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Although only sixty-six when he died, Philip Guston was active as a painter for nearly fifty years and a leading figure of the artistic vanguard for most of that long career. In many respects the story of his life is a chronicle of the ideas and events that transformed American painting in this century. A political muralist in the 1930s, by the 1940s Guston had turned away from public art to explore a more private vision in haunting tableaux of children and sideshow performers acting out costume dramas of war and dislocation. In the 1950s the classical figuration of these pictures gave way to purely nonobjective paintings that represent one of the most poetic contributions to Abstract Expressionism. In the last and most important decade of his life Guston's work changed yet again. Drawing on the imagery of his murals and paintings of the 1940s and on the formal language of his abstractions, during the 1970s Guston articulated a fantastic and apocalyptic vision that was as monstrously comic in initial impact as it was complex and ambiguous in its fundamental meanings.
The combined boldness and subtlety of these paintings embody the constants of Guston's sensibility. Throughout his career the apparent contradiction between Guston's larger ambition and huge appetite for art and ideas and his instinctive anxiousness and the almost exquisite subtlety of his painterly approach confounded the artist's critics and, on occasion, his admirers. A great talker, he was, in the 1940s and '50s, the most reticent of painters; a formidable and discriminating intellect, he made work in the 1970s with a syntax and imagery that struck many observers as willfully crude. In the effort tocome to terms with Guston's dichotomous nature writers have often concentrated upon one aspect of it at the expense of the rest, some emphasizing his refinement or erudition, others his emotional intensity or theatricality. A third tendency, useful but nonetheless problematic, has been to explain the evolution of his work by drawing direct connections between it and the artist's broad literary and art historical interests. But there are misunderstandings inherent in any treatment of Guston's work that separates the part from the whole or attempts to describe it by external influences. Guston was not just a stylist nor was he primarily a synthesizer. The expression of a comprehensive aesthetic and existential vision, his art defies easy classification as it challenges many of the dominant orthodoxies of recent American painting.
In his brief essay The Eye and the Mind, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, "Science manipulates things but refuses to inhabit them." To the degree that much postwar art has distanced itself from its sources or sought to emulate the objectivity of science by confining itself to the task of isolating painting's essential properties, the same might be said of it, that it "manipulates things but refuses to inhabit them." Guston, however, did not conceive of painting as an essentially formal enterprise, nor did he simply "borrow" ideas and images from the various traditions on which he drew. For Guston, painting was not so much made as lived; it was a process of perpetual metamorphosis that revealed and transformed the identity of the artist as he confronted the mutable reality of his materials and of the world that surrounded him. In the late 1960s, ignoring the prevailing taste for Minimal or antiform abstraction, Guston set out in his late figurative paintings to describe that relation between the artist and his work. The painter's alter egos, a hooded figure or a bloated but vigilant head, and the antic but mysterious images that besiege them are the emblems of that vital tension. In the end, Guston seemed both to completely inhabit and to be completely inhabited by his creations. The work that resulted from this uneasy symbiosis not only reflected Guston's own past and idiosyncratic makeup, it spoke for the present and changed the future direction of American painting.