GUSTON AND THE ART OF AGGRIEVEMENT

By Gabriel Thy • Art Theory, Artist • 19 Aug 2010

TRUTH CONTAINS EVERY POSSIBILITY plus or minus negative one. No mere fragment of man’s or even God’s invention can be declared “the truth” any more than Werner Heisenberg’s uncertain glimpse at his own smallest wink of matter can be shadow-boxed in pure certainty.

Humanity searches her treasure, measures her sanctimony, and grieves at her loss. The well-regarded artist may often attempt to portray this aggrievement, but no artist can ever succeed in portraying the whole truth in a brushstroke or a gimmick. While we may agree that Jackson Pollack is nature, he is only a small speck of the universe from which we must synthesize truth. Enter Philip Guston and his need for stories that point out the path of reconciliation…

“In Flatlands, 1970, the possibilities of this newly won freedom are spread out like a tableau—the possibility, say, of looking back without anger and at the same time being lord of the present. In his earliest works Guston had portrayed the martial activity of the Ku Klux Klan with the necessary gloom and acuity (Conspirators, ca. 1930).

“These killers now appear again on the scene, limbs of corpses paving their way. In fact there is nothing whole in this landscape: a conglomerate of ruinous elements, the result of a devastation that time has revealed. But the protagonists themselves have lost their nether parts like figures in a game whose rules they cannot fathom.

“The seams of their hoods expose the overblown puppets for what they are: the seams show that it is the women in the background who have sustained the masquerade with their handiwork.

“Herein lay Guston’s new possibility of coping with everyday violence and terror—by exposing them to ridicule. This could only ensue from an equal portion of brute force and the pseudo-gay, as it has been put to the test here in all deliberateness. The artist did not hesitate to include a bit of self-criticism—in the form of a swollen hand that points to the only intact object, an abstract picture. The sun is also not missing, the sun that later in “Spleen” becomes a trauma. Here it is, together with the pink clouds, an ingredient that lends the scene’s gay cynicism the last bit of spice.

“Dore Ashton has worked out how the grotesque was inscribed in Guston’s late work, namely, as an expression of his split consciousness vis-a-vis the everyday, political terror and his very real powerlessness as an artist. Wolfgang Kayser, in his book on the grotesque, writes., “The grotesque world is our world—and is not. Horror mixed with smiles has its basis in the experience that our familiar world, seemingly moored in a fixed order turns topsy-turvy, its order nullified.” This seems to have been Guston’s basic mood these last ten years.

The massive irruption of those hooded figures into his new picture-world speaks a clear language. Whether they gang up before the gates to the city, ride through the neighborhood in open cars, or after a day of work—dismembered bodies piled up in the background as trophies—hold a palaver, their presence seem ubiquitous, almost normal. This is what makes such paintings and drawings so uncanny, that the evil arrives with the greatest matter-of-factness and, as such, seems to be an outright synonym of middle-class citizenry.

“The awareness of his own powerlessness led Guston to put himself into the role of the pursuer. We are suddenly confronted with the hooded man in the studio, holding the unavoidable cigarette in the right, plying the paintbrush with the right. “The idea of evil fascinated me… ” Guston said. “I almost tried to imagine I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan, to plot?”

“In the last years this grotesque-comic side in his work was to recede more and more, while his dark pessimism about the state of the world grew. This is the period of apocalyptic fantasies like Yellow Light, 1975, or the three versions of a flood (e.g., Deluge II, 1975), from which there is no escape. He recognized his own alter ego in Goya’s darkest engraving [sic]: it shows a dog trying in vain to climb a hill while he is being relentlessly buried under sand. (Un perro, 1820-21, Prado, Madrid).

“It is significant that in Guston’s late works there is as good as no complete body to be seen, including his self-portraits. Anatomy is reduced to the head. In view of a world out of joint, his feeling of being imprisoned in the role of spectator must have taken over his consciousness more and more. And when some part of the body other than a head damned to watch and suffer appeared, It was no less dismembered. The paintings Feet on Rug, 1978, and Ravine, 1979, among the most agitating of his last years, show just such mutilation.

“The one shows two foot stumps, motionless on a rug specially made for them, before an empty horizon. The other is a ravine into which beetles make their way over what is, in reality, the anatomy between head and shoulder transformed into a topographical formation. These are documents of desolation that have yet found a unique form, testimony to an artist who is painting against his own downfall.

Thus spake Zarathustra. We suspect what Guston suspected. That loss is the it, and it is inside us, tearing its way unto the truth…

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