They also alluded to an exceptionally painful side of Guston’s past. His parents, both Jewish, had fled from Odessa to the United States, and he grew up hearing about local crimes against Jews perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. It’s even been suggested that anti-Semitism contributed to his father’s suicide in 1923, when Guston was still a teenager. The 1970 exhibition, then, marked Guston’s attempt to grapple with issues—both personal and aesthetic—that he’d been pondering for a very long time. One can hardly imagine how it must have wounded him to be accused of a cheap grab at topicality.
In 1978, Roberta Smith—one of the few New York critics who saw the Marlborough show for what it was—wrote in Art in America
: “Nothing is final with Guston. He isn’t after an exalted, ultimate statement in his art.” That’s both a thoughtful interpretation of his career and a shrewd explanation of why his post-AbEx work was regarded as an act of betrayal. Unlike Rothko or Pollock, Guston rarely seemed to be trying to foster a sense of transcendence with his work; his representational paintings, like his earlier abstractions, instead had what Smith called “a solid, earthy grandeur.” Finding the best style through which to express this grandeur required a constant process of backtracking and reinventing, one that proved to be as crucial to his development as it was frustrating for his critics.
Guston continued to paint right up until his death in 1980. In the years following his Marlborough show, his reputation slowly climbed back toward where it had been in the ’50s; today, his work resides in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art
, Tate Modern
, and the Art Institute of Chicago
, even though he’s still an order of magnitude below Pollock prestige-wise (among museumgoers, if not painters).
At least Guston had the satisfaction of living long enough to hear some of his meaner critics recant. Hughes, for one, would later call him
“a figurative artist of extraordinary power.” He, like so many other notable art critics, had been stunningly wrong about Guston’s swerve back to representation, but he had the good grace to admit it. The love of art (to amend another cultural milestone
from 1970) means often having to say you’re sorry.