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.