… [Guston’s] moment of crisis in the mid-sixties is often interpreted as a desire to reattach art to life — a move toward “realism” and the “figure” over “abstraction,” but the truth seems very different. What Guston needed, like so many damaged and visionary old men, was above all a private style. And by then abstraction had become irrevocably public: the official style of a staggeringly successful art culture.
… Two motifs in particular came to be of supreme importance for Guston: the naked light bulb, dangling from its segmented metal chain — a light and a noose at once — and the insect like assemblage of naked, hairy legs with oversized feet turned up to reveal the cobbled, nailed sole.
… Almost all of the catalog of symbols that possessed him in the last decade — the light bulb, the big, upturned sole, the hairy leg — derive from comic-book sources; the oversize upturned cobbled sole first appears in Fisher’s comics, the bare bulb and the stubbled faces each with a cigarette butt planted dumbly in the mouth appear regularly in the work of Ahern and Wolverton; the Cyclops, as we have seen, derives from Capp, while, as Robert Storr had observed, the clown-like gloved hands and skinny legs with big shoes derive from Gottfredson’s version of Mickey Mouse.
… Guston put on the mask of Bud Fisher for the same reason that Beckett put on the deadpan of Buster Keaton. Both artists had the insight to see in a popular style an undercurrent of dread which could be magnified, cultivated, reimagined, and expanded, and still remain strangely comic, tender, and unpretentious.
In this sense, Guston’s work is closer in spirit to the Johns of Alley Oop than it is to anything in Lichtenstein or Oldenburg. The language of American comics becomes a diction for private poetry. Johns and Guston both emerge in the aftermath of achievement, from an acute consciousness of the greatness, at once liberating and imprisoning, of American abstract painting. Yet the dialogue between private and public which Johns expressed as a muted koan becomes in Guston an absurd expressionist tragedy.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] Guston never forsook his gift for pure painting, or his control over “epic” size canvases. In fact, his late paintings, far from having the flat or impersonal surfaces of Pop, have an impassioned richness of surface, a mix of butter-cream and blood, as luxurious as anything in his delicate abstract pictures. For all the suggestive relationship between Crumb and Guston, it is here that they are most different. In Crumb’s art, the tension is between Kurtzman and Superman. Guston’s art is built around an argument between Ahern and Goya. (And, in this way, Guston’s art resembles Goya’s, for Goya’s art, after all, was structured by a dialog between Gillray and Velasquez.)
[line break added] In paintings, like the late Pull, the comic book images have been isolated, reduced, purified, and made into heralds of death. They display at once a death-knell feeling for the pathos of the small, repeated, and segmented stroke — the nails on the sole, the links in the light-bulb chain struck like a tolling bell — and also for the grand organ peal, the big, melodramatic gesture. Very little art in this century has been so intensely polarized, but few modern pictures have made so operatic a case that painting, as Guston put it prophetically, long before he abandoned abstraction, “is impure. It is the adjustment of impurities which forces its continuity.”
[line break added] Lichtenstein and Warhol had still had an odd residual and not quite conscious faith in a kind of purity, and had invented imaginary pop universes of clean, unmediated gestures. The intensity of Guston’s faith in the power of impurity produced paintings that have some of the concentration of great religious art. Looking at Guston’s work, as Robert Storr has written, “We confront them now with the same puzzlement that Guston himself felt each morning looking at the accomplishment of the night before, seeing both an image of the familiar, and a vision of the unknown.
… The greatness of Pollock and de Kooning had lain in the dialog in their art between existential angst and decorative luxuriance. Guston rejected the decorative swoon altogether. Only by pushing his essentially literal gift all the way into the most banal kind of illustration could he find an original style.