Art reviews: 'Philip Guston, Roma' and 'David Smith Invents' at the Phillips

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

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.

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