A response to Roberta Smith’s “The Philip Guston Hoard: A Boon or Overkill?”
On the New York Times art critic’s recent column.
Published in The New Criterion, February 9, 2023
One line in particular jumped out of Roberta Smith’s article in The New York Times’s Critic’s Notebook of January 24, “The Philip Guston Hoard: A Boon or Overkill?”: “Yes, right now and maybe forever, Guston’s accomplishment is outshining Pollock’s.” Perhaps for Smith, but I doubt that to be true for many others of us in the art world and the larger museumgoing world. It’s a rash and prescriptive statement: indeed, the sentence opens with the word, “Yes.”
Tastemakers extending back to the Forties are at variance with Smith’s assessment. First off, Guston’s tepid, Monet-inflected abstract oil paintings came not in the late Forties—the case with the other breakthrough New York School painters—but only in the mid-Fifties. His naive representational drawing from the 1930s and 1940s wasn’t exhibited within the New York School at all.
And then to many painters, museum people, connoisseurs, and art lovers, Hilton Kramer chief among them (see “A Mandarin Pretending To Be A Stumblebum” in The New York Times of October 25, 1970), Guston’s switch to George Herriman–inspired imagery—men in Klan outfits sitting in bed with clocks or food strewn about—is not the heroic accomplishment Smith believes it to be. Also, Smith is conspicuously rushing the process of making such weighty claims. Nor has the necessary time elapsed to allow a true consensus of taste, since the pictures are only from three or four decades ago. Other than a preference for figuration, there is no reason offered by Smith for the viewer to topple Jackson Pollock from his perch. Guston’s name went unmentioned by Piet Mondrian, Peggy Guggenheim, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg, the tastemakers of the Forties, as well.
At the time of the New York School’s reign, Guston was not significant: he didn’t appear in the famous and era-defining 1950s Ab-Ex photograph, “The Irascibles,” that ran in Life magazine. (Still, Motherwell, de Kooning, Gottlieb, Baziotes, Rothko, Walker Tomlin, Reinhardt, Pousette-Dart, Newman, Ernst, Stamos, and, of course, Pollock were included.) Smith, nevertheless, plows ahead with her revisionist verdict.
And how sad, bland, and visually uncompelling Guston’s pinkish comic-book cartoon types are when compared with the sublimity of Pollock’s Lavender Mist (1950) or Autumn Rhythm (1950)—canvases that also placed New York at the center of international art. Guston had no comparable impact of achievement.
In 1913, Benedetto Croce wrote in his Guide to Aesthetics that “at the moment of contemplation and judgment our spirit is one with the poet [artist], and we and he are one.” A great Pollock drip painting from 1947–50 offers the chance for transcendence of this kind—an escape from the everyday to experience the painter’s clarity and richness of feeling.
With Pollock’s standout work there is no backstory—it doesn’t tell you how to feel. Rather, it liberates. Whereas with a figurative Guston, you’re spoon-fed what the so-called conceptual basis for the work is: the history of the Klan in America and the national, political situation both at that time and earlier. As Marcel Proust wrote, “A work of art that contains theories is like an object in which the price tag has been left.”
As with the Frick’s great Rembrandt Self-Portrait (1658), after spending time with the Met’s Autumn Rhythm it’s probably best to leave the museum. Hardly any other picture you look at will hold up to it. I was fortunate to see Lavender Mist prior to its sale to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The collector, Alfonso Ossorio, lived in a house overlooking East Hampton’s Georgica Pond. It was a sunny day, and clear light from the floor-to-ceiling windows flooded the room. The picture—with its delicate and layered skeins of mauve, black, teal, and white—took up the entire opposite wall. Pollock had known when to stop, and now I was sharing in the density of all his decisions. That moment of beauty has stayed with me.
In 1949 Willem de Kooning said, “Jackson has finally broken the ice.” Nothing was the same after that. In her January 24 article, Smith is suggesting that we substitute Guston’s arty and confessional work for Pollock’s major pictorial accomplishment.