By Peter Clossick & Corinna Lotz

The Canadian-American-Jewish artist’s development is marked by a feeling of restless change, with the ability to reinvent himself, whilst absorbing a wide range of interests, all with a distinct political edge and sense of vulnerability

“He constantly questioned whether painting could be the legitimate response to human suffering and cruelty” -Musa Guston Mayer

After a three-year delay, after US museums postponed his original retrospective in the United States due to a fear that his work would be misinterpreted, we can finally judge Philip Guston’s contribution to 20th century art for ourselves.The cancellation/delay came at a time of unrest over the police murder of the unarmed black American George Floyd in May 2020.

Many, including Black artists and Guston’s daughter, disagreed. Helping to dispel such fears,Tate Modern’s display includes a visual record of Guston’s collaboration on an anti-racist mural in 1932 for the John Reed Club in Los Angeles. The painting was totally destroyed by the anti-communist Red Squad of the Los Angeles Police department.

Bombardment, 1937.

Here is a Jewish-American artist born in 1913 of Ukrainian parents, who changed his name from Goldstein to Guston to avoid antisemitism, and who was not afraid to take creative risks. The Philip Guston story at Tate Modern which has travelled from the United States, his first major retrospective in twenty years, is inspirational and taught me much about the creative process. Guston was alive to the magic of image making. The Tate’s display, in chronological order, allows his work to shine through without tedious curatorial comparisons.

Gladiator, 1940

Guston’s parents emigrated to the US. Bigotry based on antisemitic stereotypes was rife in 1920s and 1930s America, particularly after the arrival of two million Jewish immigrants seeking refuge from the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. His father committed suicide and his brother tragically died in a car accident. He married the painter and poet, Musa McKim (1908-1992) in 1937 and she painted murals with him. At the urging of Jackson Pollock, whom he had met at the Manual Arts High School, they moved to New York City in 1936. Then, in 1940, he and Musa moved to the artist colony and charming town of Woodstock. It was the perfect place for the family to settle down and raise their daughter Musa, who was born in 1943.

Largely self-taught, Guston moved from political mural painting to figurative allegory, to abstract expressionism, to politically and emotionally inspired figurative imagery. Throughout all these transitions he was always a painter’s painter. He had a strong political sense against injustice and the idea of evil fascinated him. His early Porch 2, relating to the Holocaust, was a transitional work which took months to complete. With The Tormentors I noted he had black-glazed the whole image and then repainted alla prima (wet on wet), using the old adage ‘If in doubt black it out’. The early work going from fresco murals to oil is full of social consciousness, and distinctly more linear than Guston’s later style in which the artist’s hand, the live texture of brushstrokes become prominent. He was living through the advent of twentieth-century modernism at its height in the 1950s, and Guston was a great experimenter, a dyed-in-the-wool painter.

Beggar’s Joy, 1954-55

He abandoned his figurative style in 1947 with The Tormentors, his breakthrough into abstract expressionism, (Guston preferred the appellation New York School) displaying superb painterliness and spontaneity, breaking his previous habits of construction. His thinking was “no matter what or how there would be structure”.

By The Window, 1969

The later works made in the 1970s were monumental in his striving for originality and for which he is best known. Criticisms of his hooded images of the Ku Klux Klan have led to false suggestions that they could encourage white suprematism, which was the antithesis of his objective. Their imagery has breadth with large brushes, physical application and all-across-working. Using ambiguous, open-ended, dream and nightmare images drawn from his subconscious Guston plays his sensitive and political attitudes to life like a movie director.

As his daughter has noted, his cartoon-like hooded figures, along with the constantly recurrent forms in Guston’s paintings, were drawn from a haunted and troubled subconscious. Especially during his extraordinary late period, simplified forms reconfigure the same image – like a meme – over and over again. The simplest everyday objects – a shoe, a tea kettle, a ladder, a wall, a foot, a leg – suddenly appear raw and surreal, drawn into a world that is both imaginary and real.

Art Spiegelman, the brilliant cartoonist of the New Yorker, and Maus wrote of such works:“I stare into Guston’s cyclopean eye and see the history of painting and the history of cartoons staring back at me”.

Guston’s artistic development is marked by a feeling of restless change, with the ability to reinventing himself, whilst absorbing a wide range of interests, all with a distinct political edge and sense of vulnerability. He said, “Probably the only thing one can learn, the only technique to learn, is the capacity to be able to change”, which repeats the Zen phrase, “The only changeless thing is change”.

Guston died at age 66 of a heart attack. Facing his canvases at Tate Modern you feel that you are in the presence of one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. It is an exhibition well worth a visit.

Highlights include a filmed interview with the artist plus the story of “The Struggle Against Terrorism” (1934-35) a monumental, collaboratively-made protest fresco that Guston painted in Mexico together with Reuben Kadish.

Philip Guston (1913-1980) runs at Tate Modern, 5 October 2024 to 25 February 2024

This article was first published on the Real Democracy Movement.