“We Have Met the Enemy and It is Us”
From Pogo’s single reliable parable, we can draw truth regarding the history of the 20th century and shed light on the recent controversy over the late dystopian work of Philip Guston and the attempts to censor it. Wow! Think of the field day such arbiters of morality could have with a retrospective of the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
This late body of work by, arguably, the most important artist of the second half of the 20th century needs and will get the comprehensive showing it deserves in the spring of 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for its first stop. No other artist has captured the intellectual complexities and absurdities of living in the belly of the beast as the American Century took over. Lesson learned: ART TRANSCENDS CENSORSHIP.
Guston’s amazing feat, of devouring the given culture and regurgitating it in his art, posits rare intellectual courage and a highly developed sensibility in this artistically successful painter. And to have confronted our national shame, innate violence, and hypocrisy head-on, for the last twenty years of his life, reveals a “dark night of the soul” experience deserving of artistic sainthood right up there with Vincent.
Philip Guston, The Street, oil on canvas, 69 x 111 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
A Critical Study of Philip Guston, published by Dore Ashton in 1976 gave full, prescient recognition of Guston’s importance. And since Guston was still alive to authenticate the facts, this volume is an important source on which I base some of the quotes used in this memoir fragment.
I recently received a new appraisal of the career of Giorgio de Chirico from Italian sources, called Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art, with essays for an exhibition in Genoa. Its argument for the reconsideration of the total career of this artist is given conviction by showing his many-faceted shape changes and masks, including his many re-published statements regarding the Metaphysical in Art. It also leads me to ponder the mutual influences that might have occurred between those two monumental artists, Guston and de Chirico, well into the mid-1970s when Guston was in his late 50s and de Chirico his late 80s (Ashton 82 and 171). A career retrospective comparison of these two artists, which this book re-ignited in me, raises fascinating questions.
While working as a copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune, I was given a copy of James Thrall Soby’s Giorgio de Chirico, by Emily Genauer, the then art editor for the paper, when she saw my hungry eye. I was a student at Columbia University at the time and soon to be drafted into the army during the Korean War. It initiated a lasting interest that included my later graduate study project on de Chirico.
Guston’s first encounter with de Chirico’s early groundbreaking work happened in California at age 17, when he was exposed to the Arensberg collection (Ashton 213). The profound influence on Guston was to be reinforced by seeing the master at work on show preparations in 1936, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York City (Ashton 41). Were there personal exchanges during Guston’s two visits to Italy? That is not revealed by the new book on de Chirico. Time and research will tell, but Guston’s lifelong admiration for the older artist’s work would make it seem likely. That respect was well documented by Ashton’s reliable research (7, 22, and 151). Ashton was also right on target in her correlation of the grotesque influences that Guston brought to his work at this point. In de Chirico, the absurdly grotesque is disguised as forbidding nostalgic anxiety. Heroic mannequins confront an enigmatic jumble of the detritus of life in a morbidly disquieting space. This is a trope that Guston will use to great effect in the late work, piling objects of daily life on a flat foreground plane, just as de Chirico had done on his unstable receding planes.
Another shared quality of the two artists is a poetic melancholy for the past, both cultural and personal, aroused by the philosophy of Nietzsche and German romantic mysticism in de Chirico’s case, and Russian literature, Kafka, and existential philosophy in Guston’s. Both painters were deep readers of philosophy (Ashton 151 and 175).
The fact that de Chirico returned periodically to his metaphysical style at later dates cannot be explained simply as bad faith and post dating. The scattered masterpieces in that style from the 1960s through the 1980s attest to the importance he gave to his early genius. He attempts to explain, in his voluminous writings published in the 1920s, the justification for his shape-shifting personality that found an outlet in seemingly schizoid periods of soft impressionism and bombastic neo-baroque work. These manifestoes, which seem at times to float in an obscure mystic gravy, at other times reveal significant clues, which later seem to be activated in late Guston. Particularly revealing is the first of these essays called “Zeuxis the Explorer” where de Chirico states, “You must find the demon in every thing” and “You must find the eye in every thing.
Giorgio de Chirico, The Jewish Angel, 1916, oil on canvas, 26 7/8 × 17 3/4 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
These two demands were embodied in Guston’s late period whether he had read them or not. The enormous suffering eye of the artist dominates so many of the late compositions, and the full range of personal demons are explicitly spelled out.
This publishing of written statements was another commonality of the two artists. Both were voracious readers of literature and poetry. Interactions with surrealist poets and writers abound in de Chirico’s life, just as in Guston’s, there were significant contacts with writers Harold Rosenberg and Philip Roth and poets Clark Coolidge and Stanley Kunitz. Both shared a lifetime of struggle to define and articulate their positions as artists in turbulent times. Both felt the urge to go beyond the known status quo into the unknown. Both lived through a national period of disgrace under Mussolini and Nixon.
None of the negative press around de Chirico in the 1920s and 30s obscured the importance of his early period. In contrast, Guston worked through three significant periods to arrive like an explosion in the late period where critics accused him of a “stumblebum” pretense. Both Guston and de Chirico internalized metamorphosing change and suffered major critical rejection. Both reacted by intense years of feverish painting activity. Guston moved outside the New York art world to create a whole new idiom of painting in the isolation of Woodstock, NY. This late style was based on the satirical and the grotesque meeting up with a sensibility exquisitely tuned to the philosophy and history of its time.
In 1969 I shook Guston’s hand at a reception in Greenwich Village for the Kansas City Art Institute. I had just returned to New York from three years of teaching there. The artist Leland Bell introduced me. Little did I know the furor his upcoming show at Marlborough Gallery would bring down upon him. I had decided that his recent abstract hovering images (sometimes referred to as “abstract impressionism”) were too ingratiating for me. They were damned beautiful and tasteful. I wanted more risk In my youthful arrogance mixed with awkward awe, so I missed my opportunity to confront and know him better. That still rankles. I wonder what my reaction would have been if I had known the shock of the 70s paintings and the new possibilities (including narration) they opened up.
Philip Guston, Monument, oil on canvas, 1976, Tate Gallery, London.
In understanding Guston’s abiding loyalty to de Chirico’s derided later periods, I think it boils down to the respect Guston felt for the rebellious spirit and of freedom at all costs. Guston, who created what may be the last great outpouring of the modern romantic period initiated by Goya, could well identify with the controversy and unrest still brewing in Europe over de Chirico.
The 21st century’s dilemma brewing in the seed . . . What comes next?
Ashton, Dore. A Critical Study of Philip Guston. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1976.
Noel-Johnson, Victoria, ed. Giorgio de Chirico, The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art. Milan: Skira, 2019.
Soby, James Thrall. Giorgio de Chirico. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1955.
Image at top: Giorgio de Chirico, The Disquieting Muses, oil on canvas, 1947, University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, Iowa City, IA.