NEW YORK — Last September, they told us to wait. “Philip Guston Now,” the much-anticipated retrospective of the enduringly relevant, darkly brilliant American artist, was pushed back four years while the four museums that assembled it had a sudden collective anxiety attack over how to present Guston’s late-career, widely-known cartoon grotesqueries that pictured hooded Klansmen bumbling dully through everyday American life.
As far as Guston’s camp is concerned, the wait ends now. Last week in New York, Hauser & Wirth, one of an elite group of mega-galleries whose clout and presence rival some museums, opened “Philip Guston 1969-1979,” a show of 18 paintings from the last decade of Guston’s life, which — no coincidence — brackets the very period of which the museums are most leery.
“Philip Guston Now” is less delayed than it was: The postponement was reduced to two years, and the show will open its run in Boston on May 1, at the Museum of Fine Arts. But the gauntlet has been thrown down. “Philip Guston 1969-1979″ is less a preview than an intervention: The show is a joint effort between the gallery, which represents the artist’s estate, and the Guston Foundation, led by Musa Mayer, Guston’s daughter. Last year, Mayer quickly denounced the museums’ postponement; hundreds of artists, curators, and critics backed her up in an open letter in the Brooklyn Rail that now has 2,600 signatories.
The show gets right to the point. In the first of its two big rooms, Klansmen, dumb and feckless, ghastly avatars of durable American racism, are all around in a group of paintings made in 1969: Huddled closely in a convertible in “Riding Around,” smoking cigars and spattered with blood; small-talking in the office in “Open Window II”; and, in one of Guston’s most telling pictures, “The Studio,” in which a Klansman, squat as a fire hydrant with a smoldering cigarette poking out of a slit in his hood, uses an enormous red hand to paint a self-portrait. It’s a high-voltage charge of self-implication, Guston acknowledging his own white privilege decades before the phrase became commonplace; it gives form to passive complicity, the artist himself caught red-handed depicting the rottenness at the core of American life — because he could.
It’s jarring stuff, to be sure. But it’s also core material in the Guston oeuvre. A charter member of the Abstract Expressionists — Guston and Jackson Pollock were high school classmates in Los Angeles — he very publicly defected from the movement in the late 1960s, unable to look away from a country seized in violent paroxysms of social upheaval and racial conflict reaching fever pitch.
Hate was something Guston knew well: His parents had escaped rising antisemitic violence in Ukraine to land in Montreal, where he was born in 1913. When he was a child, his family relocated to Los Angeles, where the Klan were an active presence inflicting violence on Jewish as well as Black Americans. It left a mark. Some of Guston’s earliest works, crisp and menacing, were of the Klan; on the other side of abstraction, reducing them to shiftless oafs was, in a way, his revenge.
Guston made a choice — to risk his comfortable career to live in the real world, rather than dwell in an abstract netherworld of vague emotion. His paintings of this era ally him more with radical aesthetics of ′60s counterculture — roughly visceral, crude and mawkishly morbid, they always call to my mind the underground comics of Robert Crumb — than any art movement cloistered safely inside white walls.
Guston’s coming out was in 1970 at New York’s Marlborough Gallery, where his Klan paintings would have their public debut, thoroughly destabilizing a smug and self-satisfied art world that had sealed itself off from increasingly fraught American reality. (Predictably, critics loathed them.)
Remarkably, the Hauser & Wirth show reunites six of these paintings, including the hauntingly oblique “Blackboard,” 1969, rarely seen in public since, in which three Klansmen are crammed into a dark panel surrounded by fleshy swipes of gray and pink paint. It feels like an exorcism — Guston ridding his body of gestural abstraction, paint thickly applied in rough strokes.
“Blackboard” is among a small handful of paintings in this suite to finally resurface. Several are in major museum collections in the United States and abroad, on frequent display. In 2011, the Museum of Modern Art’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” — the movement’s definitive show, from the institution that defined it — gave Guston the final word, its last gallery dominated by “Edge of Town,” 1969, with its loitering cigar-smoking Klansmen signaling the departure point from willful AbEx naïveté in the very house that it built.
The point is, this work is far from clandestine — it’s Guston’s trademark, the work that defines him as an artist who took a side in a fractious moment when the sanctioned art world stood by. He’s enduringly relevant partly because what, in American culture, is more enduring than racism? And when, yet again, could it be more relevant than now?
That’s where the sensitivities lie. The museums — which, along with the MFA, include the National Gallery of American Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Tate Modern in London — mutually agreed, in a joint statement, to the deferment in order to take the time to ensure that Guston’s “powerful message of social and racial justice” could be “more clearly interpreted.”
I’m not sure what that means, but I do know this: In an era when museums are moving as fast as they can to become the equitable, inclusive institutions they need to be, their progress will still, inevitably, be far too slow for most. The police murder of George Floyd ripped open a decades-old wound that’s festered far more than it’s healed.
In an accelerated time with patience strung thin, to be slow and careful can feel like transgression. We can give credit to the institutions for wanting to get it right. But in a moment that demands courage, the postponement still feels like ducking for cover. I can understand the outrage.
What I worry about, when it comes to Guston, is that this work — which the museums have inadvertently stoked into a long-burning flashpoint, with more than seven months still to go — will be all we can see when “Philip Guston Now” finally arrives. I’m rounding the last corner on this piece, and I’ve barely mentioned the dozen paintings in the second room — Guston’s grand, gruesome last act, a legacy of painterly magnificence bound up in bluntly absurd horror.
The show offsets its heavy lifting here with real discovery and wonder. There are no hoods in this much larger space, though their “generalized inhumanity” a room prior will surely prompt some readings: “On Edge,” 1978, darkly bleak and obscure, with thick paint that recalls Guston’s long-ago turn from abstraction (though the pale pink dish and horizon line moor it in reality); “Ancient Wall,” 1976, a tangle of spindly raw legs bent into a mound of shoes that darkly echo the Holocaust.
There are works here that I, a verifiable Guston acolyte, have never seen: “Back View II,” 1978, a cube of fleshy armor adrift on a churning backdrop of hospital blue; “Painter’s Hand,” 1975, a rheumatic claw, stocky and dull crimson, clinging to a block of what, exactly, I’m not sure.
The overwhelming sense was of mastery: forms and figures viscerally resolved, paint intuitively applied to be materially present and illusorily invisible at the same time — a complete immersion into the artist’s seductively ghastly vision. Will “Philip Guston Now” allow us to see that vision, enveloped as it is in a long-running controversy? I hope so.
PHILIP GUSTON 1969 - 1979
At Hauser & Wirth, 542 West 22nd St., New York. Through Oct. 30. hauserwirth.com, 212-790-3900