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It´s About Freedom - Philip Guston´s Late Works in the Schirn
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It’s About Freedom
Philip Guston’s Late Works in the Schirn


He was one of the most important figures of Abstract Expressionism. In the late sixties, however, Philip Guston made a radical break from the style that had made him famous. Critics reacted to his new, comic-like paintings with incomprehension. Today, the artist, who died in 1980, is considered a pioneer of the revival in figurative painting. To commemorate Guston’s 100th birthday, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, supported by the Deutsche Bank Foundation, presents a selection of his controversial late works.


Clement Greenberg, at the time the most influential art critic in America, deemed them “kitsch.” Hilton Kramer of The New York Times called Philip Guston’s new figurative paintings “primitive.” And the composer Morton Feldman, a long-time friend of the artist, would never speak to him again: Guston’s exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in October of 1970 would prove to be an artistic and personal fiasco. In reality, however, the painter, many of whose works on paper are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, made these paintings in opposition against the artistic conventions of his time. Roughly painted motifs such as hands, cigarettes, and light bulbs mark a radical break from the elegant abstract paintings that had made him famous. Moreover, Guston’s canvases are light years away from the cool, slick surfaces of Pop and Minimal Art, which negated the individual artistic signature. Willem de Kooning is one of the very few to understand his friend’s development: “Philip, do you know what the real subject is? It’s freedom.”

Now, the results of this freedom can be seen in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt: approximately 70 paintings and drawings testify to the enormous power of Guston’s late work. Churlish figures; smoking, drinking, painting figures populate these paintings. The pictorial language recalls George Herriman’s quirky and violent Krazy Kat comics, which Guston loved in his youth. The paintings testify to inner turmoil and to an anarchic sense of humor and the grotesque, but also—in a time of massive social and political upheaval—to deep-seated doubts in the medium itself. “So when the 1960s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, 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,” as the painter explained when describing his departure from Abstract Expressionism.

Guston is regarded as one of the movement’s most important figures. The New York Guggenheim Museum honored him with a major retrospective already in 1962. Subsequently, however, he began sliding deeper and deeper into an artistic crisis. He stopped painting and for two years concentrated exclusively on drawing. In 1967, at the age of 54, he turned his back on the New York art scene and moved to Woodstock with his wife. In the seclusion of this small town, where Bob Dylan was also recuperating from his demanding rock star career, Guston found the way out of his artistic conundrum. This was where he made his first small-scale figurative oil paintings in 1968/69, a selection of which is currently on view at the Schirn. One can already see the motifs that he would soon become obsessive about: light bulbs, clocks, shoes, and the “hoods”—sinister hooded figures resembling members of the Ku Klux Klan that embodied the everyday evil lying dormant in every individual: “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind a hood.”

In his large-scale canvas The Studio (1969), he stages himself as a painting “hood”—a painting whose radicality also impressed Jake Chapman, one of the YBA stars: “The mere fact that he is presenting himself as such a figure suggests that he is refusing the hallowed, idealistic role of the artist.” Other self-portraits, like Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973) and Bad Habits (1970) are just as ruthless: they show Guston’s weakness for alcohol and unhealthy food, portray him chain-smoking as he worked at night in the studio.

Jake Chapman wasn’t the only one who considered Guston a pioneer of Bad Painting, in which artists the likes of Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, and Julian Schnabel criticized the medium’s conventions with deliberately false, ugly, or bad paintings. But this is a highly limited outlook on Guston’s late work. Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator of the show, explains: “There are large areas in these paintings that are incredibly painterly. When you stand in front of the originals, it’s pure painting. You see the brushstroke, you can really dive into these surfaces. It’s wonderful.” Pfeiffer’s conversation about Guston with the painter Bernhard Martin can be read in full in the next issue of ArtMag.

At a closer look, the unambiguity of the motifs in these paintings increasingly dissolves. “Single brushstrokes, painterly surfaces, color nuances attract our gaze, and after a while nothing more is clear—neither what is depicted nor what it means, nor whether or not it is actually figurative painting,” Pfeiffer writes in her catalogue essay. This is how Guston himself described his work: “Everything is possible, everything except dogma, of any kind.” And how he agreed with his friend de Kooning: “That’s what it’s about. Freedom. That’s the only possession an artist has—freedom to do whatever you can imagine.”
Achim Drucks

Philip Guston. Late Works
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt
11/6/2013 – 2/2/2014




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