Friday, October 3, 2008

Art Review: The Cartoon Paintings of Philip Guston

This article was originally written for an art-history course in 2002. It was previously published at Pol Culture.

In the late 1960s, Philip Guston, one of the most influential Abstract Expressionist painters, began to work in a representational mode that continued until his death in 1980. The paintings, bluntly cartoonish images of Klansmen, Cyclopses, and assorted detritus, such as old shoes and used paintbrushes, provided, according to H. H. Arnason and Marla F. Prather in their History of Modern Art, “the key inspiration for the New Image and Neoexpressionist painters of the early 1970s and 1980s.” Guston became, to quote Robert Hughes in American Visions, the “one figure [who] stands out above all others in intensity and influence [....] His work over that decade [the 1970s] redefined the terms of painting for a whole generation of Americans."

Such a position of prominence in the postmodern era would seem to identify Guston as an exemplar of postmodernism, but Hughes, for one, doesn’t think so: “It [Guston’s work] had none of the opportunist or weightless character of postmodernism.” And Doré Ashton, one of Guston’s most prominent exegetes, vehemently rejects the notion in his essay "That Is Not What I Meant at All," published in a 1988 issue of Arts Magazine:

Dutifully the post-moderns troop around in a place--can we call it a world?--that has been deconstructed for them like a prefab. They heed the voice of the master [Jacques Derrida] that decrees “Deconstruction must neither reframe nor fantasize the pure and simple absence of the frame.” [...]But there are phrases, exclamations, paragraphs, and, of course, structures, in Guston’s last works. There are images and ideas abutting. Everything has a connection for the one or the many willing to seek it [....]
But Hughes and Ashton are not separating Guston from postmodernism so much as they are separating him from the worst of it, from both the empty pretentiousness of much postmodern art and the self-defeating excesses of its resident school of critical thought, poststructuralism. Like many postmodernists, Guston took modernist notions of art and turned them inside out.

Philip Guston's Zone (1954), a work from his Abstract Expressionist period

The Abstract Expressionists--and their critical champion, Clement Greenberg--rejected, by and large, representational painting in favor of abstraction in part because the former reinforced the discourses of society that oppressed the individual. The art that came before them had, in their view, become fodder for government propaganda and the commercialized kitsch of popular culture. (Greenberg’s examples of kitsch, as described in his famous essay, "The Avant-garde and Kitsch": “popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc.”) According to Greenberg, only the intense subjectivism of abstractionism would protect the artist’s work from assimilation and corruption within the larger culture; it was a way (in Greenberg’s view, the only way) for the artist to preserve his or her individuality. Guston’s later work continued to embody the Abstract Expressionist goal of exalting, or, at the least, declaring the painter behind the painting, but he accomplished it within a representational idiom. And not just any representational idiom, but perhaps the most derided of all: the blunt imagery of the comic strip. Like such contemporaries in the cartooning world as Charles M. Schulz, Jules Feiffer, and Robert Crumb, he fused the largely sterile pop-culture idiom of the comics with a highly individual perspective and intensity. It was the flip side of the detachment and irony eventually found in the bulk of postmodern “high” art; emotional resonance came to be found in the most striking works of postmodern “low” art.

Poststructuralist criticism has its own issues. In brief, poststructuralist theory argues that language and its various manifestations (such as art and literature) are made up of a series of often contradictory discourses that can be analyzed without reference to centralized or absolute meaning. Derrida and his fellow theorists, however, have had an unfortunate tendency of pushing their theories to such extreme lengths that they veer into folly. An excellent example is this passage from Derrida’s Of Grammatology:

The “rationality”--but perhaps that word should be abandoned for reasons that will appear at the end of this sentence--which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in the logos. Particularly the signification of truth [emphasis in the original].
To reject the spirit of the opening verse of the Gospel According to St. John (“In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” ) and with it, all notions of objective morality and ethics, as well as those of standards, is regardless of one’s religious orientation, untenably nihilistic. Such statements also raise the issue of why one should bother to read the work of Derrida or anyone else: if everything’s meaningless, then nothing matters, and anything goes; why should one care? But one doesn’t get the sense after a full reading of Derrida and other poststructuralists that they mean such statements to be taken entirely literally. Jacques Lacan, one of Derrida’s most prominent peers, warned against the abuse of poststructuralist theory in his essay, "The Agency of the Letter":

