Philip Guston’s later work is — and I say this with love — nails-down-a-blackboard weird. The vapid pinks and flat reds lend a nightmare cheerfulness. The menacing American figure wearing Mickey Mouse gloves is rendered in cartoonish style. The clock shows it is time to panic, challenging you to call out the hood for the Ku Klux Klan symbol it appears to be.
By the time he started making these paintings, in 1968, Guston was pretty much post-everything: post-realism, post-abstract expressionism, post-criticism (he and his wife Musa sailed to Italy the day after the show’s opening night, and when a review found him in Venice, poste restante, he dropped it in a canal). He was also post-breakdown and, with the cigarettes and alcohol in his work more than painter’s props — he smoked three packs a day — hastening himself to post-mortem. When he died in 1980 he was lucky to have a gifted advocate in his daughter, Musa Mayer, who spoke to me over the phone about her new book and her father’s recent cancellation.
A big travelling retrospective, due to have arrived at Tate Modern last month, was notoriously binned last September. ‘We are postponing the Philip Guston Now exhibition,’ announced a joint statement from the four host museums, ‘until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the centre of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.’ They were referring to the images of hooded KKK figures in both early and late Guston. On a podcast, the director of the Washington National Gallery said that Guston had ‘appropriated images of black trauma’.
‘I was really wounded by the actions taken and particularly that statement,’ Musa Mayer, 78, told me last week. ‘I thought that was really uncalled for, and a misunderstanding.’ Mark Godfrey, a curator at Tate Modern, called the argument for the cancellation ‘extremely patronising’, and was suspended for it. ‘He dared to speak out and was reprimanded,’ says Mayer. Godfrey explained some historical context to me over the phone, saying: ‘Guston first witnessed the KKK in the streets, when he was a boy growing up in Los Angeles. His parents were Jewish immigrants, who had fled pogroms in Odessa. The KKK, which had five million members at the time of the Depression, was anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant as well as anti-Black.’
Born Goldstein, Guston changed his name but later regretted the deracinating effect of the change, particularly, says his daughter, after the facts about the Holocaust emerged. Guston also had the personal tragedy, aged ten, of finding his father’s body after he hanged himself in an outhouse at their home. Working at a rubbish tip to support his family had compounded his father’s psychic collapse. ‘The pain and the persecution and the unfairness of all he experienced as the child of refugees never left him,’ says Mayer. ‘In his love of Renaissance art he was particularly drawn to images like Uccello’s ‘Battle of San Romano’, to images of horror, really. He never found the angels in heaven very interesting.’
At high school, he and his friend Jackson Pollock were expelled for making a satirical pamphlet about the school’s military training and athletics. Guston won prizes for his cartoons, but taught himself to draw from books of Old Masters and De Chirico, and quit art school early to become a politically engaged muralist, influenced by Mexican social realism. In 1930, a Marxist John Reed club with his protest art on its walls depicting the anti-African American racist brutality of the Ku Klux Klan was raided by the LA police and the images shot out.
In 1934 he and a friend Reuben Kadish went down to the San Pedro docks. ‘Reuben and I wanted to go to Italy to see the old frescoes first-hand.’ But when they discovered how much the fare was, they settled for Mexico. There, helped by the communist revolutionary painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, they secured a canvas 1,000ft-square — the wall of the former Summer Palace in Morelia, which they covered with distorted visions of the bondage of war and fascism (extant, though in bad shape). Its hooded figures are grandiose and terrifying; later, in his fifties, he made them cartoonish, belittled, a goon squad.
‘They’re not given any grandeur later,’ says Mayer. ‘He started off pointing the finger at unknown figures doing evil, then he paints himself in that costume. So what he’s saying, it seems to me, is that the potential for evil resides within us all. My feeling is these are perfectly meant for our times, and would actually engender the kind of dialogue we need to have about white culpability and the banality of evil.’
In the UK, Guston’s work was discussed with the Tate’s BAME network in preparation for the show. The network’s chair, Rudi Minto de Wijs, who works in the Tate’s marketing department, wrote in an email that Philip Guston Now would ‘appeal to those Tate goers keen to align and educate themselves on active ally-ship’.
