The first time I saw a Philip Guston painting, I burst out laughing. The hushed and contemplative mood of art museums does not encourage outright mirth, and, anyway, there did not seem to be a discernible joke on the canvas in front of me. But in the middle of the Anderson Collection of Modern Art on Stanford University’s campus, the painting hung in close proximity to two majestic works by Mark Rothko, and right around the corner from a darkly tumultuous Jackson Pollock painting, and laughter was what rose to the surface. Guston’s painting depicted a clunky, bloated overcoat clutching a pair of boots under one arm, and something like paperwork under the other. The coat was missing a person that would normally seem required—particularly in a case where the clutching of boots and paperwork takes place. It was called “The Coat II,” and in striking contrast with the abstraction underlying the works of modern art that filled the Anderson Collection’s rooms, and in particular the paintings of Guston’s contemporaries Rothko and Pollock—the latter, Guston’s high school friend—the anthropomorphosis of the cartoonish coat seemed, to say the least, jarring.
Over the years, I’ve come back many times to sit and look at Guston’s painting: There was something deeply disturbing, hopeless, and even apocalyptic about it, but at the same time, it was also strangely familiar, and funny, and in that, endearing. The coat made me think of what Walter Benjamin called Franz Kafka’s grotesque characters: “celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state.” The coat was such an unfinished, living creature, and there was a burgeoning story it evoked in my mind, and it was for that story that I came back, over and over again. Even though I have not seen it in person in at least a year, it is utterly alive in my imagination.
And so, when I unwrapped the packaging of my long-anticipated copy of Philip Guston Now, a thick volume originally planned to accompany what was meant to be, as the curators envisioned it prior to the pandemic, “the artist’s first full-scale retrospective in a generation,” I was elated. Philip Guston was a rule-breaking artist, who inspired so many painters as well cartoonists, writers, poets, and musicians, and this book brings together scores of terrific essays by artists and scholars, and a wide-ranging collection of full-color reproductions of his paintings and drawings. The exhibit was scheduled to appear in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The exhibit itself was first postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. In the past week, however, it was postponed yet again, this time until 2024, but for a very different reason. Museum directors announced that they were not adequately prepared to deal with the exhibit’s politically charged paintings. These paintings directly comment on the presence and history of white supremacy in America.
More specifically, Guston’s paintings that caused the postponement depict cartoonish creatures in the white hoods of the Klan, shifting and scheming like awkward and ridiculous little goblins. Like much of Guston’s later work—with its intertwining darkly apocalyptic overtones and its address of injustice—is very timely now, four decades after the artist’s passing, in a way that feels uncanny.
The decision to postpone Guston’s exhibit is a regrettable mistake: At the heart of Guston’s work are the very personal questions of responsibility and complicity, of fear and even self-hatred. Trying to avoid any controversy, the directors prevented the public from engaging in difficult conversations, precisely when they’re most needed, in this fraught moment when both racism and anti-Semitism are on the rise, and many of the large cultural institutions are reckoning with their own history.
Philip Guston, born in 1913 as Philip Goldstein, grew up in Los Angeles, and gained recognition as a working artist and muralist while still in his 20s. By the 1950s, he became a major figure in the world of abstract art. Yet, in 1970, at the height of his renown, in a solo exhibit at the Marlborough gallery, Guston revealed to the world a series of works that were fundamentally different from the abstract art that made him so influential. These were depictions of characters and objects that were a close kin of the overcoat I first saw at the Anderson Collection: unshaven faces with bulging eyeballs and dangling cigarettes, boots and coats without humans, gross looking food items and useless household stuff. It is at that point that he depicted the Klansmen figures, too.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1920s, Guston witnessed the Klan’s presence, and as a Jew, must have been terrified by it—all the more so, knowing his parents’ traumatic escape from Eastern Europe. This was his attempt to thematize bigotry he observed in America—particularly witnessing the 1960s struggles for Civil Rights. But also, it was the beginning of his return to his personal history, his early trauma, and the attempt to reconnect to his Jewish identity.
This turn in Guston’s work is perhaps the most storied, and to the artists of his day it was mysterious: It ostracized him from the art world, and earned condemnation, even rage, of his colleagues. It caused Guston’s withdrawal into his studio in Woodstock, New York, and away from the company of painters, critics, and art dealers who surrounded him at the peak of his fame. No one was laughing with delight, looking at the painted grubby coats. And his direct political commentary spelled out a rejection of the ideals of abstract art and art for art’s sake.