[W]e can observe that even a text highly charged with meaning can be reduced, through this sort of analysis, to insignificant bagatelles, all that survives being mathematical algorithms that are, of course, without any meaning.
And even Derrida admits--somewhat--to a centrality of consciousness--a logos of sorts--beyond language that motivates human expression: “all language in general springs forth when passionate desire exceeds physical need, when imagination is awakened [emphasis in the original]”. Poststructuralist theory is best when used suggestively, to explicate a work, rather than abused, in order to undermine one. And it does help to explicate the development of Philip Guston’s work in the final phases of his career.

Elsewhere in “The Agency of the Letter,” Lacan provides a description of the evolution of signifiers/imagery in a discourse:

And the enigmas that desire seem to pose for a "natural philosophy--its frenzy mocking the abyss of the infinite, the secret collusion with which it envelopes the pleasure of knowing and dominating with jouissance, these amount to no other derangement of instinct than that of being caught in the rails--eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else [emphasis in the original] of metonymy. Hence its "perverse" fixation at the very suspension--point of the signifying chain where the memory screen is immobilized and the fascinating image of the fetish is petrified.
What Lacan is positing is that the psyche is perpetually reaching for a signifier/image to express meaning. Once a signifier is realized, the psyche expresses its “pleasure” through a moment of closure (“the suspension-point”) and then strives for a new signifier to replace the previous one; the cycle begins anew. In terms of painting, the painter is constantly searching for an image to express a particular meaning. Once the image is found, the painter creates a closure for the image in a completed painting (or in a series of paintings, the final closure being reached when the “pleasure” of achieving and re-achieving the image has been exhausted). The painter then searches for a new image to replace the old. And so on. This tendency can be very clearly seen in Guston’s later work. The paintings divide into three successive phases: the “Klansman” period, the “Cyclops” period, and the “unpopulated” period. The phases are characterized by the presence (or non-presence) of a particular autobiographical figure, other, or signifier in the paintings. The hooded Klansman gives way to a disembodied, one-eyed head--the Cyclops--which, in turn, gives way to pictures with no conspicuous figures, pictures that feature nothing but the objects that surrounded the figures in the earlier paintings, most notably old shoes with nailed-in soles. The figures go from masked to uncovered to absent, like the layers of an onion being peeled away. Along with Lacan’s paradigm above, they illustrate Derrida’s dictum that “language is born out of the process of its own degeneration.” Or, in other words, the discourse of continuity between Guston’s paintings “undevelops” (or deconstructs) itself as it goes along.

The paradox is that the most complex image, the one most laden with associations and meanings, is there at the beginning. According to Guston, his Klansmen pictures were self-portraits , and 1969's The Studio (at left) certainly bears this out: it features a Klansman with a brush, in front of an easel, painting himself. Guston was fully aware of the associations that accompany the Klansman image; his identification with it was part of an effort to caricature his sense of the evil within himself. (He was not, it must be emphasized, identifying himself as a racist thug.) Guston’s choice of the image, however, when seen in the light of poststructuralist theory, is a little mystifying. In the essay “The Mirror Stage,” Lacan holds that the self-image gains in complexity as it progresses; Guston’s self-image, as rendered in the paintings, simplifies. The answer may lie in the fact that the image of the Klansman was not so much an initial self-portrait as it was a repudiation of his Abstract Expressionist phase. According to Guston, he was “sick and tired of all that purity” in Abstract Expressionism; he “wanted to tell stories”. Derrida accounts for this: “each new cycle begins a progression-regression which, destroying the effects of the preceding one, brings us back to a nature yet more secret, more ancient, more archaic.” Guston turned away from the most refined of styles, a visual signification process devoid of even assumed meaning, to the crudest of narrative styles, with a central image highly charged with meanings and associations.

