Guston, Vindicated Underdog, A Man Who Changed His Mind

The retrospective of paintings and drawings by the American artist Philip Guston (1913-1980), currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, must be a publicist’s dream. Will there be a single unfavorable review? I doubt it. Guston is a rarity in the fractious world of contemporary art, a touchstone for people who have-aesthetically speaking-little else in common. The lion isn’t lying down with the lamb necessarily, but as an art-scene equivalent, it’s not far off. Painters, neo-Dadaists, the conceptually inclined and the Pop-afflicted-all of them can get with Guston.

This remarkable consensus will be reflected in the press. As of this writing, only a handful of reviews have been published, including Peter Schjeldahl’s thoughtful, honest and admiring essay in The New Yorker and Daniel Kunitz’s cautious, ultimately respectful assessment in The New York Sun . The chief art critic of The New York Times , Michael Kimmelman, has also waxed enthusiastic, and I’m not about to resist the trend: Guston’s oeuvre is among the most important in late 20th-century art.

Of course, no artist ever receives a universal thumbs-up. In this case, there’s some dissent, even among painters-mostly qualms about the late work (the mordant ruminations on solitude, guilt and dependence featuring a recurring cast of cyclopean heads, cigar-smoking members of the K.K.K., galumphing shoes and hairy, disembodied legs). Still, Guston’s “hot” reputation is worth pondering: What is it about this particular artist that excites widespread passion? It’s not simply that the work is good; if that were the case, we’d all be queuing up for a retrospective of Arnold Friedman, say.

Guston’s art answers a need. The tale of how a painter renowned for lush and genteel abstractions transformed himself into a figurative artist of crude, caustic power has achieved mythic proportions. Guston’s 1970 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery-which introduced the public to his late work-is, for a lot of people, a turning point in art history. By pursuing such a thunderously outrageous brand of figurative art, Guston proved that there was life after Abstract Expressionism, that intractable monolith of American art. He established himself as a paragon of integrity by following the dictates of his own peculiar vision and bucking the status quo. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when the underdog is vindicated by history. (It’s true, however, that not every underdog rebel-with-a-cause has the luxury of blue-chip representation.)

Shocking though Guston’s figurative shift may have been, the turnabouts in the work, as seen at the Met, come across as logical and necessary. (Retrospectives are all about 20/20 hindsight.) Passing through the maze of the exhibition’s small, boxy galleries, one tracks the continuities in Guston’s art, from the initial Surrealist-infused Social Realism to the quavering, fleshy abstractions to-finally-the lumpish imagery that Guston would pursue until his death. The pacing and placement of the work is careful: However much Porch No. 2 (1947) clings to the early realist work, it’s closer, in painterly emphasis, to the AbEx pictures with which it is rightfully included.

Precision is the rule; the viewer doesn’t miss a beat. One wonders, however, if the Met’s sober, scholarly approach doesn’t, in the long run, work against Guston’s art. The exhibition is nothing if not polite, and though Guston resists prettification, the museum’s pedantry does damp down his messy vitality. It’s as if the Met were worried about people believing that these pink and ugly pictures are, in fact, art.

The museum’s anxieties would explain the placement of Pantheon (1973), which serves as a prologue to the exhibition. A hasty nothing of a painting, it contains the names of painters that Guston considered heroes: Masaccio, Giotto, de Chirico, Tiepolo and Piero. Wow! This guy really knew his stuff , is what we’re supposed to think. See, I told you so , is the museum’s smug reply. It’s an exercise in curatorial hand-holding.

As a Guston enthusiast, I was impressed with the thoroughness of the retrospective, yet I left the museum feeling strangely dispassionate. Maybe I’m too familiar with the work. Or maybe I was numb from overhearing a Met curator recite to a television reporter the names of “important artists” that Guston influenced: Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg, David Salle, Carroll Dunham … the list grew more depressing with each new addition.

Guston’s achievement is monumental; his influence-at once strong and regrettable-is less than that. Guston’s art may turn out to be a grandiloquent dead end. That’s why his followers invariably disappoint: They’ve been left with no place to go. Sad to think that Guston is a hero because he gave people the go-ahead to paint cartoons.

Perhaps the Met is right; perhaps we do need our hand held in order to understand Guston’s art-and, in particular, his profound bond with tradition. Michael Auping, the curator of the exhibition, inadvertently proves the point. In a revealing reminiscence, he writes about meeting Guston and introducing himself as a “contemporary” curator of “mostly the newest things.” To which Guston replied: “So they don’t really let you learn that much.”

Mr. Auping brushes off Guston’s comment. He should have paid closer attention. The artist’s wry crack was prophetic: Take one look at our art scene, trivialized by its obsession with the eternal now, and you’ll realize that people don’t really learn that much. The melancholy I experienced when I left the Met had less to do with Guston than with the realization that the values he held dear are nearly everywhere ignored.

Philip Guston is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 4.