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Exhibition review The bigot in the hood

JAN WOOLF relishes the shocking candour with which an artist who could paint anything depicted the systemic racism and anti-semitism of the US

Philip Guston
Tate Modern, London

PHILIP GUSTON (born Goldstein in Canada, 1913) could paint anything he wanted to. The palette was his oyster. If painters could be heroes he’d be one. 

Known latterly for his wild cod cartoony canvases, after the Krazy Kat style replaced the high renaissance style (echoing Pierro De Francesca), the stunning Weimar expressionism If This Be Not I (1945) the abstracts and the figurative muralism, he was his own man; and famous. 

So why the blunt change? Surely because of both Guston’s restlessness and his outright pain at the state of the world.  

He felt and knew (not always the same thing) that the delicious figurative canvases and the later abstract ones were an indulgence — or more pointedly — a distraction. The true indulgences were the later post-60s paintings that transmitted his messages to the world: that there are people like Ku Klux Klansmen and they do evil things. 

Sometimes Guston himself wondered what it felt like to be evil, to be an “everyday” racist. So he painted himself in his studio with a hood, paintbrush and a cigarette, in images like The Studio (1969).

A leading member of the organised US cultural left, and prodigiously talented, his early work included realist murals and paintings addressing racism in the US and wars abroad. 

During the social and political upheavals of the late 1960s, Guston grew critical of the CIA-backed abstract painting, and began producing large-scale paintings featuring strange, comic-like figures. Comics had, after all, had sustained him during his troubled childhood. The link between images and emotional states became all too real.

By the 1950s he was becoming as famous as Rothko and his childhood friend Jackson Pollock. They all riffed off each other, but whereas Rothko and Pollock developed a consistent style and content, Guston’s later switch was stark.

Pollock died in 1956 in a drunken car accident. Rothko took his own life in 1970 and De Kooning sank into dementia and isolation. “What if I had died?” mused Guston, perhaps thinking of these friends. “What would I paint if I came back?”  

I think every artist should ask themselves that. 

His art changed utterly. “You know, you have to die for a rebirth,” he declared. And out of that destruction comes something new. His was not a painterly shift like Picasso moving out of his blue period, or Turner’s tinted steam. It was radical in its form and content. 

About this rebirth Guston said: “The Vietnam war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it.” 

So he worked cartoonery into a new language of high art. Everybody got it and gets it — or did they and still do they?  

I wondered about New York society hosts raising eyebrows at the “lowbrow” aesthetic as Guston bludgeoned their sensibilities and their politics: “Is this art darling?” but not daring to ask out loud, and waiting for an “Emperor’s new clothes” moment. 

But Guston the Emperor knew what he was doing. He once famously said: “Every time I see an abstract painting I smell mink coats.”  

Everyone raves about him now. Five stars all over the place — including here — and if six were possible I’d push for seven.

Tate Modern’s three-year delay of the show, following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis was controversial. Many thought this patronising, that punters might not be able internally to manage the graphic imagery of the KKK. Really?   

The show’s curator resigned in disgust at the delay. I don’t blame him.  

Guston’s engagement with racialised evil in his now famous series of Hood paintings seems to be painted with the banality of evil, to borrow Hanna Arendt’s famous phrase. There is a whole room of them here. I wondered — and forgive the starkness of this image — was Guston’s father hooded when he discovered him hanging from a noose at the age of 10?  

Guston’s brother died in a traffic accident a few years after this tragedy, and the Guston boys’ parents had survived persecution as Jews in war-time Ukraine. Emotionally, his poor father just could not escape.   

Guston’s only escape from the knowledge of such things — and maybe his grief for his father, his brother, and the state of the world — was through painting these nasty fat-fingered people and the everyday scattered objects that sustained them, like those in Flatlands (1970).  

The Hoods are as powerful as the hooded figures in Goya’s painting of Spanish Easter parades. Is this where they come from?  

Then there are the blunt portraits of him and his painter/poet partner Musa McKim, her hair sometimes described in a painted sunrise. Never did a tired man seem more tired in a painting than Sleeping 1977. Or as tender and loving as the pair of them snuggled up in bed. This kind of art defies analysis. 

In 1972, Guston discussed with the poet Clark Coolidge the small painting Paw (1968). He spoke about “that very exciting moment when it all comes together, you’re not even aware that you’re painting it. You don’t even see the brush. I don’t know how the hell it happens, but the brush just seems to go by itself like it has its own life.”

Like the best Punks, much of Guston’s art is full of love; it is committed, revealing and honest. The mighty, heartbroken Guston died in 1980, missing God knows what horrors.  

Runs until February 25 2024. For tickets and more information see: tate.org.uk.

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