Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Philip Guston

The Pit 1976
Oil on canvas 189 x 295cm

Royal Academy, London
31st March 2004

This was an extraordinary exhibition the documented the transformation of a figurative painter to an Abstract Expressionist and then to a painter of large vulgar figurative works that looked like they were the artwork for an underground comic. Initially the works seemed to have nothing in common, but after walking through the exhibition a second time the motifs that populate the later works were there in the very early paintings and the technique and brushwork of these later paintings had its roots in the abstract work.

It is these later paintings that I found the most exciting, the works that have since become a genre “Bad Painting” and follow in the footsteps of Manet by breaking the rules of the “establishment”. Initially the paintings after 1969 have a grotesque-comic humour that lightens the impact of their gruesome narratives, but as the 1970’s progress this comic strip style fades and his work becomes darker and more pessimistic.

I was convinced that Guston had “borrowed” this motif from the more melancholic creations of comic artist Robert Crumb, but I have read[1] since that this is pure coincidence and that both share similar inspirations from older comic artists. The black lines around the objects in the painting could also come from the comic tradition, but are inspired by the paintings and drawings of Max Beckmann whose work Guston studied as a teacher.

In Guston's works from the late 1970’s his view of the world seems apocalyptic and titles, such as Deluge, invoke the Old Testament’s solution for cleansing society. The painting I have chosen is from this period and recalls Renaissance religious depictions of the damned cast into Hell (Signorelli). It is very large, and completely fills your field of vision in the gallery. But this is no Rothko or Newman, the surface is covered with lively and agitated brushwork, the paint is very opaque and the work is representational not abstract.

There is no complete body to be seen, just disembodied spaghetti legs of humans and horses falling into the pit, and a head with one open eye, damned to watch and suffer. Above on the boulder strewn ground, fires seem to be raging against a black void, and a television set or a painted canvas shows the image of acid rain falling on a red sea. Although the head lacks a cigarette, it is pretty clear that it is Guston staring down into the watery depths.

Guston certainly draws on the full history of painting for his inspiration, but I think that it is the idea implicit in the religious paintings of the Renaissance, that art should be understood by everyone, that shines through so clearly in this painting. The melancholic narrative is implicit whether we are aware of the historical references or not. We are destroying civilisation and the planet with the brutality of our societies. Clearly Guston felt that like Goya in his famous caprice The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, his hopes and aspirations for the world were in vain.

[1] Berkson, Bill Philip Guston Retrospective Thames and Hudson 2004 p73

©blackdog 2009


  1. After I have clicked on the pic I saw the full painting "The Pit" and I'm very impressed with this painting which might recall and transform former hell depictions (I saw Signorelli's fresco's in Umbria/Urbino?)- your descriptions and explanations are very convincing - only one point I would like to complete: The things looking like horse shoes could symbolize all the dreams of happiness/ a better world which could/can not get fulfilled- and one thing looks like a shoe hinting to lives/ life ways run off- and in some inner distance there is a reminder of all the shoes, baggages, combs... of killed Jewish and other human beings I saw in Auschwitz and can't forget- the word 'pit'/'Grube' has in my mind and heart always these connotations- and I read that Philip Guston has his origin in a Jewish-Russian family.
    The depictured comic drawing is very funny- oh, the lascivious men-eyes! (a pic for Chris' blog!)

  2. Thanks for that Philine - I had forgotten to reset the width of the photo to the column width. Now corrected.

    Yes a Jewish background, but I think th image is more to do with the American war in Vietnam. He was very anti Nixon. But I do know what you mean about the shoes. Saw The Reader recently and the image of all the shoes was chilling.