Guston found the body. Nine years after that, his brother Nat died of gangrene, shortly after his legs were amputated following a car accident that crushed his legs. (The depiction of legs in Guston’s work is not uncommon.)

Drawing by the light of a dangling bulb—one that would appear, tauntingly, in his later work—a young Guston took up drawing, as if the ruptures from his past could be sealed, for a moment, within the bounds of the picture plane. Rather than deterring him, shock spurred on his work: He wanted to see the maddening world in his art, to turn on the light in the attic. 

Philip Guston, “Bombardment,” 1937, oil on panel; diameter: 106.68 cm (42 in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Musa and Tom Mayer, 2011© The Estate of Philip Guston; photo The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Glued on his fireplace was a black-and-white postcard of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. At times, Guston told the New York Studio School, in 1974, he’d look over the work and wonder what depths it contained: “I guess I’m that romantic that I start imagining what would happen if you somehow made a little cut, a little trapdoor, on his head, and you peeled it off. I would be so dense in there! It would be teeming with millions of thoughts. It’s not bone. It’s not flesh. It’d just be a teeming thing, like looking into a dream of some kind.” 

Guston was often carried away; novelist and critic Ross Feld, a close friend of Guston’s—the artist loved to surround himself with writers—describes Guston as a kite he’d have to tug back to earth. At their first face-to-face meeting at the McKee Gallery, in New York, in 1976, Guston opened with the story of a Paul Cézanne lecturer he’d met years earlier who had crumbs from a Love Nest candy bar stuck in his mustache. 

“Guston was introducing me to his own Love Nest,” Feld writes in his tribute to the artist, Guston In Time, “the one he lived in and painted with—where impiety, impurity, and the plainly embarrassing were raised up high and celebrated, not swept away or covered up.” For Guston, the peculiar, such as the remains of a candy bar on a man’s lip, is where his mind takes flight: on the periphery, out of bounds. The odd and the clumsy punctuate Guston’s work, emerging in his pictures unsparingly.  

In “Bombardment” (1937), displayed on its own wall in one of the gallery’s opening rooms, the world is ablaze. Guston painted the feverish canvas following the Nazi and Italian bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. But unlike Pablo Picasso’s magnum opus, Guston’s tondo is all consuming—bodies thrown every which way, liquified. Rows of razor-sharp planes swarm overhead. The chill is deafening: No one and nothing can escape. 

Across the way hangs “Drawing for Conspirators” (1930), which Guston sketched in support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1931. All but one were sentenced to death. In the drawing, a group of Klansmen gather: “One figure stands alone in the foreground, seeming defeated,” Trenton Doyle Hancock, a Black American artist who grew up in Paris, Texas, in the late 1970s, writes of the piece in the exhibition catalog, which features a handful of artists reflecting on Guston’s work. “His eyes evoke the limited consciousness of a catfish as he peers downward at broken shards, reflections of his own busted humanity.” 

Hancock, whose cartoon-inflected art gestures to Guston’s influence, shows that the Klan still exists, gathering “in plain sight.” In one of Hancock’s energetic works, reproduced in the catalog, a figure in football gear steals a ball from a Klan-like figure, one not unlike Guston’s, whose robe only barely conceals white goblins burrowing underneath. Glenn Ligon, another Black artist featured in the catalog, echoes Hancock, lauding Guston’s “dive into the muck and mire” of life. Rather than hiding under a Klan hood, Ligon asserts, Guston was exposing human ills, including white supremacy, “reckoning with a particularly turbulent moment in the nation’s history.”

The result is work that stings—like salt in a wound. Guston was interested, curator Harry Cooper remarks, “not just in understanding but inhabiting evil,” as if from the inside. 

Guston was taken by the writer Isaac Babel, born to Jewish parents in Odesa, Russia. Babel’s story collection Red Cavalry, based on his travels during the Russo-Polish War in 1920, was a favorite of Guston’s. “The idea of evil fascinated me,” Guston said at an artists’ conference in 1978. “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot.” And the evil in Guston’s paintings, the hooded figures, the bombardments, the self-loathing, cannot be contained: as soon as you try to grasp it, it’s gone. 

