04 June 2013

Iconography, II

Some scattered, straggling thoughts; prompted by the post of last week...

The initial cold reception that greeted Guston's later work wasn't solely because of the artist's abrupt change in style. The content of the paintings likewise baffled and alarmed a number of his viewers. The recurrent motifs of disembodied feet, shoes and legs; the caricatured bulbous head with its giant peering blooshot eye, the bare lightbulbs dangling from the studio ceiling, etc. – some sort of limited, redundant and often esoteric inventory of the artist’s life, many assumed. But what of the hooded figures – Klansmen, obviously – that repeatedly populate many of the images? Hooded figures loitering about or driving around town in a car, almost always smoking cigarettes. A cryptic and controversial motif, appearing in painting after painting. A good many people found it troubling, since the images offered no clear explanation, no key for its own decoding.

Little surprise that the explanation lay in Guston’s own life. Philip Guston (née Goldstein) had been born in Montreal in 1913, the son of Ukranian Jewish immigrants, but mostly grew up in Los Angeles. This was the years following the release of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, in which nationwide membership in the Ku Klux Klan was at its highest. Guston remembered as a child seeing the Klan hold parades in the streets of Los Angeles; as well as hearing the rumors and reports of their assaults on targeted individuals and communities, their role in strike-breaking and attacks on unionists. Guston may have heard his parents talk about the pogroms that had been carried out back in their native Odessa, and at a young age came to associate the knights of the Klan with Cossacks, seeing them as an American version thereof.

At the age of eighteen, Guston had already taken up painting and had joined an L.A. chapter of the John Reed Club. At one point, Guston and some of his fellow Club members decided to create an exhibition of murals devoted to the subject of racism in America, inspired by the recent scandal surrounding the trail of the Scottsboro Boys. Guston decided to do a painting that depicted a Klan lynching, producing a number of sketches for the work in the process. When the show opened, it was promptly raided by an group of angry men (led, apparently, by members of the local American Legion) who defaced and destroyed many of the works; one reputedly using a handgun on Guston’s painting, shooting it through with several bulletholes.

* * * *

Guston’s work in the earliest stage of his career had been quite different from the Abstract Expressionist style he would explore in the years following WWII. In those early years, his work was highly figurative in orientation, often classically-referenced, intermixed with modernist influences by way of Picasso’s “neo-classicist” period and the work of Fernand Léger. During the Great Depression, Guston had – like many of his contemporaries – received some piecemeal employment for public projects through the Works Progress Administration. Much of his duties involved preparatory sketches and designs for projects that were never realized, but it was one of Guston’s murals – “Maintaining America’s Skills” – that graced the façade of the WPA Community Building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

In 1946, a painting of Guston’s would also be included in the aborted 1946 State Department international exhibition "Advancing American Art." Intended as a Cold War PR exercise on behalf of the Truman administration, the exhibition was promptly recalled and the work sold off in the wake of a public outcry which had been stirred up in the press. Much of the controversy had been provoked by William Randolph Heart, who had rallied his publishing resources to launch a smear campaign against the show. The modernist tilt of the exhibition was labeled as an embarrassing misrepresentation of the nation's artist culture and a scandalous misuse of tax dollars.

The exhibition was torpedoed on a number of fronts, the main contention being that it would embarrass the country abroad, since its overwhelmingly modernist slant was commonly viewed as being the work of decadent bunglers and incompetents. But other critics reputedly argued that a number of the artists included had “foreign-sounding” names. Still other objected that quite a few artist included in the show were previously know to have strong Leftist associations. The most high-profile recipient of this last accusation was the artist Ben Shahn, who had two works in the show. As a recent Arts Newspaper article about the exhibition has it:

"[Shahn’s] painting entitled Hunger, 1946, struck a nerve and became a particular target. Depicting a young boy with dark, hollowed eyes holding an outstretched hand in a gesture of want, the painting upset many who read it as a portrayal of a European child impoverished by the war. In fact, it was probably based on a photo the artist took of a boy in West Virginia."

The subject in question might be the boy in the final image below, who appears several times in the series of photographs Shahn had taken in the mining town of Omar, West Virginia in the autumn of 1935...

