My artistic lineage
I am in the artistic lineage of this man—Philip Guston. I must say, “I own it.” He was my “teacher’s teacher.” Philip was a Jew. My teacher, Stephen Greene was a Jew. Phillip was born in 1913 in Quebec, before the first Great War. His parents immigrated from Odessa, Russia. Stephen was born in New York City, in 1917. He was a New York Jew. I don’t know a thing about his parents.
Both men were in the prime of their youth when Hitler was gassing 6,000,000 Jews in Auschwitz and Treblinka. They bore the brunt of such horrendous inhumanity to man. I can hardly imagine how they even had the wherewithal to pick up a paint brush and mix some colors on a palette, and come to the end of their day with something uplifting to show for it. The Great Depression and two World Wars undoubtedly affected their outlook on life and their subject matter.
Guston, the child of Jewish parents who escaped persecution by immigrating to Canada from Odessa, was born in Montreal in 1913, and moved to Los Angeles in 1919. The family was aware of the regular Ku Klux Klan activities against Jews and Blacks, and which took place across California. In 1923, possibly owing to persecution or the difficulty in securing income, Philip’s father hanged himself in the shed, and the young boy found the body. (Wikipedia)
Stephen Greene was a bona fide Easterner. But during the Second World War years, he went to Iowa City to study painting with Philip Guston who was teaching there at the University of Iowa from 1941-45. The two men, born only 4 years apart, hit it off. They developed a life-long friendship that lasted until Philip’s death in 1980. That was the year I met Stephen Greene at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. He was my teacher of painting.
Out of the bowels of social realism
Both men started their painting careers from the bowels of social realism. Guston was involved in the WPA mural projects that came about in the 1930s. He took up the brush to make a difference. Expressing the plight, but also the nobility of the common man, his works lended a monumentality to the figure. He painted his people to be almost gargantuan subjects of surrealist necessity, to be the proletariats of a version of American socialism in which the worker succeeded to lift himself into prominence, even within the capitalist backdrop that supported him, and perhaps exploited him simultaneously.
Tightly contained within an architectural container, these figures sit structurally melded with the geometry of the picture—at the pulpit of an era preaching the ascendency of man, amidst the vagaries of a rapidly changing society run amuck by depression and two world wars. Guston’s imagery was bound to turn dark.
Having seen the overbearing prejudices toward Jews and Blacks in Los Angeles during his formative years, and witnessing his fathers suicide by hanging, a young Philip Guston wanted to make a statement visually to expose it all—man’s inhumanity to man. The drawing above of Ku Klux Klan figures in their white hoods, doing the work of hanging and crucifying, was sketched for a painting that was lost, whose importance did not materialize until much later. This is from the year 1930. Guston was only 17 when he drew this masterpiece.
The painting below, showing Guston’s rare moment of tenderness after the birth of his daughter in 1944, when he was teaching in Iowa during the War years, gives us pause. His wife Musa stares into the depths of us. New life reaches out in the innocence of Musa Jane, their daughter, against the backdrop of cloudy skies, a kind of ominous winter overtone that poses a melancholia in an otherwise joyful moment.
A break into abstraction
Guston worked figuratively in the 1940s during his teaching stints in Iowa and St. Louis, in the middle of the great Midwest. But soon the brutality of the War and the Nazi genocide came to light. After seeing early pictures of Nazi death-camps, Guston was a changed man. Shocking images of stacked bodies shook him to the core, and he eventually moved to New York and gave up painting people altogether. He befriended the early abstractionists and became one of the foremost Abstract Expressionists of the New York School in the early 1950s.
What would possess the painters of this period to renounce “depiction” altogether? To the untrained eye, and amateur hand that has never constructed a picture, this new movement into pictures in paint, purely metaphorical strokes of color, shape and line, racks to the core the need to “identify something.” The usual keys of representation are absent. We are faced with the action of painting itself. And, we are asked for that to be enough to ponder.
The horrors of the War too great to fathom, the artists wanted a respite into the lyricism of pure form. That was all they could handle in the whirlwind of the global tragedy of Post WWII in their reboot of the creative act. They did not want to give meaning to the meaningless, and in the wake of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, there was a lot to perceive as meaningless. Painting became an existential act of standing alone. And in the gestures of painting itself, the action of painting alone became the subject. Creating, not destroying, was paramountly clear. The fact someone still had the urge to create after such a global urge to destroy was a stripped down urge. Artists could only focus on the medium and the action. The medium was the message, as everything else became superfluous.
