Unnumb yourself like Guston

“Unnumb oneself to the brutality of the world, which is the only reason to be an artist – to bear witness.”

Artists aren’t renowned for their mental wellness. And Philip Guston bore greater traumas than most. But he persevered, eventually accepting himself for who he was.

You can see it in his self-portraits. They are radically honest. 

Guston tends to appear in profile, in bed, looking like a one-eyed butterbean. The character will be a cartoon, but the ruffled hair and pastrami-pink skin tone will mark it out as the artist.

Not really what Guston looked like. But how he must have felt. Like a great eye. Sleepless, looking out on debris.

Philip Guston wasn’t always known for his cartoons. New York curators loved him for paintings like this one:

Zone (1953) by Philip Guston

But then, he wasn’t always known as Philip Guston, either. His birth-name was Phillip Goldstein.

Phillip Goldstein… the kind of kid who hid in closets and copied cartoons from newspapers:

“As a child, I would hide in a closet while my older brothers and sisters came with their families to dine on Sunday evenings. I felt safe. Listening to them talk about their health, marriage and financial problems, I felt how much I was distant from their world in my closet, lit by a single bulb. I read and drew in this box that was mine. Certain Sundays I even painted in the closet.”

And if you’ve never met a boy like that, well, that’s because Phillip Goldstein had particular reasons to hide – not least the dangers that came with being the son of Jewish immigrants in the 1920s.

Philip Guston working on a mural (1940)

Back then, membership of the Ku Klux Klan was in the millions. And Phillip was terrorised by white hoods, as he grew in Los Angeles.

They marched. They broke strikes. They lashed out against opposition.

When he was a teenager, Goldstein put a series of paintings on display. They protested the KKK, so they didn’t last long:

“… members of the Klan walked in, took the paintings off the wall and slashed them. Two were mutilated.”

So, white hoods. Antisemitism. The spectre of pogroms and persecution. That’s why Phillip Goldstein drew in a closet.

The boy was also haunted by the passing of his father by suicide. At 10 years old, Phillip found the body in the garden shed.

Later, Phillip would be shaken by the death of his elder brother. The world was a disaster zone.

But, in comic strips, violence could be shaken off. No harm was permanent.

Panel from Krazy Kat by George Herriman

Krazy Kat, a favourite character of Phillip’s, could take endless bricks to the head. Assault did nothing to dull the cat’s affection or humour.

Cartooning gave Phillip a style that could soften his dark visions, as he drew “conspiracies and flogging and cruelty and evil”.

His pictures would get darker across his lifetime. Towards the end, almost totally black. But we can hope Phillip’s psyche got lighter.

Sleeping (1977) by Philip Guston

Phillip Goldstein became Philip Guston, a reclusive artist with an Anglicised name who holed up in dark, cramped studios to draw and paint cartoons.

Put that way, Guston’s path sounds linear and neat, lined with flowers like a suburban driveway. But his career took dramatic turns; it jack-knifed, as Sarah Cowan noted in The Paris Review:

“He was a WPA muralist in the thirties; by 1962, he was treated to a midcareer Guggenheim retrospective as a member of the New York School; later, when he broke with abstraction, he was ‘excommunicated’ (his word) by the art establishment. Today, he’s been canonized for his bravery as a freethinker with a moral compass.”

Philip Guston, Woodstock, NY (1964) by Dan Budnik

He made his name alongside Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning. But Guston’s internal compass tugged him back to the real:

“When the 1960s came along, I was feeling split. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything … and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”

What was the alternative?

“The hell with it. I just wanted to draw solid stuff.”

He took his brushes and his canvases back to the Sunday closet of his youth. That meant breaking with the style that had made him famous and painting “crapola”… junk… stuff… in a crude, cartoonish style.

In 1970, after three productive years in upstate New York, Guston unveiled new paintings crammed with recognisable objects like boots, books, clocks and lightbulbs.

Flatlands (1970) by Philip Guston

The work was dismissed as “crude”, “simplistic” and “embarrassing”.

Critics were confused by the Klansmen populating many of the paintings. They were caricatured as triangles of cloth, patched-up and blood-splattered.

Robert Hughes asked, “Who now takes the Klan as a real political force?” while recognising the figures were metaphorical:

“… not to be taken as symbols of a pervasive present threat, but as generalised symbols of inhumanity.”

Riding Around (1969) by Philip Guston

Guston meant them to accuse more of us than even Hughes reckoned. As a symbol, the hood stood for anyone and everyone.

It stood for the troops that drove Lois and Rachel Goldstein from Odessa.

It stood for the thugs that tore Phillip Goldstein’s pictures from the wall.

It stood for the police who battered protestors outside the 1968 Democratic convention.

And, of course, for Guston himself.

“My attempt was really not… to do pictures of the KKK, as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me… I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot?”

We’re all capable. We’re all culpable. That’s what Guston’s bumbling villains imply.

The Studio (1969) by Philip Guston

They’re like us in so many ways that it may as well be us behind the mask. A vital message, delivered by speech bubble.

Philip Guston spoke about returning to his childhood obsessions as the release of a great force:

“Ideas and feelings kept coming so fast; I couldn’t stop; I was sitting on the crest of a wave.”

Painter’s Forms II (1978) by Philip Guston

Now, doesn’t that sound like the account of someone unburdening themselves? Someone doing the work they were always meant to do?

It reminds me of something said by the founder of humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

There’s something liberating about confronting and mastering your past.

And Guston did change. He’d found his style, but would slowly move his focus from the political to the personal.

Musa (1975) by Philip Guston

After the exorcism that led to the 33 paintings in the 1970 exhibition, the Klan visited Guston’s work less often.

That opened space for “dreams, surroundings, predicament, desperation, Musa – love, need.”

There was a name in that list: Musa.

Musa Jane McKim Guston was a painter, a poet, and Philip Guston’s wife.

If Guston appeared in his paintings as a cycloptic butterbean, Musa was a bridge with a centre parting.

He recorded their attachment, even as Musa was wracked by illness. He’d built the strength to bear it.

Couple in Bed (1977) by Philip Guston

To the critic Harold Rosenberg, Guston’s later work was all about attachment – or, put another way, it was about “a liberation from detachment”.

It was unafraid of the mess of the real world. The mess of politics. The mess of the body. The mess of paint on canvas.

Guston found the courage to confront the mess of his own life. Legs, ginormous and twisted, became a late motif. Guston entwined them, stacked them and stretched them.

 The Door (1976) by Philip Guston

He could have been remembering the tragedy of his people, the Jewish people. Many gallery visitors were reminded of the Holocaust.

He could have been remembering the tragedy of his older brother Nat, whose legs were amputated after a car accident – and who died anyway.

Or maybe Guston was remembering his father. That was a theory shared by Philip’s daughter. The landscapes put her in mind of “My grandfather, a junkman”.

“I can’t help thinking of my father’s last paintings, made in the years before his death. Of those terrible loony wastelands, the piled up images of junk, a life’s debris, animate and inanimate, the legs and wheels and shoes and garbage-can lids.”

When making these final works, Guston wasn’t hiding anything any more. He was “unnumb”. He was bearing witness. And we benefit from his bravery.

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