It’s a mirror we badly need, if only to put to rest the old lie “This is not who we are.”
“Philip Guston Now,” a traveling exhibition that was supposed to have opened at the National Gallery in 2020, was postponed indefinitely as a precautionary response to the nationwide racial reckoning triggered by the killing of George Floyd. The show was soon rescheduled, and will now open in May 2022 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. It won’t make it to Washington until February 2023.
Too bad. And frankly, too late.
When it does come, the show will include the paintings that Guston, who died in 1980, made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Risking his well-established reputation as an abstract painter, Guston — who was Jewish, anti-Nixon and avowedly antiracist — took to painting small-time thugs wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods, running around town in small gangs, looking menacing and idiotic.
When Robert Frost wrote, “America is hard to see,” he was having a dig at Christopher Columbus but alluding, too, I think, to the sheer scope of the nation, the diversity of its people and landscape, the dizzying variety of its culture. All of that still holds. America is vast. You can’t focus on any one part without suspecting there is something in your peripheral vision that is probably more important.
But there is another way to understand Frost’s “America is hard to see,” one that emerges with more clarity in the context of American art during Guston’s lifetime.
It has always seemed strange that, in the wake of World War II, which saw human infamy acted out on an unimagined scale, the most celebrated art coming out of America was abstract. Pictures of nothing. I understand it made sense at the time. The turn from figurative art expressed, in part, a conviction that what had happened could not, both in reality and as a matter of conscience, be represented in art (“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote Theodor Adorno). For this — and no shortage of other reasons — abstraction was powerfully endorsed by critics and curators and soon enough by collectors, who enjoyed its decorative qualities. It quickly became the post-war global avant-garde’s house style.
Guston was one of the preeminent figures in this new world-conquering movement. Others were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Clyfford Still, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Joan Mitchell. All painters I love. And I have no quarrel with abstraction. But to understand why it spread so rapidly around the world, you have to read the criticism of the time. What becomes quickly apparent is that abstraction was transformed into an ideology, a cult and, in many ways, a retreat from reality.
Think about it: An unprecedented amount of chaos, carnage and psychic gunk had just spilled out into the world, and the message these artists were sending was, effectively, “Nothing to see here.”
By the late ’60s, something about this didn’t seem right anymore to Guston. He was painting and selling his delicate “abstract impressionist” paintings while watching coverage of the quagmire in Vietnam. He was processing the violent assassinations of civil rights and political leaders, and watching a president lie, commit crimes and appeal hypocritically to “law and order.”
His skin crawled. He couldn’t stand it. He was ambitious, but he couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to receive acclaim for producing paintings of nothing.
“I was feeling split, schizophrenic,” he said. “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”
So he started painting America as he saw it. In all its brute ugliness.
Today, Guston’s reputation as one of the most influential painters of the past half-century is built on these raw, clunky figurative paintings — not on the earlier “pictures of nothing.” He is so highly regarded that he has been the subject of multiple retrospectives, including the one organized by the National Gallery and three other major museums.
If Guston had kept to painting abstractions, the National Gallery might not have thought he warranted such a show. But ironically, neither would it have decided at the last minute to pull it. There were other considerations, and I don’t want to underplay the logistical challenges posed by the pandemic. But it was Guston’s decision to paint reality as he saw it that ultimately proved too much. The museums didn’t think the public could be trusted to see it.
Which leads me to the following conclusion: America is hard to see because Americans don’t want to see it. They don’t want to show human brutishness and degradation in their museums. They don’t want to put a face on it. Instead, in art, they prefer to hide behind the hygienic idea of abstraction, or take refuge in the naive notion that art should always be morally improving.
Among American avant-garde painters, Guston was the most scrupulous about questioning the premises of abstraction. He knew it had become a bubble. He ended up bursting it. His subsequent, figurative art let the world back in. But he was hardly a documentarian. Rather, he was painting his own inner life, creating a lexicon of imagery that made visible the things of which he knew he — and America — were capable.
If culture is the best measure of who we are, it follows that art — if it wants to be credible — must be willing to register and reveal the worst. Museums must also be willing to display that art. You don’t have to be a paid-up Freudian to grasp that if you try to suppress the worst, in a vainglorious attempt to engineer newer, better, and more virtuous versions of ourselves, what you repress will come back around.