Controversy or crisis?
“‘The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in L.A,’ Philip Guston (1977),” wall inscription above the Guston painting, “City Limits,” on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, part of a Guston retrospective that will move to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Tate Gallery, London.
I recently caught up with my friend who shared with me the following story and comments about Philip Guston.
“The Guston Show (referring to the current Guston retrospective, “Philip Guston Now”) is not “the show.”
No, the real show was in 1970 at Knoedler’s up on 70th Street. Very hoity-toity. Guston invited a group of us from the Studio School (1) to come to his opening. Kinda’ like he wanted us to witness the event. Or provide a scrum. Or both. Guston was like that: questioning, enigmatic, decisive. He came across like a chain-smoking teddy bear. Some said he reminded them of William Bendix. But when Guston opened his mouth during our ‘seminar’ at the Studio School — he would walk through the painting studios and critique our work in our presence (did you do this?) — he was not shy. He approached each canvas with a laser focus. Expression was his business. Authenticity was his deal.
So what happened at Knoedler’s?
Well, I am in the gallery with my friends from the Studio School . I wander off and I am standing in front of this painting, I dunno’ …looked like a ‘landscape’ to me. It’s of a car with two guys driving across what looks like a desert… there are cacti…there are billboards and cigars and guns… I am mesmerized by the painting. It carries me away to another place. I feel solitary but not alone.
Well, outa’ the blue, this sixtyish’ guy comes up to me and asks me,
“What do you think of it?”
“I think it is a great painting, an epic painting.”
“You do? (Pause) It’s a piece of shit. You know, I feel sorry for you, I really do. To be taken in by all this… (he gestures with his hands)…shit. If you think that’s a great painting, you need to have your head examined. What’s wrong with you? What the hell does he (Guston) think he’s doing? It’s General Motors, the annual model change. The new Gustons? These are the new models, we are supposed to buy? It’s all bull shit.”
And the guy walks away, just like that. Then a friend rushes up to me and says, do you know who you were talking to? That was RM.
I relayed the encounter to Guston the following day. He was still in town. Guston didn’t flinch. I remember him saying something like, ‘you can’t call me your aunt, if I am your uncle.’ He was referring to calling his work names instead of examining the work for what it reminds you of, what it makes you feel. If it makes you feel pissed off, that’s okay. Live with it. Just hands off the painting. It’s you, not the painting that’s completing the feeling.
What are you goin’ to do? he would say.
One day, he said, I am just an old man alone with my pots (of paint). We tried to comfort him. I remember he coughed a lot. He smoked Camels. His fingers were orange with nicotine. But the amazing thing was he held the cigarette exactly like the figure in the painting… no… exactly like holding it must have felt. The paintings were all self-portraits and yet they were not. The paintings explode the categories of self and portraiture.
This was not art history, this is our history.
His paintings, he would like to say, had to feel right, like what made him feel so that he wanted to paint. That’s it. No deal, if it didn’t feel right.
What about the hooded figures? Were they controversial?
No, not then. No, it wasn’t about what you were looking at, what you thought the figures represented. It was about Guston not playing the game. Not acting the good boy, the nice boy. The puffery that comes watching others trying to assess your legacy. Trying to bury you before you’re gone for good.
Referring to the postponement and rescheduling of the long overdue major retrospective, I said, I don’t get it, why the delay, what’s the deal? This retrospective was originally planned for 2020, then 2024 and now, here we are in 2022.
My friend answered, Oh, it’s another art world ploy to prep a sell of Guston’s work at premium value. I know I sound cynical but there are alot of collectors holding Gustons right now thinking holy shit I have a painting that could be confused with Charlottesville. So they try to delay the public exposure clock to protect their collection value. What’s funny in a way is that these guys are the thugs in Guston’s paintings, the wannabes hiding under the hoods. If you read ‘Klu Klux Klan,’ into these figures, maybe you’re acting just like them. Thinking just like them. Reflecting their white male anxiety.
There is tension in Guston’s work, and I don’t mean ‘in your face picture plane’ stuff. I mean the tension of internalizing the world as it appears: cigarette butts, light bulbs, clubs, big tires, big heads. Is this what makes his paintings controversial?
Well, I am going out on a limb here. If we look past his paintings what do we see? Billboard, exceptional America gone to shit. A heartless heartland where everybody is a tourist and therefore suspect. Where do we think we are going? And what makes us so damn sure we’ve gotten somewhere when we get there? That’s controversial — the idea that we are on our way to a terminus.
So the delay, some thought, ‘cancel culture’. Excuse the polemic: the art world smells this controversy and creates a crisis.(2) Turns what is controversial into chaos. Sort of like leaking on yourself to gain advantage. Whatever it takes to get ahead. You see, the players have to think they are gonna’ win.
They have their hoods on.
1- New York Studio School of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture, 8 West 8th Street, nyss.org. Guston led a weekly seminar there for several years around 1969–1973.
2-*For a well-researched article on the Guston kerfuffel and its “crisis overtones,” see