The story of the ill-fated "Advancing American Art" exhibition is one that's not often told, not widely known. But it serves as an important precursor to the more widely (and very inaccurately, lazily) circulated tale of how the CIA "subsidized Abstract Expressionism." About which, Ben Birnbaum, writing for Boston College Magazine, explains:

"Over the last 30 or so years, an academic cottage market has developed around charges that the CIA conspired with the Museum of Modern Art, its board (chaired by Nelson Rockefeller) and staff, to claim the art world for American abstract expressionism and particularly for its most eminent expositor, Jackson Pollock. The museum’s interest, it is asserted, was to pump up the value of a considerable (even imprudent) investment in Pollock et al.; while the spooks at the CIA, it is alleged, found abstract expressionism an embodiment of American democratic values (surprising, energetic, free) and were particularly interested in promoting Pollock because he was broad-shouldered, quick-fisted, hard-drinking, and a native of Wyoming (rather than Greenwich Village) — and he was said to be a good painter.

Those claims have been solidly refuted of late. MoMA, research shows, had not invested heavily in abstract expressionism, and the spooks, it is clear now, could not have cared whether the artworks MoMA or other museums sent abroad were abstract expressionist or pastrami-on-rye as long as European viewers esteemed them more than the portraits of tractors and heroes-of-Stalingrad pouring out of Moscow."

MoMa’s questionable role in all of this is a little ironic, when you consider that a few years previously the museum had come under criticism from member of the artistic community for being too exclusively Euro-centric in its collecting and exhibiting practices. Case in point: In 1940, the artist Ad Reinhardt helped organize members of the American Abstract Artists Group in picketing the museum to protest the fact that curator Alfred H. Barr and company had made little effort to bring in any works by contemporary American artists.

* * * *

Birnbaum mentions one specific politician – Republican congressman George Dondero of Michigan – as being a central figure to the politics surrounding American art in the Cold War era. Dondero had been a leading member – if not the leading member – in the congressional dismantling of the "Advancing American Art" exhibition, if not a zealous and tireless opponent of modern art in general – making speeches from the floor of the House of Representatives about modernist "germ-carrying art vermin" and their destructive influence on American society. If you haven’t read it, his famous 1949 screed "Modern Art Shackled to Communism" is well worth looking up.

But that’s just the Cold War. One could vastly broaden the frame and situate all of this in a much broader context; that of the cultural wars that have raged back and forth across the landscape for the better part of a century now -- the debates about what (or who) does and doesn’t or should and shouldn't count as representative of American culture, literature, art, etc. It became a rallying backlash issue in the years that followed the emergence of the U.S. "Populist" movement, and has been with us – in one form or another – ever since.

Years ago I attended a series of scholarly lectures at which the art critic Robert Hughes had been invited as the keynote speaker. At one point in address, he discussed the culture wars of the 1980s – specifically that of conservative attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts, as led by North Carolina Senator Jess Helms. This he saw as a last-ditch, trifling effort on the part of conservative politicians who had discovered that the supposed "public mandate" of Reagan's re-election did not automatically translate into carte blanche for their party to transform the whole of American society as it saw fit. Or, as Hughes phrased it: "Having failed to slay the dragon, the crusading knight had to content himself with giving the cat a good, swift kick as he slouched home."

* * * *

Leon Golub, Vietnam II, 1973 (detail)

As critic Harold Rosenberg had argued, Guston’s decision to radically switch styles in his later years was both personal and political. As one account has it, Guston had suffered a late-career “crisis of faith” with his own artistic practice in the 1960s; that in the face of the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and numerous political assassinations, he’d intuited that his mode of abstraction suddenly seemed inappropriate – too coolly distanced for such "hot" and turbulent times.

Another artist who made a similar shift in his work at the time was Leon Golub. Having worked in a slightly abstract, esoteric, classically-informed variety of figurative painting, Golub changed direction in the latter half of the 1960s. He began producing increasingly large paintings that were confrontationally horrific in their imagery – the "Napalm" and "Vietnam" series; followed by a extensive series of Goya-esque portraits of political figures like Norman Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, Ho Chi Minh and Francisco Franco; finally setting into his famous "Mercenaries" series of the late 1970s and 1980s (this last one prompted by U.S. covert military operations in various countries throughout Africa and Latin America). For the two decades that followed, Golub's art was an exhibition of atrocities -- a parade of victims and tormenters that dwarved the viewer, their menacing and mangled figures rendered as often by the scrape of a paint-laden butcher knife as with a loaded brush. Say what you like about it, but you couldn’t say it wasn't bold work.