Sanguine Red, Electric Sea-Foam Green, and Dirty Pink
So much blood had been spilled; the guts of violence spewed over the surface of a field; the hope of just a swatch of blue sky, with a plant-like green still growing in the corner of an otherwise scattered hope. The War had its irrevocable impact on the young men who lived through it. To paint pictures in the 1950s in the wake of it must have weighed heavy on Guston’s psyche in the middle of his prime. Then came the tumultuous 1960s. Something had to give. The palette was established, but what about those early years of social realism and wanting to make a difference in the overall tragedies of the day? The civil rights movement was in its peak. Great leaders trying to enact change in society were successively assassinated. Guston was shaken to the core again in observing the madness.
“I want to paint like the first man.”
I am not presenting this image for the shock value alone that indicates the inhumanity of man for his fellow man, and the cruelty that would allow these results to happen in our so-called “civilized” world. But from these two images seen together you can understand where Guston’s imagery, call them nightmares of sorts, came from. Philip Guston was a Jew, and he felt compelled to tell the Jewish story. And perhaps in a way that had never been done before, scrawled with a kind of primitive verve on the modern cave wall—the painter’s canvas. It was a window into the fears and associations of modern day cave men who had not really evolved too far from their Neanderthal roots. Their fears and superstitions were still intact. Albeit, they were just more efficient in battling and eliminating the “tribe next door” for rights to the greater industrial hunting ground. Somehow in painting his version of it, he was coming to grips with its inherent horrors, and healing in himself as much as he possible could the primordial grief of the human condition.
Philip once said, “I want to paint like the first man.” That is quite a statement. There is something in it that belies the fact we should have evolved since then into a higher love. We should have transcended the need for human carnage inflicted on our own human race by our own hand. Guston painted the “nightmare” because we are in one. And he wanted to make sure his audience was aware of it.
The comic book nature of his imagery is very serious. The Ku Klux Klan figures come back into his work. This was painted in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement. The Klan was still, and perhaps even to this day, a strong current in the American ideological stream. Though the Pointed Hood of the Klansman was lampooned in the overall cartoon composition, the gutsy and direct painting style puts him in our face, and I would say, indelibly etches him into our art-oriented memory bank. Once you see a Guston of this nature, you will never forget it—just like you would not forget a Michelangelo or a John Singer Sargent.
Stacks of shoes. Stacks of arms and legs. Men with hoods. Smoking heads. Cans of brushes. Plate of small cakes. There are images that are indelibly painted into Philip Guston’s nomenclature of later works. He lived to be 66 only, dying of a heart attack at his home in Woodstock, New York in 1980. That was the year I travelled to Philadelphia to study with his protege, Stephen Greene at Tyler School of Art.
What is to be gleaned in looking at Guston’s legacy?
We are facing off and confronting our self-destructive tendencies in the work of Philip Guston. The optimism of the Social Realism era of the 1930s, where the worker and industry would prevail in making a more just and righteous future for humanity, was dashed into the Post WWII pessimism that the nature of man could be very, very evil. Industry was not going to save us. This would require a revolution of the very psyche that accepted the evil into itself in the first place.
We could extend the shield to keep away the uncomfortable facts of carnage, but at the end of the day drink ourselves to death, with liquor bottles filing the garbage cans of our dashed hopes and dreams. It’s not a pretty picture, but unfortunately it has been a thread of the picture we have all inherited in the wake of the 20th century and the first quarter of this new millennium. Guston helps us to WAKE UP to the question, “Just what are we doing to ourselves?” His work is a WAKE UP CALL to the utmost degree.
We are wounded creatures, all of us. A band-aid here, a bristle of five-o’clock shadow there, and an overall malaise about living and dying. Though Guston may depress us in putting our face in the lowest sinking of the human soul, he uplifts us in our “wanting to do better than this”—”this” being just how low we have sunken in our isolated contrivances of victimhood and tolerance of the inhuman nightmares we live out and die in.
But Guston gives us hope as well. There is a line in the sand, and direction we can scrawl no matter how bad it may look. There is a “Hand of God” at our disposal. There is a brighter cloud out of which the immortality of the Cosmos can open up to our Divine bequest and usage. We can move on and draw this line of future direction. There is a cleansing rain following us that we can create, not destroy the one last Ray of future Hope that we will prevail, and the human race will arrive at the creative juncture of its own forgiving reconciliation with itself.