Visual Arts: Guston's Grand Guignol

After three decades, buyers are catching up with the disturbing figurative paintings of Philip Guston's later years. By Michael Glover
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I AM examining a small pink tree, vigorously - if not crudely - rendered in oils on paper, when an earnest-looking, youngish man with close-cropped hair and a troubled stare appears from behind a screen and pushes a photocopied sheet into my hand. "I think this will demonstrate," he says, "the responsibilities Philip Guston held as a painter, the absolute integrity of his vision..." I read on dutifully.

I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands on me, and sometimes for months together put everything else away from me... Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself up to it and to find his recompense.

Phew.

"Dickens," says Timothy Taylor, the owner of this gallery. I nod. "We don't know exactly where from though. We're looking into that... Guston had it on his studio wall in the last decade of his life..."

Guston certainly needed something to live by in the last decade and a half of his life, the period covered by this exhibition of his late works on paper. The great change happened somewhere in the later 1960s, when the Abstract Expressionism of the New York school with which he'd so long been associated seemed to him to be a spent force, even the kind of lyrical abstraction - or "abstract impressionism" - that he had come to represent.

Abstract art seemed so, well, miserly. He yearned to get back to image- making, to story-telling, to figuration, albeit figuration of a singularly weird kind. He'd grown up with the movies. Hell, he wanted to make movies on canvas...

In 1967 he moved permanently up to Woodstock, 100 miles north of New York City. In a new cinder-block studio attached to his home, he reinvented himself, creating the wild, brutish images, grotesqueries of quasi-cartooning in oils and acrylic on canvas, by which his work is most readily recognised today.

Most of the critics thought he was nuts, and the whole thing pretty repulsive. That didn't stop him. He filled the ashtrays to overflowing, drank like a whale and, equipped with a telephone that only rang out, pursued his vision. He produced an astonishing quantity of work in those late years, much of which remained unsold at his death in 1980. Fortunately, by 1974 he had found a sympathetic New York dealer in David McKee, and it is McKee, who handles the Guston estate, and has chosen the works that appear in this exhibition.

Guston's favourite late images appear again and again in his paintings and drawings - the bendy clocks, the fat books, the riveted triangles, those men with Lima bean heads - but the weirdest must surely be the hooded figures of Ku Klux Klansmen. They are everywhere in this show, singly or in groups. Sometimes they look plainly ridiculous, like ghosts at a kids' party. At other times, as in a 1969 acrylic called Untitled (Hooded Figure), they seem much more sinister. In this painting, the figure has its back to us. Spatters of crimson, vertical on the hood, horizontal on what we see of the rest of the costume, rain down from the skies like blood.

Within a year or two of the painting of this canvas, the real Klan would be undergoing a short-lived revival. What did Guston think he was doing? Was this satire, fun poking or what? And what had this to do with grand statements about a painter's integrity? If this was enjoyment, wasn't it all rather tasteless stuff?

Taylor seems a bit apologetic on Guston's behalf. He offers me a few reasons to pity him: what a hard time Guston had as a child; how, aged seven, he saw his father hang himself; how he and Jackson Pollock were expelled from school with in California for making a mockery of the idea of education...

And anyway, the images of those Klansmen might not be Klansmen at all. Why be so literal-minded? They were just as likely to have been images of Guston himself, hiding himself away at some gallery opening - he detested openings.

Then we go on to pleasanter matters - seven of the ten works in this show have already sold, and it's only just opened. The larger ones went for $65,000 each - and this is by no means an isolated instance. In the last couple of weeks, two little sketches sold in New York for $17,000 a-piece - more than double their estimate. The once-despised Guston is on the up and up.

Someone must be chuckling away behind a hood somewhere. The world must be getting madder and nastier.

Timothy Taylor, 1 Bruton Place, London W1 (0171-409 3344)

Comments