Once, the American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) was a polarizing artist. It’s the stuff of legend: An esteemed second-generation Abstract Expressionist, renowned for exquisitely honed arrangements of fleshy brushstrokes, turns to a brutish figurative art—a nightmarish realm of Klansmen, endless hangovers and hellish rooms lit by bare light bulbs. Critic Peter Schjeldahl recalls that many in the art world saw Guston’s new paintings as “a rank indecency, profanation, a joke in the worst conceivable taste,” a sure reflection of the old Expressionist dogma that narrative content was anathema to real art. Modernist composer Morton Feldman went so far as to take it personally, ending his long-standing friendship with Guston. On the other side, New Yorker critic Harold Rosenberg and fellow painter Willem de Kooning welcomed the painter’s break from abstraction, praising his freedom from orthodoxy.
From the Morgan’s perspective “Works on Paper,” the trajectory of the Guston’s oeuvre flows with continuity. Motifs recur with seeming inevitability. In an untitled charcoal drawing from 1970, for example, two Klansmen, one brandishing a stogy, stare each other down. The Ku Klux Klan first appeared in Guston’s art 40 years earlier in Drawing for Conspirators (1930) (not included at the Morgan), which depicts a Klansman fingering a rope as a group of comrades in the distance huddle beneath two lynchings. A social realist influenced by the Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, Guston portrayed the scene with care.
Arranged chronologically, the show begins with the mid-1940’s, at the end of that first figurative period. In one untitled ink wash piece from 1946, it’s as though we’re witnessing the moment when figuration melts into abstraction, the human form shunted aside for drawing unfettered by representation. By the early ’50s, pictorial space had fully emerged as Guston’s main concern: Scratchy horizontal and vertical lines quiver over the expanse of paper in the hope of locating a “place” for the eye to travel. A Cézanne-esque doubt informs the architectonic Drawing Related to Zone (Drawing No. 19) (1954), and all but succumbs to its own vagaries within the dense agitation of Untitled (1953).
The drawings undergo a shift of emphasis around 1958. Forms solidify with clunky vigor. Air and atmosphere give way to clumps of shape and mass. Head—Double View (Drawing No. 20) (1958) and a duo of pieces from 1961 are wracked with frustration. You feel Guston working toward something just out of reach. The search is slow. Only Dark Form II and Accord II (1963), slurred accumulations of gray, black and red, look rushed. Guston can’t wait to get where his art is leading him.
Impatience led Guston to a stern reevaluation of drawing itself. His late-’60s pieces are, to put it mildly, attenuated. Marks become few; the paper is hardly touched. A vertical mark, no longer than an inch or so, hovers at the top of the page. A stuttering line moves forward with grave insistence. Form (1967) barely comes to fruition; Ground (1967) is a vertical line abutting a horizontal line.
THEN IT COMES, at first with trepidation and then like a flood: Books, shoes, coffee cups and, in Garden Steps Roma (1971), a tree and building make a lumpish claim on our attention. The Klan reappears shuttling through town in a limo. Philip Roth and “Poor Richard”—Guston’s moniker for Richard Nixon—make appearances, as does Guston’s alter ego, a bulbous Cyclopean head with furrowed brow, chunky stubble and bloodshot eyes. A cigarette is usually in the vicinity, as is an increasing air of mortality.
Guston’s drive to make art increased as his health faded. Time weighed heavily, prompted binges of painting and drawing. Disembodied limbs, spider webs, isolated masses of heads, legs, stretcher bars and, in an odd fillip, a bacon-and-egg sandwich struggle to maintain equilibrium within abandoned landscapes. Guston’s line is as staccato and scratchy as the old-time comic strips he loved, Krazy Kat or Mutt and Jeff.
In the elegiac and prophetic Untitled (Hillside) (1980), drawn in the year of Guston’s death, there’s a tombstone inscribed with the initials “P. G.” It’s a melodramatic touch—but notwithstanding this palpable dread, we intuit it as Guston’s avowal of art as, in his own words, “the most intimate affirmation of creative life.” The late drawings never stop moving forward, never stop believing in the redemptive magic of art. They are a terrifying and beautiful denouement.
“Philip Guston: Works on Paper” at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., until Aug. 31. Mario Naves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.