The catalog cover to the marvelous Philip Guston retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shows a detail of his 1958 painting "To Fellini." Interlocked like chunky stones in an ancient wall are bright, brushy slathers of thick oil paint -- red, white, pink, violet, brown, blue, green and black, as well as smeary blends where colors overlap and the medium-size brush picked up neighboring pigment. Here and there, small patches of tightly woven canvas peek through painted crevices.
The small detail of the big abstract painting is a surprising choice for the cover. Guston became a hero to American artists in the 1980s for the poignant Expressionist figure paintings he began to make in 1969, after a solid career as an abstract painter. Typically (if not quite accurately) described as a second-tier Abstract Expressionist, Guston made paintings whose lyrical hatching of atmospheric color was widely discussed as an innovative extension of Monet and Mondrian. When he abruptly dropped the banner of abstract art, he set New York on its ear.
You might expect the cover to a Guston retrospective to sport a cartoon-like Ku Klux Klansman, perhaps a stubby hand holding a red-tipped cigar or maybe a head with one enormous, staring eye, which many regard as the artist's veiled self-portrait. These and other provocative images populated his figurative paintings for the remainder of his career, until his untimely death at 66 in 1980. Guston's late work was embraced as a foundation for the burgeoning figurative art of the next decade.
Yet featuring "To Fellini" on the cover turns out to be just right for this compelling, beautifully installed survey. The homage in the work's title conveys Guston's own deep affinity for the seriocomic absurdities of life, which unfolds with wit and grace through nearly 100 paintings and drawings. The choice also resonates against the widespread return to prominence of abstract painting in the last decade. And it emphasizes the fundamentally mysterious power within the indulgent practice of marking up a canvas with paint.
Mostly, though, the surprising choice underscores the degree to which expectation creates perception -- and also obstructs it. Guston is an artist for whom such conflicts are central. Michael Auping, curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where the show was organized and first seen last spring, ably illuminates a key to understanding one of the major American artists of the late 20th century.
Guston began as a painter with politically progressive, socially committed inclinations. The exhibition opens with a room of drawings and paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s, many on the theme of war. There's also the bleak "Mother and Child," a remarkably sophisticated deployment of Picasso-like figures in a De Chirico-style urban wasteland. Emerging from a womb-like bathtub, a baby burrows its head into the bosom of its darkly looming mother, who sits hunched over within the desolate landscape.
Dread and the search for human solace resound in this precocious easel work, painted when Guston was just 17. Forty-seven years later, he painted "Couple in Bed," which loosely reiterates the theme.
The larger-than-life figures show the tops of two heads surrounded by darkness and huddled close against each other beneath sheltering covers. An arm wearing a wristwatch, which counts the passing hours, pokes out from under the blanket, its stumpy hand clutching paintbrushes. Held out in the center of the picture, they're like swords feebly brandished against the predatory night.
Into the abstract
In between these two phases of his career, Guston painted remarkable abstractions. The show devotes a small room to the pivotal transition from 1947 to 1948 that began his abstract phase.
It begins with the claustrophobic "Porch No. 2," which echoes the Expressionist disorientation of Max Beckmann's art. A compacted parade of five youthful figures (one apparently a self-portrait) seems ensnared by a makeshift wooden armature within a shallow, shattered space. It ends with "The Tormentors," where figures and objects have dissolved into abstract markings, and a sense of ominous premonition is suggested not by imagery but by spatial compression, dusky color and fractured line.
Guston's mature abstract paintings are deceptively simple accumulations of mostly horizontal and vertical strokes of often brilliantly colored oil paint. Color masses seem to build forms from evanescent atmosphere. The scabby, delicate surfaces, at once tough and elegant, materialize a sense of corporeality.
If a Monet water lily painting could be said to dissolve the world into aqueous marks of shifting color, a Guston abstraction might be said to travel in the opposite direction: Shifting color marks suggest a larger material presence.
