The painter Philip Guston first showed in Venice in 1960. He was 47 and one of four artists chosen to represent the USA. The others were Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and Theodore Roszak, all of them abstract expressionists, as Guston was then.
He and Jackson Pollock had been friends since their days at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles. And later, when he’d moved to New York, he knew Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Kline. But it is not for the richly chromatic work he was making then that he is best remembered.
Philip Guston, Position I, 1965 © The Estate of Philip Guston. Private Collection. Photo: Genevieve Hanson
This summer, Guston, who died in 1980, will become the first American artist to have an exhibition at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, a glorious repository of masterpieces by Piero della Francesca, Leonardo and Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Tiepolo, Guardi and Pietro Longhi, housed in what was once the Scuola Grande of the convent of Santa Maria della Carità.
Poetry fascinated Guston, so the exhibition, comprising 50 paintings and 25 drawings made over the course of his life, will be arranged thematically according to the works’ resonances with poems by T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Eugenio Montale, Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats.
Like most great artists, Guston was immersed in quattrocento and cinquecento painting, too — though not exclusively. ‘When I go north, to Venice,’ he wrote to the poet Bill Berkson in 1975, ‘faced with Tiepolo, Tintoretto, and even so-called “Mannerist” work like Pontormo, Parmigianino, etc, I cheat on my earlier loves and fall head over heels.’
Philip Guston, Mother and Child, circa 1930 © The Estate of Philip Guston. Private Collection
You can see the influence of Masaccio’s monolithic figures in Guston’s early figurative work, and he especially revered Piero. ‘A different fervour, grave and delicate, moves in the daylight of his pictures,’ he wrote in an essay for Art News in 1965. ‘Without our familiar passions, he is like a visitor to the earth, reflecting on distances, gravity and positions of essential forms. [It is] as though he is opening his eyes for the first time.’
Originally named Phillip Goldstein, Guston was born in 1913 to Russian Jewish immigrants from Odessa, who initially settled in Montreal, then moved to Los Angeles when Guston — the youngest of their seven children — was six.
Four years later, his father hanged himself; Guston discovered the body and subsequently sought solace by hiding in a cupboard lit by a naked bulb, the image of which would become a prevailing motif in the oddly disquieting, figurative, often autobiographical paintings he began to make in his fifties. ‘I think a painter has two choices,’ he said. ‘He paints the world or himself.’
Philip Guston, Painter’s Forms, 1972 © The Estate of Philip Guston. Private Collection. Photo: Christopher Burke
These prevailingly pink, cartoonish canvases are populated by books, clocks, shoes, boots, paintbrushes and cigarettes (Guston was a heroic smoker). Giant heads with stubbly chins glare from a single eye. Ku Klux Klansmen, with cigars clamped between fat fingers, intimidate in their pointed hoods.
‘Usually I am on a work for a long stretch,’ he wrote, ‘until a moment arrives when the air of the arbitrary vanishes, and the paint falls into positions that feel destined... The very matter of painting — its pigment and spaces — is so resistant to the will, so disinclined to assert its plane and remain still. Painting seems like an impossibility, with only a sign now and then of its own light.’
Guston revealed this change of style in a show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970. He left for Venice immediately after the opening, having asked the gallery not to send him the reviews in case they were savage. Some of them were, not least that of The New York Times, where Hilton Kramer called Guston a ‘mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum’. The gallery forwarded them anyway.
Posterity has taken a rather different view, and Guston is now regarded as one of the great painters of his generation. As Philippe de Montebello, then director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, put it in 2003, when the museum staged a major retrospective of his work, ‘Guston’s particular genius was in mediating seemingly diverse traditions, and, with fluent brushstrokes that speak to the artist’s hand and brilliant colour, creating works that vigorously defied conventions.’
As to the artist’s own response to the bad press occasioned by that landmark show at the Marlborough: ‘I was angry for about half an hour and then I threw it in one of the canals,’ he said. ‘Why should I be depressed in Venice?’
Why indeed? Venice was a place he loved. ‘My father took my mother and me to Italy before I went away to college,’ recalled his daughter, Musa Mayer, at the launch of this year’s exhibition. ‘And the Accademia was our very first stop. I can still remember his love of the great Italian masterworks there. He would have been deeply touched and honoured to have his own work among them.’
To exhibit at the Biennale may be a tribute, but to show at the Accademia is sanctifcation.
Philip Guston and the Poets is at the Gallerie dell’Accademia from 8 May to 3 September