Figures in a crowd

In 1967, abstract painting collided with politics

Phillip Guston: Works on Paper

Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1

The return of the American painter Philip Guston to figuration, in 1967, was seen as a betrayal by many of his contemporaries. At the time, they were championing abstraction, particularly abstract expressionism, with an almost religious, not to say nationalistic, fervour. With its emphasis on the flat surface, which differentiated it from the perspectival concerns of the Old Masters, abstraction was modern.

Above all, it was American: a break with the traditions of Europe, and a heroic art fit for a New World. The critic Clement Greenberg was its guru and Jackson Pollock his star. Guston accounted for his abandonment, saying: "My quarrel with modern painting . . . was that it was too easy to elicit a response. Painters could put down swatches of colour and still get a response." As he argued: "Anything in life or art, any mark you make, has meaning - and the only question is: 'What kind of meaning?'"

As an adolescent, Guston was obsessed with comic-book cartoons and had shown a talent for drawing. His early career was spent as a politically motivated muralist, using his study of Italian Renaissance painters and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to underpin his work. In the 1940s, influenced by his high-school friend Pollock and the composers Morton Feldman and John Cage, Guston became fascinated with Zen Buddhism and started to move his art towards a more abstract language. But by 1967 he had begun to feel that the vocabulary of
abstraction was "too thin".

The Timothy Taylor Gallery's exhibition of his works on paper shows how the immediacy of drawing pulled him back into figuration. The shift was gradual, as can be seen from the economic marks of The Hill (1965), with its ambiguous forms - two rectangles and a circle placed on a curve - that might just be read as standing stones or henges. Guston began to create a highly idiosyncratic, pictorial alphabet of tragicomic forms. There are piles of shoes and legs and sinister, hooded figures, whose occasional resemblance to raspberry blancmange is even more disquieting at the realisation that they allude to the Ku Klux Klan. Although this personal grammar is used to address the political upheavals and civil unrest of 1960s America, these images are, more than anything, metaphors and ideograms that give clues to Guston's internal world.

The meaning of the objects is always ambivalent. On the simplest level, Shoes (1976) might have grown from seeing a pile of shoes chucked in the corner of his studio, but there are other allusions - to the mounds of footwear left by exterminated Jews before they perished in the Nazi death camps, or the writhing figures falling from the boat in the right-hand corner of Michelangelo's Last Judgement, their immortal "souls" in peril. (Who knows whether or not the pun was intended?)

Late in life, Guston repeatedly insisted that what he did was not art. He called himself a "laboratory scientist", a "fire-and-brimstone preacher - a tortured Talmudist". In his 1981 lithograph Painter, a figure appears smoking a cigarette in front of a canvas. His eyes and mouth are bound with Band-Aids. Deprived of both language and sight, the only things worth painting, Guston seems to be saying, come from within.

Until 20 February. www.timothytaylorgallery.com