Partly the effect is achieved through scale. The paintings are large -- often 6 feet on a side -- creating a field of paint that assumes a dynamic bodily relationship with a viewer. You're pulled up close. The loose grid of tactile brush marks becomes an armature that ensnares the eye. Absent any illusion of a human figure, the paintings project the aura of a physical body.
Guston's reputation emerged fully over the next 10 years, as Abstract Expressionism also emerged into the limelight. By 1956, an acclaimed show at the Sidney Janis Gallery and inclusion in "12 Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art cemented his standing. Monet, especially his mural-size late paintings, was replacing Cezanne as historical School of Paris precedent for the roaring New York School.
A decisive shift
The tumultuous 1960s changed all that. Unstoppable social emergencies -- from Dallas to Da Nang, from Watts to Watergate -- flooded into American cultural life. Abstract painting faced a crisis of identity. Held aloft as the artistic pinnacle of the modern 20th century, it suddenly provided a big, fat target as an inescapable symbol of the Establishment.
When Guston unveiled his paintings of stogie-chomping Klansmen in 1970, his decisive shift was taken as the definitive end of one era and the beginning of another. In the retrospective, the sudden change retains a sense of shock. Krazy Kat and R. Crumb have booted Monet and Cezanne from the room.
In this, the third and final phase of Guston's career, raucous finger-pointing competes with self-flagellation, as the bodies pile up in trash cans. A big, veiny hand comes down from the sky to draw a line in the sand. Hooded men stare vacantly into liquor bottles. Life is just a bowl of cherries in a monumental painting of that subject from 1976 -- but, at more than 6 feet high and nearly 10 feet wide, such fruitful abundance threatens stomachache.
Guston's palette remained much the same, and he continued to apply paint in a staccato, broken line. But cartoons are now the template. The new paintings embraced the madness inherent in the cartoon genre -- establishing in the process a lingua franca for art for the next 30 years.
Sometimes he goes right over the edge -- as in a lurid 1975 caricature of a phlebitis-ridden Richard Nixon, complete with scrotum-like jowls and a tear in his eye, prowling the beach at San Clemente in a business suit. As a drawing, the grotesque image might be riveting, but as a larger-than-life painting it's an overblown mess. Given the circumstance, though, Guston is allowed such mistakes -- especially considering the riches offered elsewhere in his work.
If a through-line can be identified for his varied career, it's an enduring sense of the ceremonial significance of painting. Guston's value is less to be located in arguments about the relative merits of abstraction versus figuration. Rather, while the world was coming apart at the seams, circa 1970, and as art was dematerializing into actions and ideas, Guston insisted that painting -- as social ritual and cultural custom -- was indispensable.
One small disappointment of the show, which travels to New York and London after closing in San Francisco in September, is that it will not be seen in Los Angeles. The city was important to his art.
Guston, born Phillip Goldstein in Montreal, moved to L.A. with his family at the age of 6. Los Angeles was rife with Klan activity in the 1920s and 1930s. At 11 he found the body of his father, a junkman, hanging by a rope, a suicide. He withdrew for hours on end to a closet illuminated by a bare light bulb, where he endlessly copied comic strips.
At Manual Arts High School downtown, he struck up a friendship with fellow student Jackson Pollock, with whom he went to Pomona College to watch Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco paint "Prometheus" in the dining hall. He won a drawing contest sponsored by The Times.
Painter Lorser Feitelson introduced him to modern art at the Hollywood home of legendary collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. On a scholarship to Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) he met his wife. His first solo show was at Stanley Rose's Hollywood bookstore; his precocious "Mother and Child" was shown at the Los Angeles County museum's annual exhibition; and, with artist Reuben Kadish, he painted a Renaissance-inspired mural for the City of Hope in Duarte. (It was recently restored.) By 1936, when the Duarte project was finished, Guston had followed Pollock to New York.
Guston wasn't exactly a prodigal son, but it would have been meaningful to see this show in the city where so many of his formative experiences, both personal and artistic, took shape.
Philip Guston Retrospective
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 W. 3rd St., San Francisco
When: Fridays-Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-6p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Ends: Sept. 28
Price: Adults $10; seniors $7; students $6; children under 12 free
Contact: (415) 357-4177