Several Lives

Emmie Francis & Mark Godfrey (eds.), Five Stories for Philip Guston

Printed Matter, 156pp, £27.00, ISBN 9780894391026

reviewed by Patrick Christie

Philip Guston lived several artistic lives — as a muralist employed by the New Deal Works Program Administration to create anti-fascist art on public buildings; as a figurative painter combining his passions for Giorgio de Chirico and Piero della Francesca to make tableau pictures responding to the Holocaust; as a respected Abstract Expressionist and member of the New York school alongside childhood friend Jackson Pollock; and finally, as a political satirist producing pastel-coloured cartoons of Klansmen, discarded household objects and a bug-eyed character meant to represent himself.

It’s this final phase that has made Guston a sometimes controversial figure, even 44 years after death. His use of Ku Klux Klan imagery throughout his career, and especially in his late period, caused his recent touring retrospective to be postponed following the murder of George Floyd, a decision which one of the initiating curators, Mark Godfrey, described as ‘extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s work’. His late period also provides the inspiration for a new short story collection, Five Stories for Philip Guston, edited by Godfrey and Emmie Francis, an editor at Faber.

In their introduction, Francis and Godfrey relate a well-known story about how watching television coverage of the police brutality directed towards anti-war protestors during the 1968 Democratic National Convention reminded Guston of the way that the Ku Klux Klan terrorised unions in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Already in an artistic crisis, this realisation gave Guston the push he needed to abandon abstraction once and for all and return to figuration in order to tell stories.

The stories that the authors tell in this collection each respond to Guston’s life and work in different ways. Christopher Alessandrini’s ‘Maverick Road’ follows a gallery assistant and his boyfriend, Oren, who is producing a feature film on the life of Philip Guston. When the couple relocate for the summer to Woodstock in upstate New York, where Guston kept a studio for much of his life, they find themselves targeted by a local ‘White Lives Matter’ group who graffiti the house they’re staying in.

In ‘Looking’ by Thessaly La Force, a Guston retrospective causes painter Brigit to reflect on the power dynamics between Guston and his painter/poet wife Musa McKim, in relation to her own tryst with an older artist, David, whose conceptual artworks leave her cold. Ben Okri, in ‘Bloodymindedness’, directly addresses Guston’s The Studio (1969), which depicts the artist wearing a hood while in the act of painting a self-portrait. Using comic and grotesque language, Okri imagines a Klansman called Old Jake who returns home to his studio after attacking a group of Black teenagers and, upon catching sight of his bloodied hood in the mirror, realises he has the perfect subject for his next painting — himself.

Lou Stoppard conjures a courtroom drama in ‘A Verdict’, which also responds to a particular painting, Courtroom (1970), as well as a quote from Guston — ‘The canvas is a court where the artist is prosecutor, defendant, jury and judge.’ Using a shifting and unstable point of view, an unnamed artist is put on trial for the crime of creating a ‘living thing’, evoking the Golem figure from Jewish folklore.

The final contribution, ‘The Line’ by Audrey Wollen, takes a more oblique approach to its subject. Guston is never directly mentioned in the story of Nora and her troubled friendship with addict, Bridget, yet references to his artwork occur repeatedly in the imagery. A ‘thick finger’ tapping her notebook evokes The Line (1978); ‘twinkling red cherries in bowl’ recall Untitled (1980); while Bridget piling her bed high with pillows and blankets made of pink fabric (one of Guston’s favourite colours) until ‘it was only her eyes poking over the rim of the rosy fortress’ mirrors Guston’s depiction of his wife Musa in paintings like Red Blanket (1977).

Philip Guston was an avid reader throughout his life. From the assemblage of random household items that featured in his later work, an open book was among those that appeared most frequently. In returning to figuration, Guston did indeed begin to tell stories but they are ambiguous ones. While his Klansmen are often engaged in mundane activities — such as smoking by an open window or driving around in an old jalopy — the bloodstains on their hoods suggest darker activities lie just outside the canvas edge. Then there are the piles of shoes that frequently appear in his pictures, which have clear visual associations with the Holocaust, though Guston never identified them as such.

Guston later described his KKK pictures as self-portraits — a way of imaging himself ‘behind the hood’ to understand ‘what it would be like to be evil.’ His fixation with society’s collective responsibility in allowing intolerance and atrocities to take place evidently remains just as relevant today, and Five Stories for Philip Guston demonstrates that the conversations to be had with his work are far from over. It’s a fitting testament to one of the 20th century’s most singular artists.

Patrick Christie is a writer living in London. His writing has appeared in the London Magazine, Litro, the Mechanics’ Institute Review and elsewhere.