Art Review: 'In the Tower: Philip Guston,' East Building, National Gallery

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By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 7, 2009

Being a low city, Washington does not have many rooms high up in towers, which is a shame, because there's something special about rooms high up in towers.

The one in the fairy tales is found in the turret, at the top of the winding stair. It feels sky-touched and sort of exclusive. Princesses get to go there, and their rescuers, and witches, but not everybody else does.

The Tower Gallery in the National Gallery of Art, kept dim for the past 18 years, has just been awakened by uncovering a skylight and letting in the light.

I.M. Pei, its architect, put it at the highest point of the southwest corner of his sharp-angled, romantic East Building on the Mall. Not everybody finds it. It isn't a secret, but almost. To reach "In the Tower: Philip Guston" you have to climb Pei's formal staircase, cross his bridge, take another set of steps, turn left and right and left again, then ascend a spiral stair.

Up and up you go until, on arriving, you discover you're in a room deep as a well and you're standing at the bottom. The walls are 33 feet high and windowless. Light pours in through the top, and only through the top. You can't help looking up.

This light is different. It's not the sort of light you get in most museums. Because it changes as the clouds change, it breathes. The floor isn't the gray carpet of most museums, it's more like a castle's -- wood boards, pegged oak. The floor plan is a truncated triangle. The art is different, too.

Usually the National Gallery presents 20th-century New York paintings unlike Guston's, paintings that are monuments of dignity. Barnett Newman's solemn "Stations of the Cross," Mark Rothko's clouds, Jackson Pollock's mists are visions as august, decorous and stately as the National Gallery itself. No grinning allowed.

Guston's paintings of hairy knees and cigarette butts are another kettle of fish.

* * *

Philip Guston (1913-1980) had two fames.

He got his first fame as an original abstract expressionist, as one of that heroic band of fast-brushed action painters who fought to carry New York art up from figuration to new and abstract heights.

With Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Arshile Gorky and David Smith, with whom he worked and showed, Guston advanced ever upward, until -- unlike the others -- he decided, ah, the hell with it, and went the other way.

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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