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8 October 2023

Philip Guston’s American monsters

His 1960s paintings of Ku Klux Klansmen confront the banality of evil – and retain their power to shock.

By Michael Prodger

Back in 2020, the Tate Modern, along with three major American museums, was gearing up to put on an exhibition of the work of Philip Guston (1913-1980). The painter was a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists in New York who, after a spell in their ranks, decided to pursue figurative art instead, albeit a far from traditional variety. In the late 1960s he forged a distinctive style – Bazooka-gum pink, cartoonish, and peopled by an assortment of monstrous characters – the most notorious of which were hooded Ku Klux Klansmen who appeared in painting after painting. A selection of KKK pictures was due to be included in the exhibition. But they, and it, were abruptly cancelled.

No real rationale was given, just a joint statement from the museums containing assorted insipidities about their “responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment”, which they decided were so urgent – if undefined – that they felt compelled to “step back” and wait until such time as “Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted”. In other words, fearing protesting voices, they prophylactically self-cancelled. When Mark Godfrey, the exhibition’s co-curator, criticised the decision he was suspended by the Tate and subsequently left the gallery.

It may not be clear quite why or how, but those sunlit uplands where Guston can be interpreted clearly have apparently been reached and more than 100 of his paintings and drawings, including KKK pictures, have finally made it, triumphantly, on to the Tate’s walls.

[See also: Marina Abramović’s catalogue of self-harm]

The galleries’ hypersensitivity was always nonsensical. Guston’s credentials as a social activist were impeccable: he was Jewish, of immigrant stock (his parents fled the pogroms in Ukraine), and left-wing; he painted a mural supporting the defendants in the “Scottsboro Boys Trial” when nine black teenagers who had been falsely accused of a rape in 1931 were sentenced to death, and he satirised Richard Nixon’s attitude towards the Vietnam War. “The only reason to be an artist,” he said, was “to bear witness.”

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The Klansmen pictures came about, he confessed, because “The idea of evil fascinated me”. So “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan” and showed them driving around in cars, puffing on cigarettes, even painting a self-portrait at an easel. They are buffoonish rather than menacing figures. His daughter, Musa Mayer, explained that nevertheless the pictures don’t take these hooded goons lightly but they “unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that [Guston] had witnessed since boyhood, when the Klan marched openly by the thousands in the streets of Los Angeles”.

The Klan was just one element in a difficult childhood. Guston – then Phillip Goldstein – moved with his family to LA from Montreal in 1922 but his father took his own life shortly afterwards and his brother died a few years later in a car accident. Guston’s initial interest was in the Italian Renaissance and in the suggestive Surrealist scenes of Giorgio de Chirico. His early work, however, was as an illustrator and cartoonist. He turned these influences – the exaggerations and kitsch colours of cartoons such as his zany favourite, Krazy Kat, and De Chirico’s dreamscapes – into the vocabulary of his later work.

The curators have wisely given the exhibition a chronological hang which allows the viewer to see clearly just how much Guston’s art changed. His paintings of the 1930s and 1940s started in crisp-edged European modernism – with Picasso prominent – and moved into American social realism. He painted murals under the auspices of the New Deal Federal Art Project and works of social and political commentary. In Sunday Interior (1941), for example, he created a potent image of the marginalised – a young black man smoking against the background of an empty street. With Bombardment (1937), a tondo of explosions and hurtling bodies, he expressed his horror at the fascist bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the subject also of Picasso’s most celebrated work.

Being a painter, Guston thought, was about “fixing an image you can tolerate” and as the 1940s progressed his pictures made him increasingly itchy. “Everything seemed unsuccessful, I couldn’t continue figuration.” His turn towards abstraction was nevertheless halting as he sought to square “the loyalty to my own past” with “the other loyalty of what you still might do”.

[See also: Frans Hals and the will to life]

When he came to an accommodation with his conscience, the canvases he started to paint sat somewhere between the energetic gestural paintings of Pollock (a friend since their schooldays in LA) and the throbbing colour-field works of Mark Rothko (another Americanised Russian jew). His method was to work for several hours close to the canvas, so there was an element of surprise when he finally stepped back and saw just what all his marks amounted to. The titles he gave his abstracts – Beggar’s Joy, Fable, Passage – suggest a lurking meaning just as deliquescent forms hunker, waiting to coalesce, amidst the hatchings, scumblings and roughly worked patches of colour. As for the predominance of red and pink, he explained simply: “I like pastrami.”

Although his abstracts brought him acclaim­ – Guston represented the US at the 1960 Venice Biennale ­– he gradually found that the lure of figuration had not gone away. “The hell with it,” he decided, “I just wanted to draw solid stuff.”

This stuff ­– heaps of shoes that recalled the piles of footwear stripped from Holocaust victims, cigarettes, bottles, dustbin-lids that double as shields, books, clocks and bits of wood ­– he called “crapola”. It was the detritus of everyday life but it featured too in his “dreams, surroundings, predicament, desperation”.

When he first showed his new figurative works, including some of his Klan paintings, in an exhibition in 1970, they were met with shock, dismay and disappointment that he had abandoned abstraction for such a seemingly crude alternative. One of the few to recognise what the change really represented was the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. “Why are they all complaining about you making political art?” he said to Guston at the gallery opening. “You know what your real subject is? It’s about freedom, to be free, the artist’s first duty.”

It was the style that freed him to show that the Klansmen, moving unnoticed through modern American life – plotting and planning – “could be all of us. We’re all hoods.” At the very least, when it came to bigotry, he and his fellow Americans were complicit, as many are again today. It freed him too to paint his own travails, from the health problems that plagued both Guston and his wife the poet Musa McKim, to his dreams and nightmares. In his late pictures the dominant pink is joined by black, as in Couple in Bed, 1977, when he showed himself clutching McKim, his knees and a fistful of paintbrushes, in fear of the world.

Long before the end of the exhibition you will forgive the Tate and its fellows their squeamishness and instead be grateful for this exemplary display of pictures that are simultaneously so strange, so vigorous, so intense, and so current.

Philip Guston runs at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 25 February 2024

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits