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.