If Philip Guston were alive today, he would shame us for attempting to escape the tragedy in Ferguson to bother ourselves with irrelevant art. So for this week's Art Fart, we bring you a painting for our times: 'The Oracle' by Guston himself, at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Painted in 1974, four years after he officially abandoned abstract expressionism for figuration, 'The Oracle' contains Guston's usual motifs, drawn with red and black paint into a muddled pink ground: a head, featureless except for a Cycloptic eye, hooded Ku Klux Klan heads, a pile of shoes, and a lone light bulb hanging limply from the top edge of the canvas. Formed only by red or black contours, the shapes jump beyond the plane of the canvas, while the blurred pink brushstrokes recede behind. The imagery revolves around Guston's obsession with evil—historical, personal, and current. The one-eyed head looks forward—the "oracle," perhaps—but not at the objects, loaded with violent history, jumbled around it. The shoes reflect images of tattered shoes confiscated from Jews during the Holocaust, from which Guston's Ukrainian parents escaped to America. The Klan hoods signify the evil Guston experienced as a Jew, as well as the general racial hatred and injustice still occurring in 1974, when the Civil Rights movement still felt fresh. The unlit light bulb, hanging above the one-eyed head, is often linked to his father's suicide by hanging, and suggests an absence of knowledge or enlightenment from what lies ahead. The war in Vietnam informed the overall carnage present in the fleshy red paint and unapologetic crudeness of his rendering. All of these elements pervaded Guston's mind, and he found himself unable to create insular abstract work as he once did.
"What kind of man am I," he once asked himself, "sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue."
Fed up with the "purity" of abstract expressionism and the lack of concern for anything but paint, Guston shook off his ties to the work of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, his fellow New York School painters. He abandoned what was, at the time, tasteful and sublime, in favor of the artistically and politically vulgar. Still, his later work maintains his innate love for paint.
In his return to figuration, Guston introduced not only narrative to his work, but also the dynamic force that allows paint to shift between representation and its inherent material abstraction. The wet-into-wet strokes and smudges pulse in and out of abstraction and figuration, at one moment forming a light bulb or the bottom of a shoe, and at another moment existing as the raw interactions of paint. What initially drew him and everyone else, in part, into abstract expressionism in the '50s and '60s is still there: the love affair with lush paint, now with the additional but inextricable element of narrative language, and stripped of the totalitarian Greenbergian aesthetic of material purification. The application of the paint is at once crude and masterfully aware of the intrinsic power of non-illusionistic paint.
Recently, Guston disciples have brought back cartoonish figuration and sickly dark humor into schools and galleries, to the point of near trendiness. Perhaps these times call for it, as Guston's world did in the '70s. The clash between political-cartoonishness and fine art brings not only world conflict to the intellectual level of attention as art, but also presents art as a legitimate response to the world, as opposed to being a means of escape. I'd like to see a Guston painting printed on a Ferguson protest sign.