There ought to be a comic book starring Philip Guston (1913-1980), the American art hero, whose last works are on view now at the Phillips Collection.
It might begin appropriately with a violent, goofy drawing of a swinging shoe. Pow! The shoe is booting Guston and his classmate, Jackson Pollock, out of high school in Los Angeles, Guston, at the end, did not fear the goofy. And he liked big shoes.
His comic would be full of esthetic derring-do. It would sometimes be political. See Guston in sombrero, and perhaps bandolier, painting protest art in Mexico. The year is 1934. He is working with David Alfaro Siqueiros. The mural they're completing is a vast and passionate political cartoon. It's called "The Struggle Against War and Fascism."
Then zoom our hero to New York, to 10th Street and the Cedar Bar, and surround him with his pals, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. They are heroes, too, and they ought to look adventurous. They're creating a new art.
It's abstract expressionism! Gobs of paint splat here and there. Guston's brush is scribbling, angry critics hoot. See Guston and his colleagues battle for abstraction. They eventually achieve it, but most of them get stuck there. Guston is the only one who comes out the other side.
To the bafflement of all, he returns to figuration. In the 1960s, his pictures start to fill with crude cartoony images that everyone can read, with sandwiches and teapots, bandages and stogies, hairy hands and trash cans and heavy thick-soled shoes. " 'Dumb' art," groan the critics. "From Mandarin to Stumblebum," complains The New York Times.
The Guston story ends with the works on paper at the Phillips. There are 34 of them, and all were made in early 1980, in the months before he died.
What a way to go! Guston, at the end, was still violating canons, offending those in power and predicting what would come.
He lived just long enough to see the pristine art he hated -- "college art," he called it -- slipping out of fashion. His last amazing pictures are as raucous and amusing, and at least as threatening, as the punkiest punk art. Guston probes and tests; he will not soothe the viewer. "Frustration is one of the great things in art," he said "Satisfaction is nothing." No wonder the New Image painters regard him as a father. "Our great problem is subject," Philip Guston said.
The pictures at the Phillips look childlike at first, but no child could have made them. They are full of ambiguities, and of learned references to the history of art.
Is that prickly pile of maraschino cherries meant to be a pyramid, a monument, a reference to Manhattans, or -- as the Phillips' Willem de Looper suggests -- an act of homage to the perfect still lifes of Chardin? Viewer, take your pick.
What is that repeated form, that thick disc with a handle? Is it meant to be a trash-can lid? Or the shield of a warrior? Or could it be an iron of the sort employed by the sweating laundresses of Picasso and Degas?
The old tools of the painter's trade -- the brush, the plaster cast of some antique marble sculpture, the ink pot and the stretcher -- appear often in these pictures. So do bugs and bottles. Their meanings will not rest. Guston's most explicit images -- that teapot, for example, or that ham-and-salami sandwich -- go bumping through the mind.
While Guston's setting suns shoot off cartoon rays, his pictures shoot off questions. Each has a horizon line; most include both a background sky an d a foreground hill. Are they landscapes, then, or still lifes? Some are drawn with India ink; some include fine color. Are they drawings, then, or paintings? Guston, late in life, spoke of his "old ambition to make drawing and painting one."
The things portrayed in Guston's art are not easily deciphered. Is that bandaged, beat-up orb in armor -- ir seems to be half knight's helm and half staring eye -- supposed to be the painter? Has that blank, unrolling scroll been readied for some sacred text? Are those nails driven into wood a reference to the workshop or, maybe, to the cross?
These raw, peculiar pictures are as crude as they are cunning, as elusive as they're blunt. Nothing else quite like them ever has appeared in the history of art.
The great abstract expressionists, Guston among them, knew world war and Depression, and their tough and anguished pictures still give one the jitters. But the raw anxiety that energized their work did not survive the '50s. Like the waves of a subsiding storm, it went flat in the '60s. Though Pollock died a bloody death, as did David Smith and Rothko, the members of the brotherhood who managed to survive -- Robert Motherwell, de Kooning -- seemed to lose their rage.
But Guston, the survivor, refused the path toward peace. Though the struggle of his last years was fueled by a new humor, it was a struggle still. "Our great problem is subject," Philip Guston said a few months before he died. "What to do. How to begin. "
The same grating questions had earlier been asked by another aging master, the poet William Butler Yeats. For the poet and the painter the answer was the same. The objects Guston painted -- old kettles, bottles, bones and ladders in the rubbish pit -- were those the poet wrote of when, at life's end, he discovered that he, too, had been deserted by the purer images that had once brought him fame: Those masterful images being complete Grew in pure mind, but out of what began? A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, Old iron, old bones, old rags, the raving slut Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
It was in that rag-and-bone shop that Guston made this art.
A large Guston retrospective was seen here a few months ago at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. This show is even better. It proves the painter's last works -- they are menacing, amusing, brash and unforgettable -- were the strongest of his life. "Philip Guston: 1980: The Last Works" is as good an exhibition as the Phillips has mounted in some time. It closes May 24.