Perhaps a little too bold, in fact – too overt, too overwrought and blunt, in the end verging on histrionic. To what desired effect, one might wonder, and for what audience? It's enough to prompt consideration of the gulf that falls between Golub's art of moral outrage and Guston’s more measured and oblique personal response.*

Art Workers' Coalition demonstration at MoMA, 1970

Picasso's Guernica is, naturally, considered the twentieth century’s most revered piece of "protest art." The painting became a frequent point of reference in the years of protest against the war in Vietnam. In 1967, Golub took part in the Angry Artists Against the War in Vietnam’s "Collage of Indignation Project" at NYU. He additionally took part of an accompanying panel discussion that also included artists Mark Morrel, Allan D’Archangelo, and Ad Reinhardt. The discussion at one point threatened to degenerate into a debate between Reinhardt and Golub, with the former arguing that art served as a poor and ineffective means of protest. Golub cited Guernica as paradigmatic for what he and the other Angry Artists were trying to acheive. Reinhardt – a lifelong politically-committed artist who’d always kept his art and activism separate, and a theoretician of almost Jesuitic severity – took a contrary position, one that was archly nominalistic in nature. A painting is little more than a painting, he countered, and Picasso's famous work was just that:

"It doesn't deal with human suffering. There was an attempt to use details in a peace parade and the details from Guernica looked like Virgil Partch cartoons. Those funny eyes and circular lines connected. That has nothing to do with suffering."**

* * * *

Irony noted: Philip Guston had befriended Jackson Pollock in high school – a high school from which the two were jointly expelled. Pollock of course would years later be hailed as the most important living American artist by the critic Clement Greenberg, who championed Pollock's series of "drip" paintings as a coup de mâitre in post-Cubist abstraction. But shortly thereafter, Pollock’s work changed and he began including human and animal figures in his next series of works, his "black paintings" of 1951-1952. Greenberg promptly turned on the artist, declaring in print that Pollock's gravittion toward figuration constituted a regression; a redaction of "almost everything he has said in the three previous years."

* * * *

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the Village Voice some 30 years ago:

"When in 1968 Philip Guston abruptly abandoned the most restrained and elegant of all abstract expressionist painting styles for a mode of raucous figuration, I hated it. It seemed a rank indecency, a profanation, a joke in the worst conceivable taste. ...

The truly personal component of my animus against late Guston was probably fright. I was scared of the abject psychic content he had unclenched, and I was scared for an idealistic sense of art as a refuge from life's disorder that I had absorbed without examining. ...

He appeared to deal with a level of doubt that would paralyze anyone else, and in so doing he provided vicarious reassurance. The paradigm of high formal abstract painting, so severely tested, was seen to hold, to be a fitting vessel for transcendent meanings even amid the contrary insinuations of pop and minimalism and the failing convictions of one abstractionist after another. Had Guston simply failed, there would have been no scandal. His offense was to jettison principles that seemed still sound – though obviously, in hindsight, they were sick unto death."

The initial averse reaction, the much-belated critical reassessment, and the confessional mea culpa. Such was the common response to Guston's late-career shift. So much for resting on one's artistic laurels, and letting one's legacy stand or fall as it may.

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*  Not that Guston didn't fell the urge to comment on matters more bluntly. He had, after all, hailed from Los Angeles and was well aware of former California congressman Richard Nixon’s path to power. In 1971, he would produce a narrative series of 72 caricatures about the 37th POTUS – many of them highly scatological and apocalyptic in nature – that he intended for publication in book form. The book, Poor Richard, would go unpublished until years after Guston’s death.

**  In the same discussion, Reinhardt also harshly dismisses Ben Shahn's famous painting The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti as being little more than "a dumb cartoon" that inadvertently travestied the event the artist aimed to depict. Reinhardt's verdict was just that of a painter and hard-nosed polemicist, but also that of someone who'd professionally drawn his fair share of cartoons over the years. Throughout the better portion of the 1930s and early 1940s, he primarily made his living by working as an illustrator and layout artist for a number of publications; many of them being Leftist periodicals like The New Masses.


David K Wayne said...

As someone who much prefers Guston to Pollock's cosmic slop, I must say this is excellent. Thanks for this.

Greyhoos said...

"Cosmic slop," eh?

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