The Director’s Archive: Philip Guston, 1989

I am a great admirer of the American artist Philip Guston (1913-80), and I have been looking again at his extraordinary body of work recently in light of the mood and temperament of our own turbulent times. Guston’swork seems to me to resonate with the anxiety of contemporary society.  

The major exhibition of his drawings at Modern Art Oxford in 1989 was curated by Magdalena Dabrowski from the Department of Drawings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and comprehensively covered five decades of drawings by Guston, who considered drawing central to his creative work.  

Bringing together 153 works on paper, the show surveyed the key developments of Guston’s career through its three distinct phases; the early figurative works of the thirties and forties; the linear black-and-white abstractions of the fifties and sixties; and his finalworks from 1968 to 1980, in which he controversially returned to figuration. 

Guston was born in Montreal to Ukrainian Jewish parents who escaped persecution when they moved from Odessa to Canada. His family moved to California when he was a young boy and Guston was aware of the regular Klan activities against Jews, Blacks and other minorities that took place across the UnitedStates. 

The exhibition at Modern Art Oxfordincluded one of Guston’s earliest drawings, a study for the painting The Conspirators (1930) created when he was just 17, depicting a pack ofKu Klux Klan members huddled beneath hanged and crucified figures. This was the first appearance of hooded figuresin Guston’s work, a motif that was to reappear frequently in his late works, along with cartoonish but menacing renderings of various personal symbols and objects including reclining heads, intertwined legs, nail-studded shoes and flat iron shapes, all part of his dark dystopian vision of society.  

Guston’s work reminds us of our tragically recurring tendency towards casual violence and bigotry. Historical lessons well worth revisiting as we navigate new social and political realities.

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