… “You gotta come from somewhere. You don’t come out of the sky.”
… For [Harold] Rosenberg, Guston’s return to the figure signaled not aesthetic liberty but rather a “liberation from detachment.” In what remains of this essay, I want to consider that paradox in Guston’s late work. How precisely, might the freedom from freedom inform these images? Does it entail a voluntary return or a departure in its own right? To put this in different terms: does Guston’s later painting belong to modernism’s last chapters or signal the start of something else entirely?
It is through the lens of de Chirico’s corpus — to which Guston paid close attention at various stages in his career — that I think we might adumbrate some answers. De Chirico famously thematized and performed questions of departure and return (temporal, stylistic, and iconographic) in his work, flouting the avant-garde concern for formal innovation.
[line break added] Even as his work flirted with the geometric abstraction that formed the benchmark of avant-garde experimentation, de Chirico insisted upon the immanence to figuration as the only path to aesthetic transcendence. For de Chirico, abstraction was always already something sublimated into the primary language of figuration: a “second drama” that emerged only through timed ellipses, careful framing, and partial effacement of isolated signs.
[line break added] The pre-discursive “freedom” of abstraction, in other words, could only come through a voluntary confinement to the language of figures and grounds. It was precisely this unwavering adherence to representational language that further endeared his work to a painter seeking refuge from “detachment.” Guston’s re-embrace of figuration — with all of its attendant semantic and ideological burdens — gains further poignancy in the light of de Chirico’s precedent.
… Guston remarked of his late figuration, “You gotta come from somewhere. You don’t come out of the sky” — a notion that echoes, I think, in his re-embrace of painterly genealogy in and as a ground, a line, a fictive plane from which the picture is built up in basic terms. An image like The Line (1978) literalizes this very process; a monumental hand descends from the heavens to cleave the painting’s (already illusionist) foreground. If this hand comes miraculously out of nowhere, as it were, the painting itself proceeds, in turn, from the ground up. In work after work, it is these schematic horizons or floors or seams of wood on which Guston’s figures increasingly find their feet.
Philip Guston, The Line, 1978
… [A]n attempt to work through the difficulties of a renewed figuration is the evidence of its historic impossibility.” The words are Benjamin Buchloh’s, describing (or more precisely, disparaging) the painting of Georg Baselitz from the 1960s. The words could equally have served to dismiss Guston’s post-Marlborough works, or Guttuso’s lifelong production, or even de Chirico’s painting in the 1910s. Indeed, they — or terms like them — did obliquely ridicule the latter’s continued appeal to figuration in the wake of “pure painting.”
[line break added] Recall Apollinaire’s sneer, despite his admiration of de Chirico, at the anachronistic use of “that miserable tricky perspective … that infallible device for making all things shrink.” As we have seen, though, de Chirico’s perspectival device was anything but straightforward. The strength of Guston’s post-1969 work, too, perhaps lies in its persistent complicity with abstraction.
… “It’s circular,” Guston quipped to an interviewer about his supposed “return” to figuration. Whether his recent work was figurative or not was, Guston remarked curtly, “beside the point.” He knew that his departure at Marlborough was also a return, that his newfound freedom was at the same time a voluntary retreat into the cozy confines of language, of “stories.”
… [Guston] did not simply violate Greenbergian creed of abstraction, still predominant in late 1960s America. He also refused, amidst the sea change of post-war production during this same period, to question the institution and the ontology of painting itself — something that would earn him equal censure by critics for whom complicity with the culture industry was just as (aesthetically and morally) execrable as figuration was to Greenberg. Guston’s late figuration thus constitutes a double infamy.
[line break added] I think it is essential to situate its legacy between these critical poles. Perhaps no other painter has had the honor of his work being simultaneously disdained by the critical apparatuses of both Hilton Kramer and Benjamin Buchloh. Only de Chirico’s painting — embraced simultaneously by Surrealism and Fascist architects in the ’30s, it’s later iterations reviled by the majority of the art world but defended by no less an ironist than Marcel Duchamp — has exceeded the contradictory, even inimical, resonances of Guston’s late work.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.