The Phillips Collection has cleverly woven together two exhibitions, paintings by Philip Guston and sculptures by David Smith, in such a way that they coexist in almost total disregard for each other. The two artists were roughly contemporary, both were American (though Guston was born in Canada), and the exhibitions examine relatively confined periods of their output.
Five rooms of the museum's third-floor temporary exhibition space are devoted to paintings Guston made during a 1970-71 sojourn in Rome, in the wake of the controversy that exploded upon his having abandoned abstract painting in the late 1960s. And four rooms are devoted to the sculptures Smith made between 1953 and 1960, accompanied by his photographs of the sculptures, and paintings that are sketches, reminiscences and variations on the sculptural themes.
At the beginning of this double show, there is a pass-through view connecting the two artists, but at first only their differences seem salient. Guston's work was later, and made in the aftermath of a personally exhausting decision to rethink his basic loyalties, to abandon the kind of abstraction that made him an art-world star but felt too constricting. Smith's work came earlier, and has an exuberance, an untroubled exploration that makes it feel both more delightful and perhaps slightly less profound, if angst is part of your definition of profundity.
Only at the end of the exhibition, in a room that contains two failed works by Smith, does a deeper sense of connection emerge between the artists. Beauty, as a category, was still viable, but deeply problematic, during the two decades this material was made. Smith saw beauty as a line to be approached but never crossed, a threshold of sorts, that the artist strove to touch but never violate. On one side were unfinished, unrealized ideals, on the other were over-baked, vulgar and repellent mistakes.
Guston, by 1970, would define his project in very different terms, as a reconnection with a tradition of painting, with revered artistic forebears, with problems of representation. And he would do it in a style that accepted ugliness as a condition of artistic freedom.
The Guston exhibition, titled "Philip Guston, Roma," was first seen in Rome last year, where Guston spent a critical half-year reconnecting with favorite painters and places after a controversial 1970 exhibition at New York's Marlborough Gallery. In the late 1960s, Guston turned away from the urgent but often clotted abstractions that had made him an art-world star during the 1950s.
The work he seemed to reject, in 1970, was not a single-minded oeuvre, but spanned a remarkable range, from delicate and almost serene studies in red crosshatching that look a bit like a sunset imposed on Monet's waterlilies, to thick, roughly painted and dark forms in the early to mid-1960s that suggest not so much abstraction as a futile effort to paint over and blot out suppressed figurative ideas.
In October 1970, so the art legend goes, the world saw those suppressed forms burst forth in a contentious exhibition in which Guston embraced the figurative legacy he had inherited and explored as a muralist and WPA artist in the 1930s. But they were strange forms, cartoonlike images of hooded figures moving around in flat, childish landscapes. Buildings looked like lumpy sofas, clocks were rendered as imperfect circles with arrows instead of hands, and cigars were simple sticks of dark paint capped with a red tip from which puffs of gray smoke rose into the air. It was ugly work, and the presence of hooded figures, evoking the Ku Klux Klan and the general political volatility of the time, made it abundantly clear that the ugliness was intentional.
Guston supposedly retreated to Rome after the Marlborough exhibition was eviscerated by critics. But there were critics who praised it, and there were fellow painters, especially younger ones, for whom this work, with its bold breach from pure abstraction, was inspirational (and those ranks continue to grow).
"I was sick and tired of all that purity," said Guston. "I wanted to tell stories."
The wall text of the exhibition quotes that memorable but misleading declaration of independence from abstraction. He may have wanted to tell stories, but he never quite figured out how to do it. Instead, he invented a private collection of symbols - hands, light bulbs, the soles of shoes, bricks, detached feet, nails - and deployed them like ciphers, sometimes in relation to one another, sometimes arrayed on the surface like disconnected hieroglyphs.
Too much Guston scholarship, and unfortunately a bit too much of the material in this exhibition, is spent trying to create one-to-one correspondences between Guston's symbols and his personal biography. Even more absurd is the idea that these insular images somehow add up to a language, or as Peter Benson Miller puts it in a catalogue essay, "a deceptively simple and semantically expansive lexicon." It might be deceptively simple, but Guston's visual language, in this period, was all nouns and no depth.
What is deceptively simple is the idea that Guston had definitively broken with abstraction, that he had invented something new, that this was, in fact, a turning point to something productive. Many of the visual elements were already there in Guston's early mural period, as was the taste for grotesquerie, sadism and urban violence.
The hoods who jolted the art world in 1970, and then appear "on vacation" in the Roma series, were there in a 1930 drawing of Ku Klux Klan figures, in paper hats seen on boys in a 1941 painting called "Martial Memory," and dangling from rafters in a haunting 1943 watercolor, "Parachutes Hung out to Dry." Compared to these earlier iterations of a single totemic Guston image (none of which are in the current exhibition), the Roma images don't feel free at all, but crabbed, over-painted, confined and claustrophobic.
