This thwarted little brute of a painting, which hangs in the Harvard Art Museums, is by Philip Guston. It was painted in 1970, the same year that Guston, a former Depression-era muralist who had switched to abstraction and was widely admired for his quivering, cross-hatched canvases, made another switch, exhibiting a series of raucous figurative paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in New York.
This new body of work was, and still is, confounding. The paintings featured clearly recognizable motifs: hooded Ku Klux Klansmen smoking cigars and pointing menacing, phallic fingers. They were often depicted, as in this painting, at the steering wheel of an open-topped car on the edge of a city. There was also a painter’s studio with a bare lightbulb; the piled-up soles of clunky shoes; bricks, clocks, books, nails.
Considered in concert, the paintings presented an enigmatic alphabet of painted signs, all seeming to mediate between the press of real-world events — the turbulent late ’60s! — and the equally charged cacophony of Guston’s childish, flailing, Fellini-esque subconscious. It was painting as a kind of private confusion pressed down on so hard that it squeezed out social pus.
And yet there was also in these paintings a strangely impersonal, persistently abstract emphasis on forms and painted marks. Guston went to Italy soon after the Marlborough show, renewing his infatuation with the simplified, rounded forms of Italian primitives like Giotto, and with the cool imperiousness of Masaccio, Piero Della Francesca, and his favorite Italian modernist, Giorgio de Chirico.
In the works of the 1970s, pinks harmonize with blues and black with reds. Outlines blacken into shadows. Dotted lines suggesting stitching in fabric lengthen to become eye-slits, or else spread out into a grid of windows, or thicken to become chimneys or water tanks. Some forms are rounded and monumental, others rectilinear. Cylinders vie with circles. Flat rectangles turn to wooden planks or boxes.
Everything feels interchangeable, yet legible, and tautly locked in place.
Solipsistic as it can seem, Guston’s post-1969 work has proved as influential as any body of work by any painter of the past half century — including, I would say, Gerhard Richter. It is difficult to think of the new crop of great female figurative artists, for instance — Nicole Eisenman, Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman — without the example, both formal and philosophical, of Philip Guston.
Guston came to Harvard in 1977 and told an audience: “To know and yet how not to know is the greatest puzzle of all. We are primitives in spite of our knowing. So much preparation for a few moments of innocence — of desperate play. To learn how to unlearn.”
Painters’ statements can be archly enigmatic, and paradoxical to the point of stupidity. That one is worth savoring.
By Philip Guston. At Harvard Art Museums. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.