The relationship of the Klansman to the Cyclops is defined by this model of Derrida’s:

The presence of the thing itself is already exposed in exteriority, it must therefore be de-presented and re-presented in the outside of the outside. In the living arts...the outside imitates the inside. It is expressive [emphasis in the original].
With the representation of the Klansman, following Derrida, the next step in the signification process would be for the presence cloaked by the Klansman to signify and present itself. Guston’s imagery follows this signification model. The Klansman, with all of its assorted extraneous meanings, loses its mask to reveal the Cyclops, a figure better equipped to function as a signifier for the self. A key work featuring the Cyclops figure is 1973's Painting, Smoking, Eating (below).

The Cyclops, unlike the Klansman in The Studio, does not lead the viewer to contemplate his activities outside the scenario of the painting. As Derrida has written, “Usurpation necessarily refers us to a profound possibility of essence”; Guston, with this figure, is better able to signify his personal world (painting, smoking, eating) in the painting’s context. The Cyclops has another advantage over the Klansman as a signifier for the self: it has a face; there is no mask to hide behind. The emotional state of Guston-the-Klansman is beyond knowing; the feelings, however, of Guston-the-Cyclops are beyond mistaking. In Painting, Smoking, Eating, the artist-Cyclops, surrounded by tokens of his needs and appetites (the bed, his cigarette, the plate of uneaten fries), is consumed with the anxiety his role as a painter foists upon him: he stares red-eyed at the old shoes--an ever-present motif in Guston’s later paintings--that sit there, waiting to be painted. The unmasked figure is necessary for a purer autobiographical or confessional mode, a “veering off of signification” (from the Klansman) that Lacan describes as “the most appropriate means used by the unconscious to foil censorship.”

Derrida writes that “attention to the signifier has the paradoxical effect of reducing it.” Lacan’s notion of a “desire for something else” takes hold: Guston’s fascination with the Klansman image exhausts itself, demanding a supplement less complicated by meaning. The Cyclops is the supplement to the signifier of the Klansman, and, in the process of being produced, as Derrida notes, it cancels the original signifier out. In becoming the new signifier, however, the Cyclops is just as vulnerable to negation as the Klansman. Derrida writes, “But, as always, the supplement is incomplete, unequal to the task, it lacks something in order for the lack to be filled, it participates in the evil it should repair.”

In the next stage in the signification process, the Cyclops should both create a supplement from and be cancelled out by a presence that it cloaks. But what does it cloak? It is easy to define the Cyclops as what was being cloaked by the Klansman; the Cyclops was simply the presence under the hood. But in Painting, Smoking, Eating, as in other works, the Cyclops is not a mask for another figure. It does, however, provide a mask. The Cyclops’ gaze inflects and, therefore, masks the shoes. The shoes are not seen for themselves; they are a source of anxiety for the Cyclops. The next step in the signification process is to make a presence of the absence of the Cyclops' gaze and to portray the shoes without inflection, without a mask. The absence of the figure is the signifier of the self for Guston in such paintings as 1976's Green Rug (above right); Guston renders his imagery without rendering his self-consciousness in the process. His painting continued in this phase until his death.

The absence of the signifier of the self returned Guston to a semblance of the “purity” of his Abstract Expressionist work; by absenting the presence of the self, he also absented the necessary counterpoint for the dynamics of narrative, leaving only the shoes and other detritus, signifiers almost as devoid of meaning as the non-figurative brushstroke. Meaning, however, was never lost for Guston; he just came closer and closer to his own private vocabulary. To quote Doré Ashton, “He [Guston] told stories but he wasn’t narrative, finally. He demanded attention to his own, his personal iconography [....]” Guston ultimately came full circle: the private, personal brushstroke gave way to narrative which gave way to private, personal icons; items such as the old shoes became his personal totems, his imagistic familiars. They were ultimately his inner self given outward expression, devoid of anxiety or pretense. Guston’s work exemplifies a tenet of poststrucuralism: to paraphrase Derrida, Guston’s imagery was created out of the process of its own degeneration, an evolution that was simultaneously a devolution. Guston’s final destination was not, however, the absence of meaning; his ultimate accomplishment was to define a personal logos of self.

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