Philip Guston


Recent American madness has made me think about its art, and what responses have been imagined by artists to Trump. I couldn’t really find anything interesting, and ended up thinking about other times it’s gone mad and I arrived at Philip Guston (1913-1980) and this drawing; Untitled ink on paper 23.8 x 32.7 cm, drawn circa 1970s. Among what appears to be a chaotic pile of stuff is a figure upended, represented by two legs one pointed directly up the other stretched across the floor towards the foreground, partly buried by what could be potatoes or cakes, bricks, boots, a book and sacks.  A plank with nails hammered into it; an improvised weapon, leans over the pile as if thrown in for good measure at the end of an assault. On the left of the drawing poking out from behind exposed bricks is what could be a severed leg. The setting has the feeling of a cellar, stone flag floors and naked light bulb, odds and ends, things thrown down to get them out the way, and forgotten about, the figure accidentally caught up in the mess. The tone is in keeping with other drawings made in this period, those critical of the Nixon administration shown at Mayfair Hauser & Wirth last year. This one however is not obviously satirical, representing a more general and domestic chaos, antagonistic and grumpy, funny, senseless, the drawing revels in its own stupidity. Political ideology seems to have crept to the forefront of discussion around artistic practice now, but despite this I can’t think of an artist who has or would radically shift their practice to confront the sociopolitical context of the time in the way Guston did then. His rejection of the safety and convenience of a movement, the easy association with a group dynamic and its associated critical discourse, now history, was bold and risky. Luckily, he was good enough to make turning his back on the gloomy seriousness of abstract expressionism in favour of having a bit of a laugh, a positive move. Contemporary artists are more likely to affect the thin veneer of faux activism through social media, liking and sharing and signing petitions in a bandwagon jumping bonanza.