The pleasure of the Roma paintings, and the thing that makes them and the work immediately before and after continue to command attention, is the permeability of whatever line may seem to divide them from Guston's earlier work. If you could scrub off a line here, a shadow there, they would almost resolve themselves into the kind of pictures Guston was making as an abstract "impressionist."
Guston consistently seeks out the least degree of form that distinguishes a meaningless blotch of paint from something that reads as a definable object. And then he aggressively overemphasizes the dark line or cheap perspective or cartoon symbolism that demarcates his version of representation from his version of abstraction. Look around in the painting for a place where nothing is happening, and suddenly that spot feels a lot like the best of his work from the 1950s.
It's enough to make the viewer wish there was a whole lot less Philip Guston in a Guston painting. But that is to wish that he was somebody else. In 1965, he wrote a concise statement of the solipsism that defines his late work: "I have a studio in the country - in the woods - but my paintings look more real to me than what is outdoors."
David Smith also had a studio in the country, but it's difficult to imagine him saying that his work looked more real than what he found out of doors. Complementing this exhibition of six sculptures (from 1953-1960) are photographs (also by Smith) in which the artist staged his metalwork - made from industrial scraps and flat plates cut in idiosyncratic shapes and pipelike concave and convex forms - in the landscape near his studio at Lake George, N.Y.
Although the sculptures themselves feel slightly out of place in the galleries, as if they have been dragged from secret gardens to be examined, somewhat to their discomfort, under artificial and excoriating light, in the photographs they feel as at home among the mountains and the trees as Saint Francis among his birds. Sharp camera angles and tricks of perspective make them seem larger than life, yet elemental parts of the landscape, not detached from it.
Smith spoke of allowing his material to determine its own form, of waiting and watching until a truckload of metal began to suggest the right connections to him. "Sculpture can come from the found discards in nature, from sticks and stones and parts and pieces," he wrote, as if it was the artist's job not to forge those connections, but detect and enact them.
It's too easy to fit Guston into the role of the urban painter, preoccupied with history, himself and his relation to other painters, and Smith into a more naive category, taking inspiration from nature, subordinating ego to materials and intimations from the natural world. But a powerful sense of gloom lifts as you move from the Guston rooms to the Smith ones.
Two of Smith's untitled, long vertical paintings, one from 1956 in which suggestions of Jackson Pollock shine forth from a ladderlike assemblage of forms, and another from 1958 in which blunt, Guston-like dark lines give form to a spray enamel surface, are some of the most exuberant objects in either show. Artists often talk nonsense about their work, but the sense of humility that Smith claimed in the presence of his metal contrasts sharply with the heavily worked, contained, over-constructed paintings of Guston's. And it translates, not surprisingly, into work that feels more free and expressive than anything in Guston's "lexicon" of cartoon glyphs.
Until, that is, you reach the last room of the exhibition, where two sculptural "paintings" by Smith suggest the same, tortured, over-manipulated material that defines Guston's work. One is made of plaster and oil paint and the other, which looks like something scraped off the floor of a lazy drip-painter's studio, is made of clay. Smith struggled to believe that there was fundamentally no difference between painting and sculpture, and here he made objects that proved he was wrong. By aiming at some place in between both forms, these hybrids fail entirely. And yet you're thankful that curator Susan Berhends Frank has included them in the show; without them, neither Smith's self-delusion, nor his remarkable accomplishment, would be entirely clear.
Smith once wrote of wanting to "push beauty to the very edge of rawness" and "shove it as far as possible towards that precious edge where beauty balances but does not topple over the edge of the vulgar." He knew how to get to that edge, and in at least a few cases, he pushed beyond it, with unfortunate results.
Where Smith occasionally strayed, Guston set up camp, for the last decade of his life. There are obvious and superficial reasons to examine their work together. They shared an historical era, witnessed the same decades of atrocity and social failure and explored similar ideals in their abstractions. Some of Smith's sculptures even have swipes of paint on them that superficially recall the pinks of so much of Guston's work.
But it is their differences that matter, especially their fundamental difference in temperament. Guston may have chosen what felt like freedom at the time, but it drew him only deeper into himself, into a personal hermeticism and despair. Smith died in car accident in 1965, a full five years before the first of Guston's Roma paintings. He was only 59, but it was easy to see a limitlessness in what he might have done. Guston died in 1980, still pursuing the intentional vulgarity he had invented in the late 1960s. If he had lived longer, perhaps the work would have become yet more biographical, more insular, more contained and built up and densely interconnected with other Guston paintings. But it's hard to imagine that he had any more revolutions in him.