Philip Guston and the violation of virtuosity

Most, if not all, comic art works against an audience’s expectations of overt virtuosity. It’s often the incongruity of those expectations set against a deliberately slapdash rendering that makes us laugh – think of David Shrigley’s lumpen thumb placed on the stately decorum of the Trafalgar Square plinth, or the cartoonish modelling of Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, a direct affront to the Beaux Arts expertise of the Victoria Monument the piece is in conversation with. The contrast with Victorian proficiency and pomp in both works is obviously very deliberate, but the focus on that contrast means the artists must surrender any straightforward prestige and open themselves up to the accusation of either a lack of skill or too heavy a reliance upon the ‘merely’ conceptual. 

In Philip Guston’s case, the loss of virtuosity is a key part of the story: and the horrified reactions of his contemporaries to his abrupt shedding of abstract expressionism and the rapid development of a cartoon-like idiom in its place testifies to the shock of that loss. The contrast of his late style with his earlier striving for sublimity may be more melancholy than the contrasts invoked by Shrigley or Walker – he’s not setting out to shock or startle in quite the same way – but the incongruity remains. The shift was provoked by something like despair: ‘I am weary,’ he famously said in an interview, ‘of all this purity.’ Abstract expressionism had come to seem ‘a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit’ (qtd. in Ware) and what Guston wanted instead was to lay bare the essential vulgarity of human experience: ‘the wooden floors—the light bulbs—the cigarette smoke… the brick walls” (qtd. in Ware) that was being studiously ignored. In his new iconography of grubby interiors and lumpy objects there is an innately comic emphasis upon materiality. The comic often pays close heed to specificity, and Alenka Zupančič’s description of comedy’s movement away from the ‘universal values of the beautiful, the just, the good, the moral…towards the individual or the particular (as always and necessarily imperfect, limited and always slightly idiotic)’ captures Guston’s rejection of the metaphysical aspirations of the abstract expressionists and his commitment instead to humdrum materiality.

The rejection of virtuosity might suggest a rejection of skill, but the two things are far from the same, and in reality, skill is a key part of what makes Guston’s later work so satisfying. Robert Storr’s recognition of the ‘fundamental geometry’ underpinning Guston’s work is very useful here: the squares, triangles, circles that ‘masquerade as pines, hedges, topiary trees, hooded heads, bare bald heads, boulders, hewn stones, tablets, clocks, wheels, and so on’. ‘Together, they constitute the DNA of Guston’s art, the code that engendered its myriad mutations yet guaranteed its formal as well as symbolic integrity.’ One painting, The Studio (1969), offers a good case study for examining the formal integrity Storr describes. Before we examine the surprising formal coherence of the work, it’s worth noting the ethical integrity that’s also apparent in this parodic version of an artist’s self-portrait. Here the informal headgear affected by artists through the ages as a mark of their bohemian status – the turban in Hogarth for example, or the cap for Durer, becomes a full-body hood. In other Guston paintings, the hood is a specific allusion to the Ku Klux Klan –  to evil elsewhere – but here the suggestion is that the artist is also complicit. The prized notion of the artist as somehow exempt from the prejudices of society at large is thus undermined.  Any thought of artistic transcendence is further dispelled by the oppressive interiority of the painting: the sweep of curtains at the top and to the side (an allusion to the virtuosic rendering of fabric in more conventional art) focusing attention on the glare of the naked lightbulb and emphasising the sense of claustrophobia.

© Philip Guston

Guston may be unpicking or deconstructing the classic self-portrait genre, but this doesn’t mean that the resulting formal organisation of the painting is any less rigorous. The attention to geometry noted by Storr is very evident and the painting can be seen as an exercise in form, with triangles, rectangles, and circles arranged in clusters. The rectangle of the canvas being painted upon is echoed by the red and black rectangles beyond; while the narrower rectangles of the eye-slits are replicated by the fingers, the stripes in the glove, and the paint brushes. Meanwhile, a cluster of circles is formed by the peg holes in the easel, the clock, and the lightbulb. In the centre of the painting, the horizontal line of the brush is reinforced by the horizontal line of the cigarette, a replication which echoes the main action of the painting: the hood painting another hood. That action is further underscored by the alternating sequence of red and white which leads the eye from right to left: red pot, white gloved hand, red hand, white canvas. While the white gloved hand makes visual sense as a part of the hooded body, by sitting directly alongside the red paint pot, it also reads as merely another object, and loses its status as a human limb: a pot holding brushes, a hand holding a cigarette – both are things for holding other things. We might see it as a characteristically dry joke about alienation – a form of atomisation the artist is peculiarly susceptible to – when the practice of making pictures over time reduces the world to mere volume and mass. Commentators have suggested that Guston’s late preoccupation with steadfastly humble objects has its origins in his father’s work as a junk man, a job he was deeply ashamed about. If the objects in Guston’s work do constitute an acknowledgement or even an embrace of that once despised occupation, there is also a sense in which Guston’s high status as a painter is shown to have an unexpected kinship with his father’s lowly trade. Guston is also a junk man – his painter’s eye atomising the world into stubbornly distinct objects.

This commitment to puncturing any idealism about the role of the artist is fundamental to Guston’s attack upon virtuosity, which he recognises as a form of self-assertion or domination, a way of disguising a fundamental poverty. But while the violation of that virtuosity is key to both the integrity and the comedy of his late style, we must not forget the skill at work in what Ariana Reines calls his ‘bad painting’. 

Storr, Robert, ‘Philip Guston: Hilarious and Horrifying’, The New York Review, 8 March 2015,

Ware, Chris, ‘Caricature: Or, Guston’s Graphic Novel’, 6 Feb. 2018, The New York Review,

Zupančič, Alenka. The Odd One In: on Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2007.

© Emma Sullivan 2020.

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