1969 – 1979
Following last September’s contentious postponement of “Philip Guston Now,” a retrospective of the artist’s work that will eventually tour four museums, Hauser & Wirth’s current exhibition arrives as a welcome surprise. The comprehensive survey was delayed, in part, because of Guston’s repeated motif of wonky, wide-eyed characters who resemble the Ku Klux Klan. They appear in his late paintings, when figuration surprisingly reentered into his work. Six of these bewildering canvases open the gallery’s “Philip Guston, 1969–1979,” a tidy yet generous presentation of paintings from a restless artist’s last decade of life.
The organizers of “Philip Guston Now” determined that more work was needed to contextualize Guston’s hooded figures (which were also depicted in a more realistic style earlier in his career, influenced by seeing Klan members populate Southern California in his adolescence). Meanwhile, Hauser & Wirth boldly situates them in the first room of the gallery, where the ghostlike cartoons’ vacuous eyes greet the gallery’s patrons.
Less sinister than demanding, Guston’s canvases summon a visitor’s gaze inward, toward a composition that pulses and grows with strange vitality. Blackboard (1969) has such an effect. Three translucent hoods mill about on the titular blackboard in the center of the composition, which is otherwise saturated by layers of red, white, and black oil paint applied by the artist’s dense brushstrokes—reminiscent of his previous work as part of the New York School. Guston’s characteristic palette and style often result in canvases consumed by luscious shades of pink, imbuing in them the quality of a soft, blushing cheek.
Like blushing, Guston’s late paintings can seem either shy or shameful in their frank vulnerability. In the next gallery, a dozen paintings of more varied subjects show large eyes welling with tears, an assortment of limbs, mounds of magnets, and a figure struggling to sleep—all populating backgrounds with the same “harrowing capaciousness,” as Robert Storr described Guston’s abstractions. It’s these voids, hidden beneath the controversial surface, that will leave a viewer looking. —Kaitlyn A. Kramer
Philip Guston, Pittore, 1973. Oil on canvas, 72 3/4 x 80 1/2 inches. Private Collection. Photo: Genevieve Hanson © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth