Piero and Pastrami: Guston in Rome
Philip Guston: Roma at the Phillips Collection
February 12 to May 15, 2011
1600 21st Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Philip Guston: Roma features a selection of paintings the artist made during his residency at the American Academy in Rome in 1970-71. The residency was presented as a respite from critical reception of the breakthrough 1970 exhibition with its return to figuration. The imagery is derived from both his American and Italian experiences, burrowing into an obtuse iconographic language of fragmented objects such as detached eyes, hands, shoes, paintbrushes and light bulbs. This exhibition provides a wealth of historical context but tends towards overly literal explanations of specific Italian influences.
We see Guston developing his visual vocabulary and palette, while intermingling bits of his Roman surroundings. He was also distilling lessons in overlapping form and space from his trips to Arezzo to see Piero della Francesca’s otherworldly frescos, which he perceived as structurally organized like comic strips. What is most fascinating about this body of work is how worlds of antiquity and the contemporary meld through Guston’s touch and organization of objects in space. Often, these ambiguous images feel at once like landscapes and still lives.
In Italy, Guston’s palette remained mostly monochromatic, faithful to his penchant for pinkish coral reds. Even gardens with Farnesian umbrella trees – curiously resembling his Klansman hoods in shape – such as Untitled (Wall) (1971) were depicted in this rosé palette. When asked why these colors, back in 1966, the artist had replied that “it took a couple of years to get the feeling of red, and particularly cad red medium, which I happen to love. I like pastrami. I just like it. I couldn’t tell you why. I like cad red medium. It has a certain resonance to it.”
Guston often explained contradictory impulses in his work with such stream of consciousness associations. Was he saying that the color was inspired by pastrami, which happened to be a similar hue? Not exactly, but pastrami came to his mind when explaining the color choice. He might or might not have made similar connections between the peach color in a painting such as Ancient Rock, Osatia (1970) and the influence of Italian light.
When Klansman-like hoods show up in the Italian paintings, curator Peter Miller Benson traces these forms, in his catalog essay, directly to Giorgio de Chirico, G.B. Tiepolo, and Gaudenzio Ferrari, artists whom Guston admired and studied while in Italy. Benson’s scouring for Italian influences can go to idiosyncratic extremes: that the open cloak in Piero della Francesca’s Mother of Mercy inspired Guston’s hoods, the wood plank in Untitled (Wood and Wall) 1971 mimics the wood cross in Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross cycle, that Guston’s pared-down palette echoes the tones in Piero’s frescoes.
These are far-flung comparisons that represent a revisionist attempt to enforce a literal set of assumptions in disregard of the artist’s complex, layered intent. They also pose the question: Was Guston more interested in the hood’s form or what it signified? Considering the rich ambiguity of these shapes, which morph across this body of work from hoods into triangular trees into stone fragments of antiquity, Guston was primarily interested in these motifs because they could not effortlessly be decoded. Furthermore, Guston was more concerned with making deeply considered, sensuous paintings.
Benson briefly discusses Guston’s visit to the Scialoja collection in Rome where he was said to have seen Morandi and proceeds to connect a Morandi painting’s pink palette to Guston’s use of the same color, which he had long used prior to Rome. This is a stretch. The exhibition’s wall text is absent of any more detailed discussion of Morandi other than his name listed in the introductory text as visual stimuli Guston saw, perhaps because there is little evidence of Guston discussing his work. David McKee, who represents Guston’s estate, told me in an e-mail exchange, “I hesitate to elaborate on a point which others have always brought up but to which I cannot fully or reliably respond. In all my conversations with Philip I don’t recall him ever praising or being interested in Morandi… his sole interest in going to Bologna was to EAT. I can’t help but feel that at some time he must have visited Morandi’s studio, but there is no record.” Although in a more general sense, Guston shared a similar touch and scale to Morandi’s still life-landscape hybrids, there is little evidence that Guston looked beyond the Italian masters, at one time declaring “I am not interested in looking at Modern art.” In Pantheon (1973), after all, in which Guston lists his influences, only de Chirico is outside of a classical cannon.
What is compelling, however, is a 1960 photograph of Guston in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum in Rome standing near a colossal pointing marble finger the size of a man. That Untitled (Foot) (1971) resembles a smoothed, pyramidal-shaped Roman marble foot is hard to ignore. It is cases like this, requiring no back-up argument, of the obvious influence of Roman antiquity on Guston’s symbolic vocabulary that make this show an enlightening delight.