Aanyone who has seen one figurative paintings by Philip Guston knows the rest of them. I mean that in a strictly literal sense: the visual universe that Guston began to create in the late 1960s, when he rejected the abstraction that then dominated the New York art world, is impossible not to recognize. Guston painted in thick, plump pinks, usually outlining his figures in red or black instead of filling them in. Her commitment to this palette was such that, according to her daughter, Musa Mayer, in her memoir Night Studiowhen Guston died in 1980, she and her mother inherited “hundreds of tubes of medium cadmium red, mars black and titanium white”.
Many of his pink canvases are self-portraits in which he appears as a giant, worried head, all the wrinkles on his forehead and his eyes wide open; many show household objects – cherries, cigarettes, bottles, light bulbs – bloated to menacing proportions; and many are full of bloated, cartoonish Ku Klux Klansmen, usually doing activities that Mayer says came from the routines of their creator’s life: look at a bottle of alcohol, to smoke a cigaretteor, as in the 1969 work The studiopainting a self-portrait while wearing a white hooded robe.
Guston’s images of Klansmen, whom he called “hoods,” are striking in their ability to allow painter and audience to consider the proximity of evil. But in September 2020, months after the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd, four major museums postponed a retrospective of Guston’s work, citing a desire to “reframe our programming”. (The exhibition is Open at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and will travel to three other venues over the next two years.) Obviously, their concern was that Guston’s Klansmen were being misinterpreted or not seen in sufficient context. Many in the art world reprimand museums for avoiding Guston’s willingness to look racist violence – and his own complicity with it – in the face. Guston stepped into the shoes of the Klansmen he painted to better understand the humans behind the hoods. (He once said, “What [Klansmen] do after? Or before? Smoking, drinking, sitting around their room… patrolling the empty streets; dumb, melancholic, guilty, fearful, remorseful, reassuring each other? “) His paintings, which put on awkward hoods in innocuous settings, render their subjects with a disturbing familiarity.
In the recently reissued book Guston in time, novelist and critic Ross Feld praised Guston’s ability and willingness to imbue even “the most heartbreaking or disturbing imagery” with a “shaggy, even goofy friendship”. He was right about the cuteness: the balaclavas look like Hershey’s kisses crossed with Moomins. Yet painting the Klansmen does not weaken them. By describing them so crudely that he can take a moment to identify them, Guston no doubt enticed his viewers to linger, then urged them not to look away.
NOTneither Feld nor Mayer engage with this idea long in their memories, but to me it seems crucial that Guston approached his hood paintings – which he debuted in a now famous 1970 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery – from the perspective of the Jew white american. Guston’s parents, Leib (later Louis) Goldstein and Rachel Ehrenleib, were Jews who fled anti-Semitism in Odessa, Ukraine. When Guston was a child, the family moved from Montreal to Los Angeles, where the Klan was both visible and powerful. As a young factory worker, Guston participated in a strike that Klansmen helped break. Some of his early works were downright brutal illustrations of the KKK, he recalled in a 1978 conference; when he exhibited them in the early 1930s, “Klansmen came in, took the paintings off the wall and slashed them.” Guston knew firsthand the effect his art could have; he also knew the fear of anti-Semitism and the Klan, firsthand.
Yet by the time he resumed painting the Klansmen in the years leading up to his Marlborough show, Guston’s racial position in the United States had significantly changed. In the 1930s, when he set out to “illustrate or make images of the KKK,” as he puts it in this lecture, Jews of European descent were rarely considered white. In the 1960s, they were more widely. After the Holocaust, blatant anti-Semitism seemed downgraded. Informal Jewish quotas seemed to disappear from college admissions and intermarriage became more common.
Interestingly, in a moment that seemed to lend itself to assimilation, Guston turned in the opposite direction. He seemed, at the time, unconcerned about fitting into any mainstream: He said he started painting balaclavas in part as a horrified reaction to police brutality at the Democratic National Convention from 1968, which he described as a “trigger” that “pushed me over.” And he began to admit later in his life his shame at having anglicized his surname from Goldstein at the start of the twenty-something, especially since, according to Feld, he still peppered his speech with Yiddish and presented himself as an “uncertain cerebral Jewish painter.” He compared his choice to paint Klansmen to the decision of the great Jewish writer Isaac Babel to represent the Russian Cossacks; Mayer writes in studio at night that he left abstraction because he felt, as he put it, an urge to “create ‘golems'”, a reference to animated clay giants of Jewish legend. These benchmarks reflect the fact that, like his good friend Philip Roth, he succeeded as a Jew, not despite his Jewishness. Guston could have de-Judaized and disappeared into whiteness. He made whiteness visible instead.
Although some critics, including the influential Harold Rosenberg, responded positively to Guston’s cowl paintings, with their difficult subject matter and clumsy outlines, much of the art world looked down on them and was perplexed by them. (Feld was one of the few viewers to react positively to Marlborough’s show, and he remained an ardent fan.) In Guston’s years of working uneasily in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism (which Feld calls “one of the most deeply Protestant art stories ever seen”), he paints in a variety of colors, often focusing on deep explorations of a single hue. When he started painting balaclavas, he chose his signature roses, which I believe are not just any pink. Guston worked in the streaky, pale tones of an unhealthy white man’s skin, that is, his own. He was a voracious eater, smoker, and drinker who frequently ignored doctors’ advice. In certain photographs, his face is the color of his art. To spot a Guston across a room is in a way to spot the painter’s own variety of whiteness.
Pink also evokes femininity. Guston’s late-career art overflows with cartoonish femininity, not just in the color of her canvases, but in their domestic clutter and swelling curves. From time to time, this tendency becomes sexual – say, in the joyous “gluttony” of large red fruits in Cherries (1976), as Feld describes it, but more generally Guston chooses dull household scenes. Many of his paintings take viewers into what could be closets or storage rooms. In Flatlands (1970), two balaclavas gaze at a dirty, rosy landscape strewn with clocks, old shoes, a book, a basketball. They could be standing in an attic, getting ready to sort through what Feld calls “life shit.”
Feld celebrates Guston’s willingness to paint everyday objects, and to do so in what he implies is – and what I certainly consider to be – a stereotypically feminine way. Drawing inspiration from theater scholar Jonas Barish, Feld argues that Abstract Expressionism asked artists to repress their emotions in favor of creating “works that testified to inner faith.” Guston, however, embraced its “histrionic impulse”, imbuing domestic detritus with dignity and menace, and transforming it into “the ubiquitous still life that surrounds the embarrassing, even tragic human”. In Flatlands, Guston’s balaclavas look, if not embarrassed, then outdated. They look lost and helpless in their sea of household waste – and yet their white robes, even smeared in pale pink and ash gray, warn viewers that it would be foolish not to fear them nonetheless.
Owhile visiting Baltimore Museum of Art’s “Guarding the Art” exhibition in April, I spotted Guston’s painting from 1974 the oracle of a full room. It’s pink, of course. Half of the canvas is littered with shoes piled up in a way that evokes piles of personal effects found in concentration camps. The big head that tends to replace Guston watches them; a light bulb hangs, like a closet or a dungeon, above his head. Behind him are a pair of hoods, one raising a whip to strike him. My immediate interpretation of the painting was that it depicts a habit I recognize from my Jewish family and community: obsessing over the dangers of the past, not looking to the present, which is full of threats for Jews and non-Jews.
But then I remembered Guston saying he saw himself behind the hoods. (asked to a talk if the hooded figure could be himself, he said it had occurred to him, adding, “Well, it could be all of us.” for me. It remained a portrait of Jewish fear; it also evoked the guilt of an American Jew unable to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust; and it became a recognition of the painter’s closeness to power and whiteness. Guston’s hood paintings evoke the discomfort and dissonance of this reality. They put viewers in a cramped car or attic not only with evil, but also with unresolved complicity, confusion, and shame.
Novelist Dara Horn argued that Jewish literature tends to reject sharp endings. She considers this inclination as the sign of a “realism that comes from humility, from the awareness that one cannot be faithful to human experience while claiming to make sense of the world”. Perhaps Guston’s hood paintings belong to this puzzling tradition. Guston didn’t know what to say about the Klan or racial violence except that he knew how to fear it as a Jew, and both oppose it and feel involved in it as a white American. Almost 50 years after painting the oracleI honestly can’t say I know more.