In Hilton Kramer's 1970 New York Times review of Philip Guston's break through exhibition at Marlborough Gallery titled "A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum" Kramer wrote, "Throughout the history of modern painting the primitive has repeatedly been called upon to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of high art and Mr. Guston is clearly seeking a rejuvenation In terms of a popular visual slang of the old cartoonists. But it doesn't work." Years later the art critic had this to say, "I remember my shock at seeing this work. This was utterly unacceptable to artists of his own generation. They had believed from the very start that high art was high art and low art was low art, and never the twain shall meet."
Go see Centennial Exhibition at McKee Gallery in Midtown NYC (by the way centennial is referring to his birth date one hundred years ago). Its hard to put into words why I like Guston's late work so much, like so many other people. The above quote helps me make sense of my admiration. When Kramer mentions "the primitive has repeatedly been called upon to rescue and rejuvenate the vitality of high art", (even thought he uses this idea to bash Guston's work) I think about my painting and how I have sought a simple art that is modest in technique and primary in concept to express myself. Guston adopted a primitive, representational style in order to escape the pure ideals of abstraction and engage in a dialogue with the raucous and cantankerous world around him and within him. I have found solace in the primitive to plot out for me a sanctuary in the midst of an overly conceptual, abstract, and technological world, so that I can relish in the simple pleasure of making with hands art-objects.
The work at McKee Gallery contain a mishmash of his paintings. Here are a few observations that I have about his work:
- Most of his paintings are created with a single layer of paint… I had always assumed that they were worked and reworked many times. Unfortunately, I often found myself preferring photos of his work to the real pieces themselves (what can I say, I love texture and layers)
- He painted on a range of different sized canvases, from quite large to small.
- My favorite works of his in this exhibition were the small sized works and the three in the very back of the gallery... they bordered on the unrecognizable, were centered compositions, and medium-sized.
Below is an excellent and concise Philip Guston documentary that I found on YouTube that will give you some insight to his person and his art...
Images from McKee Gallery