„Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971“ sheds light on a single pivotal year that launched Guston into the final prolific decade of his career, during which he painted some of the most important artworks of the 20th Century.
On view at Hauser & Wirth Gallery, Los Angeles, will be two major series, the Roma paintings and the Nixon drawings, accompanied by a select group of larger works. Created immediately after the overwhelming critical rejection of his new figurative work, exhibited in October 1970 at Marlborough Gallery in New York City for the first time, during a time of social and political turmoil in the United States, these works bear witness to an artist at the height of his powers, exquisitely responsive to his world.
The year 1971 marks a critical junction in Philip Guston’s artistic career, telling a story of renewal, invention, and outrageous satire through two major series, the Roma paintings and the Nixon drawings, as well as a select group of larger paintings.
Speaking about his controversial transition, when Guston left behind the elegant abstractions that had earned him critical acclaim to explore strange new territory, he explained to a group of students how crucial doubt and self-questioning were to an artist’s creative process, saying ‘It’s taken me many years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the only ‘technique’ one can really learn is the capacity to be able to change.’
When Philip Guston first exhibited his new figurative work in October 1970, the critical response was resoundingly negative. ‘Clumsy.’ ‘Embarrassing.’ ‘Simple-minded.’ ‘An exercise in radical chic.’ The New York Times headline referred to the artist as ‘A mandarin pretending to be a stumble-bum.’
These paintings in the Marlborough Gallery show were created in 1968-1970, a time of despair and upheaval in the US, following the assassination of the Kennedys, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Our leaders were being murdered, our inner cities were rife with looting and rioting, war protesters filled our streets. The country was divided, and the death toll was mounting in Vietnam.
But in the art world, disaffection ruled the day. In an era of cool minimalism and Pop Art ironies, the passions of the real world were to have no place in art, the critics had decreed. Guston disagreed, famously saying: ‘I got sick and tired of all that purity—I wanted to tell stories!’
And what stories he told, with his Klansmen, ominous but somehow familiar, perhaps even ourselves under those hoods, as suggested in ‘Untitled’ (1971), which features a fleshy head enclosed by two hooded figures.
But in the art world, disaffection ruled the day. In an era of cool minimalism and Pop Art ironies, the passions of the real world were to have no place in art, the critics had decreed.
Guston disagreed, famously saying: ‘I got sick and tired of all that purity—I wanted to tell stories!’ And what stories he told, with his Klansmen, ominous but somehow familiar, perhaps even ourselves under those hoods, as suggested in ‘Untitled’ (1971), which features a fleshy head enclosed by two hooded figures.
This was not the path of refinement a leading abstract expressionist painter should be taking, yet Guston pushed forward: challenging tradition and expectations, guided solely by his own intuition and determination.
The Nixon drawings were never exhibited in Guston’s lifetime and in fact went unpublished until more than two decades after his death in 1980. ‘He wasn’t sure about whether to go public with them,’ Philip Roth recalled when the entire series was exhibited at Hauser & Wirth in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. ‘I think he didn’t want to be sullied as a cartoonist. But actually, the people who didn’t like those wonderful last paintings sullied him as a cartoonist anyway.’
As disparate as the Roma paintings and the Nixon drawings from 1971 at first appear to be, they clearly show an artist at the height of his inventive powers, exquisitely responsive to his world. He stands alone, at a critical point of resilience and renewal in his work, as he readies himself to move forward into the final prolific decade of his career, when he was to paint what are now rightly celebrated as some of the most important works of art of the 20th Century.
ART & DESIGN FAIRS
FRIEZE MASTERS 03 OCT/ 06 OCT
FRIEZE LONDON 03 OCT/ 06 OCT
FIAC PARIS17 OCT/ 20 OCT
PARIS PHOTO 07 NOV/ 10 NOV
SCOPE MIAMI 03 DEC/ 08 DEC
DESIGN MIAMI 04 DEC/ 08 DEC
ART BASEL MIAMI 05 DEC/ 08 DEC