Donning a pin-striped shirt and gray sweater, the artist, in the 1982 documentary Philip Guston: A Life Lived, seems unassuming, even blasé. At one point, he approaches a canvas, then takes a step back, cautiously, as if in a silent dance. But, all the while, his eyes dart across the canvas, panther-like, awaiting its response. 

Guston was never interested in a simple reading of art. His work is consumed by something more cutting: the hidden, the haunted. And we are all implicated. 

In 1945, the final year of World War II, Guston painted “If This Be Not I.” The absorbing canvas depicts a group of children, poised in a litter of columns, rods, and slabs of wood. Set against a row of soulless buildings and a murky blue sky, the figures appear lost, awaiting direction. The children are in costume, a few masked, but none are playing. Nothing here is as it should be. One child, in the foreground, appears asleep. Or is he dead? With Guston, we never know. 

The artist’s foray into abstraction, on view in the next room, is a momentary reprieve. “It’s a sort of relief,” Mayer, Guston’s daughter, said at the show’s opening on March 2. (Guston died in 1980.) “He is keeping the world out, for a while.” 

Reflecting on these abstract canvases, today arranged elegantly in the National Gallery of Art, composer John Cage told Guston, in the ’50s, “It’s such a beautiful land you created, so how can you leave it?” 

But leave it he did. Guston’s return to figuration came slowly, then with a bang. In 1970, the Marlborough Gallery in New York City staged a show of his new work. In it, the hooded figures of his early career had returned. These canvases, grand in scale and bathed in Guston’s salmon-pink palette, show Klansmen driving, smoking, and painting. 

“He does not depict them as other,” Mayer explains. “It’s about complacency. It’s never that simple with my father.” 

In “Courtroom” (1970), a gargantuan hand is pointed at a Klansman smoking nonchalantly. Behind him are the legs of a man thrown, headfirst, into a garbage can. The effect is unnerving. Who is the accused? And who is the accuser? “The act of painting is like a trial in which all the roles are played by the same person,” Guston told the poet Bill Berkson in 1964. Here, even the blissfully unaware are suspect. 

Philip Guston, “Blackboard,” 1969, oil on canvas; overall: 201.93 x 284.48 cm (79 1/2 x 112 in.) Private Collection. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Collection Services © The Estate of Philip Guston; Digital Image (C) The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

In the next room, the hooded figures are replaced by a massive cyclops that’s no less unsettling. “The cyclops’s head is a kind of mask, a token of a face,” Cooper observes. “There is a sense that the body is not a given. It is almost a struggle to put it all together.” 

In “Painting, Eating, Smoking” (1972), a work suffused with fleshy pinks and blood reds, a cyclopean figure lies in bed, puffing a cigarette, a plate of fries atop him. In a room strewn with shoes, he seems weighed down, buried under the impossibility of his inner world. Forms coagulate all about him. Like Guston, who painted and read into the late hours of the night, the cyclops is wide awake. In his public remarks, Guston was often circuitous, detouring into the technical, the inane, and arriving, in the end, at the profound. 

“Rather than trying for some quick transcendence or magic bullet that will get you to higher meaning,” Cooper says of Guston’s ethos, “you have to work through the mess of sensation and life.” 

In Philip Guston Now, the artist appears at his most cerebral, even daring. “With Guston, then, art must have its fall. Like an ancient Talmudist, he endeavors to find out within his conscience the why of its perpetual undoing,” composer Morton Feldman wrote in his 1963 essay “Vertical Thoughts.” 

What undid Guston was the unseen. Asked, in 1968, what the purpose of art is, he responded, simply, “to bear witness.” And Guston’s works of candy-colored detritus, of masked figures fumbling their way through the world, bear witness to a violence brewing. His art captures all that is not discussed in polite company and all that keeps us up at night. You can delay Guston, but he’ll be back, and, crucially, worth the wait.   

“Do you think of yourself as kind of pessimistic?” an interviewer once asked Guston of his art. “I don’t think it’s pessimistic. I think it’s doomed!” Guston replied, laughing. For all his ruminations, Guston had a kind of charm about him, a wistfulness. 

Returning to his self-portrait in one of the opening rooms, Guston’s lips are slightly parted, as if he is about to speak, or, more likely, laugh. 

Philip Guston Now runs through August 27 at the National Gallery’s East Building. Free.