Think Pink (and Guston)!

Philip Guston, Untitled (Wall), 1971. Oil on paper. Private Collection. © Estate of Philip Guston; image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, NY

This is the first reaction of most visitors as they enter Philip Guston, Roma. Some can’t handle it, just too much pink. Personally, I don’t care for pink, but I love these paintings. A pink was chosen as the 2011 Color of the Year by Pantone, so you could say the Phillips is leading in trends.

Something to take into consideration:  When white is added to a color to lighten it, we usually call it by the name of the original color. Blue becomes light blue, or pale blue, but it is still blue. However, black becomes not light black but gray, and red becomes not pale red but pink. So these Gustons are not pink but red paintings.

The paintings are composed of primarily three colors–red, black and white. When artist Chuck Close was asked about this palette during a panel discussion here, he said that Guston’s friends used to joke that Philip went to the art store, and there was a sale on red, black, and white.

It is a handsome color combination, used for centuries. Guston had used it extensively in his paintings exhibited at Marlborough Galleries just before his stay in Rome. There is also a noticeable use in his earlier abstractions, frequently as pink. Come to think of it, a number of big macho abstract expressionists used pink. (See our Gottlieb Seer or Equinox, which also has the alchemical trinity at the bottom). It was as if pink was in the air.

Adolph Gottlieb, Equinox, 1963. Oil on canvas, 90 x 84 in. Acquired 1963. The Phillips Collection

Although Guston mixed black with white, or red with white, he never mixed all three together, for there is no violet in these paintings. Sometimes he painted black on top of red, or red on top of black, but the three colors mushed together would have introduced a different note, that of violet. His dark red comes from red straight up, rather than from the addition of black.

There are theories as to why Guston focused on red, but maybe it was just his favorite color. In the catalogue there are reproduced two pages of a letter he wrote; it is written in red ballpoint ink on blue lined yellow legal paper, an absolutely hideous color combination. But a red ink pen? He would have had to search that out from all the easily available blues and blacks. Red probably did gather certain meanings for him, but if so, he never revealed them. There are just some things you have to keep within the safe red chambers of your heart.

-Ianthe Gergel, Museum Assistant

Philip Guston’s Moral Courage

Philip Guston. Untitled, 1971. Oil on paper mounted on canvas. Private Collection, Woodstock, NY. © Estate of Philip Guston; image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York, NY.

Would you risk a highly successful career, replete with public recognition, to pursue a line of creative inquiry that was tacitly forbidden? That is exactly what Philip Guston did. Virtually self-taught, Guston’s early social realist works showed the influence of Picasso, Piero della Francesca, and Mexican mural painting. His abstract expressionist works were widely admired for their refined, elegant handling. In 1970, Guston exhibited his work at the prestigious Marlborough Gallery in New York. Prepared to embrace Guston one of America’s leading proponents of abstraction, critics were shocked to see paintings that showed hooded Klan-like figures and other politically charged imagery depicted in a deliberately clumsy, cartoon-like manner. Critics such as Hilton Kramer of The New York Times reacted with disbelief and derision.

What made Guston change his style? The news in the late 1960s was about Vietnam, anti-war demonstrations, and the violence at the Democratic National Convention. Guston felt that he could no longer justify the luxury of adjusting a red to a blue in his abstract painting when the world was in turmoil. Looking back, he recalled, “I was sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories again.”

Guston wanted to invent a new visual language that reflected what was going on in the world. Continue reading “Philip Guston’s Moral Courage” »

Guston’s Difficulta

Michelangelo, detail of Jonah from The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1471 – 1484.

Experiment Station readers may recall my recent post on Philip Guston in relation to Bob Dylan. Washington City Paper‘s subsequent pairing of that piece with another post on Guston by my colleague Brooke prompted me to consider a term from the Italian Renaissance, Difficulta. This expression referred to a practice of artists of the period to depict a scene of self-conscious complexity, so as to show the artist’s mastery of their craft. The example most often described in art history is Michelangelo’s portrayal on the Sistine Ceiling of the prophet Jonah moments after he has been disgorged by the whale. The representation of these awkward, writhing figures so that they would appear gracefully and beautifully rendered was a way of visually boasting and showing one’s artistic prowess.

What does this have to do with Guston’s art, particularly the Phillips’s current exhibition Roma? Well in short, Guston’s art is a 20th century version of difficulta, where the artist sets up deliberate challenges that he strove to overcome. Continue reading “Guston’s Difficulta” »