Washington National Gallery director Kaywin Feldman, also looking to broaden the range of voices in her institution’s discussions, came to a different conclusion. While 98 per cent of her curatorial staff is white, 83 per cent of the museum guards are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour). ‘Going forward, we will be spending more time hearing from our guards on this particular exhibition about how we might display and interpret it.’ Conversations with ‘a handful’ of guards took place before the cancellation, but no Guston works were shared. ‘I was asked not to show them the images because they are so disturbing at this moment in time.’
Guston painted ‘Bombardment’, a dynamic tondo, in 1937 in response to the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, employed by the Work Progress Administration to paint murals, his work on a housing project in Queens was temporarily halted when a government inspector, alert for communist emblems, thought he spotted a hammer and sickle in the curve of a dog’s tail against a child’s leg. ‘My father was ordered off the scaffold until his background could be investigated.’
Although he grew weary of officialdom, the New Deal’s WPA kept him ‘alive and working’ and he won prizes and posts, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Carnegie prize, for which he would later be called a ‘mandarin’. Winning the Prix de Rome took him, finally, on the longed-for trip to see Renaissance art first-hand in 1948. He was gone for a year, despite his new daughter. ‘Being a good father was certainly the least of his concerns. At the same time, being a good daughter was well on the way to being the greatest of mine,’ writes Musa Mayer wryly in her excellent 1988 memoir Night Studio.
She describes the torrents of advice and conversation Guston gave his students, but his absolute absence of interest in her attempts at painting. Might this have been different had she been a boy? I ask her. She’s on the phone, but I can hear her shaking her head, smiling. ‘I think that [relationship] would have been impossible,’ she says. ‘I mean, you’ve seen [in Night Studio] how incredibly self-involved and absorbed he was… I think he ultimately made space for me because I was female and I used that relationship he had with my mother as a model. I revolved around him as she revolved around him and his needs.’
He came back from Europe with Beckett and Kafka on his mind and a germ of abstraction in his sketches. Exit the massive manacled figures and laboured allegories; enter the numinous blob.
‘I would stand in front of the surface and simply keep on painting for three or four hours,’ he recalled. He was at the centre of New York abstract expressionism with friends Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and of course Jackson Pollock, who once tried to throw Guston out of a window during a drunken argument over who was the better painter. In protest against the shallow commercialism of pop art in 1962, he and his peers left their gallery en masse. Guston’s life is a history of the 20th century. Close pals were composers John Cage and Morton Feldman, and writer Philip Roth.
He abandoned abstraction in part because it felt impotent in the face of Vietnam and civil rights, the assassination of Martin Luther King, police violence in Chicago in 1968. ‘What kind of man am I,’ he asked, ‘sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything… and then going into my studio just to adjust a red to a blue?’
And so came about his later phase, his Klan figures, his Robert Crumb-like piles of feet and legs referencing the Holocaust, his own head a guilty cyclops, all of it now pushed back to 2023. Mark Godfrey told me he remained passionately interested in Guston, but was leaving his role as curator at Tate Modern for another project. Kaywin Feldman said, in an interview with art.net, that it was ‘just extraordinary that art critics hadn’t noticed’ the extreme pressure that museums were under, from within and without, to change to become more inclusive and equitable. She mentioned an anonymous petition received by the museum last summer.
Musa Mayer broadened the debate: ‘All I have to say is, from a feminist perspective, do we really want to see all the nudes come off the walls of the major museums of the world? Because isn’t that where this goes, if you follow the argument? Art reflects its times, you know. Not all artists are liberated, thoughtful commentators, they are just ordinary human beings in their time. We are all entitled to critique their art as much as we like. But to take it off the wall? That’s a level of cancel culture I don’t think we dare go down.’
Guston’s work shows the hopelessness, the struggle of making art. It is raw, painful, alive. The cancellation provoked clamour from influential fans, from Art Spiegelman to Chris Ofili. It ended up showing how much he is loved, I said to Mayer. ‘Yes, but the show at Tate Modern is important to me,’ she replied. ‘I have been waiting for it since Tate Modern opened. And I am distressed by what I call “Jack the Dripper” syndrome. Once an artist becomes a household name, what tends to happen is the flattening of knowledge about them. Just as Jackson Pollock is now for ever known as the artist who made paintings by dripping, I’m afraid my father will be known as the artist who painted the Ku Klux Klan.’
To date, no specific objections have been made against Guston’s work. As a US arts journalist noted, this was ‘a precancellation: a case of institutions running scared from phantasms’.
Philip Guston by Musa Mayer is published by Laurence King Publishing, £14.99.