It is almost impossible for us, in the 21st century, to understand the drama of the Marlborough gallery moment, and the scandal that ensued around it. This isn’t only because we live in a time when genre fluidity and artistic evolutions are celebrated, and conversely, when fierce loyalty to a specific style feels misplaced. Perhaps, the outrage to Guston’s turn was specific to the historical context surrounding abstract art, and the hard-won recognition of that particular genre, which, to this day, nearly a century after its inception, still elicits a torrent of ignorant comments of the “my 3-year-old could paint that” variety. Few movements garnered such degree of venom as abstract art did. One only needs to remember the term “degenerate art,” coined by the Nazi party which branded such art as a threat to Western civilization. Needless to say, Jews in particular, according to this heinous ideology, had a vested interest in that kind of destruction, and given the number of prominent Jewish painters numbered among the abstract artists, Guston’s sharp turn back from the abstract and toward figurative felt like an outright betrayal.
Leafing through the pages of Philip Guston Now, and tracing the fascinating journey, I could not help but wish to see, in person, the full drama of the transition, to feel the artist’s presence that is so intensely manifest in these kinds of liminal, transitional moments, and a sense of illumination, that comes with one’s understanding of this presence. What I decided to do to create an alternatively immersive experience of Guston’s work, was to speak with two artists: Art Spiegelman, the legendary cartoonist and graphic novelist, the author of Maus, and Archie Rand—the ever-insightful Jewish artist and professor, and one of the few painters who was close with Guston after the 1970s exhibit.
Anyone familiar with Art Spiegelman’s work, and in particular, Maus—for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and which launched a craze for the genre of graphic novels—would not find Spiegelman’s interest in Guston’s work surprising at all: After all, Guston’s return to figurative art happened by way of comiclike iconography that troubled the divide between “high” and “low” art, which is precisely where Spiegelman found himself as well, when he set out to write a profound story of his father’s survival in the Shoah by using the language of the comics. It is not surprising either that Spiegelman’s essay in Philip Guston Now unveils a connection between Guston’s first public work—a cartoon strip, which he published as 13-year-old Phil Goldstein—and Guston’s Malborough gallery paintings. Oftentimes, Spiegelman told me, comics is “the first time kids are introduced into any kind of art ... It’s visceral, it’s immediate. We’re storytelling creatures, you lean into whatever story has come your way. And, these [stories] are visual, and they beckon you.”
When I asked Spiegelman about the shadows of Kafka in Guston’s grotesque boots and overcoats he said: “I think those boots represent hauntedness, the same one that you find in Kafka … Guston’s own guilt and shame on having turned his back on his Jewish name. It was too late—he was a brand—but had that awareness, that being haunted by the genocide, and that’s one of the things the boots meant. It also represents the bum, the low-life that he learned to love by loving the Mutt and Jeff comics, and it also represents something called the ‘plop take’, which is when someone tells a bad joke in a two-character panel, and the recipient of the joke goes ‘wonk’ and sinks out of the panel and only his big feet are shown. It’s a kind of a vaudeville response.”
That a single trope can allude to both genocide and the “plop take” may just be the most enduring and important characteristic of Jewish art.
During our conversation, across a Zoom screen, Spiegelman showed me the cover photo on his cellphone: It was one of the most puzzling, and strangest works by Guston: “The Studio,” which depicts a cartoonish figure, in KKK gear, painting itself at the easel, with a cigarette protruding through the hood.
As I’ve mentioned before, depicting ghoulish Klansmen figures was part of Guston’s searing critique of the moment he witnessed around him, and a harkening back to the days of the Klan’s marches in Los Angeles, which terrified him in his childhood. But to depict an artist as a Klansman? That is utterly strange—all the more so, as, in Guston’s new iconography, the image of a painter with a cigarette seemed to allude—to himself.
To Spiegelman, the image was so powerful and striking because, as he said, he saw it as “a kind of empathic embrace of the unacceptable which allowed him to transgress to the world of cartoon images.”
According to Harry Cooper’s insightful essay in Philip Guston Now, Guston was obsessed with Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel, and, in particular, Babel’s work Red Cavalry, which recounts Babel’s experiences as a journalist, following the newly formed Red Army. Babel rode alongside a band of pitiless hoodlums that brought destruction to Jewish shtetls of Ukraine and Poland. During that period, Babel used a name that allowed him to pretend he was not Jewish and continue following along and documenting what he saw, while in his private journals, he described feeling utterly guilty and depraved about being a passive witness to the destruction of his own folk. Perhaps there is a link between Babel’s hidden Jewish name and Guston’s, between Babel’s guilt and Guston’s searing admission in what he saw as his own complicity.
