I was excited to learn that Philip Guston, the current subject of the Phillips’s exhibition Philip Guston, Roma, was living in Woodstock, New York in 1967, when he made the infamous and important shift in his work from abstract to figural painting. The subject of the Roma exhibition is the art he created during a yearlong Italian sojourn after the debut of his new figural style had been vehemently criticized by much of the New York art world. Guston was described as a “Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum” by one art critic for his rejection of abstract expressionism in favor of a figural art that he believed told stories, but in what many critics at the time thought was an exceptionally crude and even ugly manner.
It brought to mind another artist working in the 1960s whose body of work was detested by his most ardent fans after a change in style. Fans had loved the musician’s poetic folk music, with its strong political overtones, but audiences booed and and scathingly criticized his music when it shifted to a loud, electric sound lacking a clear political point of view. It is just coincidence that Bob Dylan, like Guston, was also living in Woodstock in 1967. He was holed in a house with members of his most recent band, The Band, recording numerous tapes of quirky, somewhat raw, crude music that told stories about eccentric characters. There is no evidence that Guston and Dylan ever met, but the parallels between their careers, and their creation of new and soon-to-be influential art, which initially offended their admirers, is curiously and somehow instructively ironic.
-Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs