• U.S.

Art: Ku Klux Komix

3 minute read
Robert Hughes

“I got sick and tired of all that purity! I wanted to tell stories!” Thus Philip Guston, whose tremulous gestural paintings established him, from 1951 onward, as one of the leading Abstract Expressionists. His current show at Manhattan’s Marlborough Gallery is indeed a change. The old Guston is barely recognizable. The patches and drifts of color, tentatively knitted rather than brushed—like magnified details of a Monet seen through gray glass—have gone.

At 57. Guston has returned to painting figures. He has also turned political. It may seem a little late in the century to mount an entire exhibition on the theme of the Ku Klux Klan, but that is what he has done. Drawn in a mock-fumbly, endearing line, hooded Klansmen, looking like half-inflated dirigibles, sit plotting together in cheap hotel rooms, or ride in a jalopy through city streets, or, cigar in fist, survey piles of bodies. Sometimes they are seen in confabulation with a bald, pink-necked Southern sheriff. Now and then a hand, suggestive of God’s accusing finger, pops out of the pink sky to stop them dead in their tracks.

Guston’s obvious debts are to American graphic art, to “some of the comic strips I used to really love—Mutt and Jeff, and Krazy Kat.” But the idiom is overloaded to the edge of portentousness. It is as if Guston flipped back to the late ’30s, when he was a WPA muralist —those remote days when it was still believed that political comment could give art relevance.

Social comment was never far from Guston’s figurative work: his 1946 Night Children may be caught in a dream, but they live in a slum. The new paintings attack more broadly. His Klansmen are not to be taken as images of a specific present threat (who now takes the Klan as a real political force?) but as generalized symbols of inhumanity. The cunning childishness of Guston’s style accords with a game his paintings play —the reduction of the elements of evil to their simplest form, like building blocks.

The New York Times’s Hilton Kramer dismisses Guston’s paintings as a mere exercise in radical chic. Rather, they are Guston’s authentic response to a personal sense of crisis. The trouble is that painting has become a clumsy way of reporting a society as turbulent and racked as this. Its clashes cannot be accounted for in single, painted images—as Goya could report the Madrid insurrection in Third of May, or Delacroix symbolize the 1830 revolution with Liberty Leading the People over the barricades of a Paris street. The task has been assumed, and done better, by film makers. In three minutes of film, the flat dispassionate eye of the movie camera can disclose more about the kind of reality that appalls Guston than his whole exhibition has done. We are left with a group of sumptuously painted canvases, sometimes witty, occasionally moving, and for the most part caricaturally blunt. As political statement, they are all as simple-minded as the bigotry they denounce. R.H.

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