Archie Rand was a 20-year-old artist prodigy at the time of the Marlborough gallery exhibition. But describing it in our conversation, it was clear to me that he remembered it vividly, as if it happened just the other day: “We [critic Ross Feld and I] went to the Marlborough show together five or six times. And once, the two of us sat on the floor for almost the entire day. Because even though I did not get these works—and who did get them?—I kept saying to myself: ‘This is Philip Guston. There’s something going on here, and if you don’t get it, it’s your fault, not his fault. Shut your mouth and keep looking.’ It unraveled a lot of things in my head. … It was like looking at the theory of relativity.”
Rand’s belief in Guston’s work eventually led to a meeting of the two artists, and a friendship that blossomed between them. Rand recalled the moment of their first in-person encounter at Guston’s studio in Woodstock: “I’m going on record with: I swear to God it’s true. He put his arm around me, and said ‘Let’s talk.’ And we talked for 72 hours. The sun came up, the sun went down, the sun came up, the sun went down. Finally, out of respect for him, I said ‘Maybe we should go to sleep,’ because he wasn’t going to say that.”
The closeness that developed between the older and younger painter—and Rand was one of the very few artists who Guston was willing to be close to in his final decades—allowed Rand to observe that just as Guston was finding his way back to the comic art of his childhood, he was also reconsidering his relationship with Judaism. Rand further recalled: “The extent to which he was able to apply his Jewish reconciliation was not given the ability to sprout in full bloom, but he was headed that way. He talked about changing his name back to Goldstein. He once said, as a kind of a joke: ‘I can no longer think of myself as Guston [Rand pronounced this with a French accent].’”
Listening to Rand, I wondered if Guston’s soul-searching came by way of literature: One of the persistent images, appearing all through his later work was that of books. Rand recalled: “Philip had a lot of bookshelves in his house. They were all empty except for Osvald Siren’s book on Chinese art and Longhi’s book on Piero della Francesca. One night, around midnight or so, he’s sitting at his desk, and he’s drawing, and I walked in on him, and said, ‘Where are they?’ No preface, no nothing. He knew exactly what I was talking about. He said: ‘They’re in the garage.’ Next morning, we woke up, he said: ‘You wanna see them?’ In the garage there were hundreds of boxes … Philip realized that books were going to influence him too much. They were going to veer him off the course to the truth. And that truth had to come from him.”
Guston’s search for his own truth—the ultimate, if you will, self-portrait—also came by way of his reckoning with his most important and crucial influence: that of Italian art and culture. Here’s how Rand saw it:
Let me get this out about Jewish artists. If you’re Jewish in America, unlike if you’re Irish, Italian, or native Polish, every few years, you gather up and go back. If you’re Jewish you have no desire to go back to Poland, to Russia—where you were basically massacred and humiliated … You really have no attraction. What you have attraction to, was, as Mr. [Ezra] Pound said, “What thou lovest well remains,/the rest is dross.” What thou lovest if you’re Jewish is Italian art because [in Guston’s case] that’s what you were trained in. Philip adopted Italian culture … actually thought of himself as someone in the tradition of those people who learned the visual language that meant to be Italian, and basically, what it meant to be Catholic. Certain rules of veneration, which Judaism not only doesn’t share, but rejects. The notion of authoritative leadership was rejected by someone who was reclaiming his identity. Guston had this conundrum: he had to transfer that reverence to himself and his experience.
Rand further recalled: “Philip’s epiphany wasn’t narcissism. He wanted to portray, to articulate, his understanding of his rediscovered state of Jewishness, to inhabit that vulgarity for which he had to amputate his fealty to the precise and proclamatory ‘Italian.’ Philip was deeply troubled by his estrangement from Judaism, and inability to find anything within contemporary Judaism that offered him an entrance. In his last wishes, Philip asked that three people—Morty Feldman, Philip Roth, and Ross Feld would say Kaddish over his grave. I was at that funeral. A lot of people said things about his artistic work, but he wanted Kaddish.”
I hope to see Guston’s retrospective before too long, or at least, see the “The Coat II” back at the Anderson Collection. Today’s reality counterimposes itself as I keep thinking about this painting: Something essential is missing from inside the coat—the viewers, perhaps, kept away, at first by the pandemic, and then by museum directors’ cowardice and reluctance. And yet the outlines of the experience—the clothing, the memory—are somehow, supernaturally, alive. And, by the way, those papers the coat is clutching? One of them might just be the essay you are reading—and in that way, is it not a kind of a Kaddish Philip Guston asked for?
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.