Changing Impressions

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Review of ’The Art of Philip Guston‘, Royal Academy, London

Philip Guston (1913-80) was an American painter whose family were poor immigrants from Odessa. Like most kids, he loved comics. His favourite was ’Krazy Kat‘, drawn by George Herriman, a black cartoonist (unusual in those times).

He caused shock and outrage in the art world when he switched from abstract expressionism (the New York School which included Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko) to a crude, figurative style. Other artists refused to talk to him and he was accused of selling out. But this exhibition shows that the change was not so abrupt. Mid 20th century American concerns of war, violence and conspiracy are in evidence here from pre First World War bombing raids and hooded Ku Klux Klan to dark Nixon-era paranoia. The hooded figure motif is used throughout his work and although he was deeply affected by the Scottsboro case, in which black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman, the hood is used to suggest disguise and concealment rather than overt KKK racism. These, mixed with images from Guston‘s own life (the suicide of his father, his brother‘s car accident), create a powerful effect with humorous personal references sharing canvases painted with pessimism, fear and despair.

The exhibition clearly shows his progression through different styles as a painter. As a young man he worked on the government-funded mural projects in New York and also in Morelia, Mexico. He was associated with the abstract expressionists in the 1950s, a movement whose exponents were perhaps responding to postwar freedom of expression after the enforced social realism of the Nazis and Stalinists. He felt he could go no further with abstract expressionism, and one of the fascinating things about the exhibition is that we can see recognisable forms gradually emerging from apparently abstract canvases. The images of the 1960s are sometimes cartoonish with fleshy tones of blood and guts, but they never take on the concerns of slick commercialism, as did the pop-art movement. In the 1970s his images become darker with the more controlled lines of the Nixon series.

After seeing the exhibition, you are left with questions about his political conclusions. Guston does not suggest or offer any way out of the bloodshed and violence, and the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Still, his bravery in exploring his political concerns along with his personal demons is energetic and sometimes emotionally overwhelming.