Guston’s influence can be seen directly in a wave of contemporary painters: in the transgressive comedy and violence of Bjarne Melgaard, the cartoonish scrawled figures of Dana Schutz, the flesh-colored palette of Charlie Billingham. Guston’s colors and cartoonish imagery were laid on top of subject matter that was often dark, disturbing, political, and complicated—a depth of approach that many contemporary artists are grasping to attain.
Timothy Taylor gallery in London opens its fifth exhibition of Guston’s work this week with an ambitious show of 25 works created between 1959 and 1980. “I see him as a contemporary artist—particularly the body of the work throughout the ’70s. It doesn’t age,” Taylor notes. “The aspiration never lets you down. You never get used to the paintings. I don’t really see him as a historic figure and that’s what resonates with artists.”
Craig Burnett, the author of Philip Guston: The Studio (published by Afterall) thinks Guston’s longevity is partly due to his sense of remove. “Guston represents a way to resist an overall trajectory in history. He was able to step out of this millennial mood of the midcentury. He represents, for a lot of artists, the ability to step away from this feeling that you should be wrapped up in a contemporary moment.”
For many, Guston also represents a way out of the abstract—something that could connect with artists scrambling to crawl out of the process-led abstraction that has dominated the art market in recent years. Guston was successful as a part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s with Mondrian-influenced, intensely worked color pieces. Yet by the late 1960s, he was living in Woodstock, New York, and began to reinvent his aesthetic and approach entirely—resulting in the large, fleshy paintings for which he is best known. On the surface, this later work appeared to be about narrative and figuration, “but what he was doing was introducing the idea of metaphor back into painting,” says Burnett, echoing the arguments of Guston scholar and author Robert Slifkin.
Painter Ryan Mosley, whose work is currently on view at Eigen + Art in Berlin, was initially drawn to Guston after seeing a 2004 retrospective at London’s Royal Academy. For him, part of his attraction was Guston’s different approach to speed. “In a world which is so fast-paced and immediate, where everything is slick, the world of consumerism and advertising, which has filtered into the art world, a painter like Guston can be seen as the absolute antithesis—slow burn,” Mosley says.
It’s not just Guston’s approach to painting itself that is reflected by younger artists. As multimedia artist Athena Papadopolous notes, “I am actually more interested in the philosophy behind his work and stages of experience that he went through in his career. I identified with the quote where he says, ‘What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?’”
This isn’t the first or last time when Guston’s work has been reflected in the artwork of a younger generation. “He had a show at the Whitechapel Gallery in the early ’80s. Nick Serota curated it, and Norbert Lynton wrote the catalogue essay. At that time, Peter Doig said that the painters at the time had the ‘Guston Rash.’” Burnett says, laughing. “He gave painters the permission slip to do what they want. To paint sloppily, to paint cartoonishly, to paint personally.”