I got an advance look last week at “Philip Guston: Works on Paper”, which opened Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. There are over 100 drawings in the show, which originated in Germany and was organized in New York by Isabelle Dervaux, the Morgan’s curator of modern drawings, Quite a few of the drawings were in the big Guston retrospective that toured five years ago, but in that show they were overshadowed somewhat by the heroic canvases. At the Morgan you can see them more clearly for what they are, the great anguished laboratory of Guston’s art and the intellectual forecourt to his paintings, the place where ideas entered first.
My favorite moment of the show comes about midway, in the series of untitled drawings that represent Guston almost literally wiping the slate clean. He made them in 1967, a famous period of crisis for him. One year earlier, he had stopped painting. He no longer knew what he wanted to paint. But he continued to draw as the way to find out.
Guston had begun his career as a figurative painter in the 1930s, but by the mid-50s had arrived at the abstract fields that first made his name. Those paintings, built out of hundreds of insistent strokes, had a nervous shimmer. In his drawings of the same period the shimmer is subordinated to the line. The tectonics of the picture show through more strongly. Some of the drawings leave the impression of charred armatures, networks wonderfully but precariously balanced.
But as early as 1960 something like recognizable figures were surfacing again from within Guston’s drawings. At the height of his prestige as an abstract artist, he found himself being drawn back powerfully to representation. That was the predicament he was still struggling with in 1967. The drawings he made in that year, with black ink brushed on white paper, were the most basic marks and shapes — two parallel vertical lines, or a single short stroke at the top of a blank sheet or a jittery circle. That circle made me think of Giotto’s “O”, the one he’s supposed to have dashed off when he was asked to provide the Pope with a sample of his skills. But Giotto’s assured loop was a mark of supreme confidence. Guston’s lumpish circle is a much more tentative thing, an exercise in doubt. He’s not sure yet where this period of aesthetic cleansing will lead him.
We of course do know where everything was headed. By the following year he was making the cartoonish drawings and paintings that would the basis of his work until his death in 1980, the scrappy pile up of shoes, eyeballs, Klansmen, clocks, nails and food that puzzled and even infuriated a lot of people when he first showed them in 1970. Those were mostly people who couldn’t abide the thought of a distinguished abstract painter not only venturing back into representational work but doing it by way of images that owed so much to old comic strips. It was well known that the Early Renaissance Italians — Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca — were gods to Guston. But until the 1970 show not many people knew how much he loved Krazy Kat.
It turns out that he had arrived at one of the great late styles in American art. The late work looks now like a giant permission slip for American artists generally to return to figuration if they wanted to. Obviously, Pop artists had already done that, but in a strictly ironic way. Guston’s drawings were different. Even when they were funny, and they usually were, they were dead earnest, which is one of the things that gives them their paradoxical power. In the last decade of his life, Guston had a sharp sense of his own mortality. (Those clocks!) He was drinking and smoking too much — he would die of a heart attack at age 67 — and discouraged about the direction the country was taking. (His monstrous drawing of Nixon is a classic.) All of it comes through in his art. In a drawing like Web — that’s Guston’s head on the left, one big cyclops eye gazing upwards, and the top of his wife Musa’s head on the right — you get the feeling that some serious personal demons are being tackled.
There are a lot of drawings like that in this show. The pictures are funny, but the laughs come hard.