‘Ooh, you poor man.’
Philip Guston x The Rebel
This is the story of two artists from the 1960s – one real, one made up.
In September 2020, four major international galleries – the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and London’s Tate Modern – collectively announced that a touring exhibition of the work of American painter Philip Guston, which was due to go on display at all of them, had been put off for four years. It had nothing to do with coronavirus. Instead, it was the subject matter of Guston’s paintings that was the issue. In a joint statement, the galleries said they had postponed so that ‘the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted’.
New Yorker Guston was a well-respected postwar Abstract Expressionist painter. Then suddenly in the late ’60s, he ditched his canvases of shimmering light and colour, adopted a horrible palette of mainly black, pink and bloody carmine red, and began knocking out apparently hamfisted pictures of household items, bollock-like heads and hooded Klansmen. It was the latter that got the show Philip Guston Now shelved.
It seems likely that these four galleries concluded that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, a high-profile show of paintings of hooded figures by a long-dead white guy was, well, not ideal. Concerns were raised about the show’s all-white curation team, and the changing ‘context’ in which the works could/should be read and understood. For a while, it galvanised the art establishment and press. Eventually, the organisers had another change of heart, and the show is now due to run 2022-2024 at the four galleries.
I’m not about to dive back into the issues around this story. If you’re interested, Artnet’s Ben Davis does a brilliant job here. What I find interesting about this story is how it relates to Tony Hancock.
In 1961, Hancock, a huge comedy star of British radio and TV, made his second and final feature film. The Rebel tells the story of Tony, a middle-class London office worker and Sunday painter/sculptor, who throws in his job and heads to Paris to chase his dream of being an artist. (It’s arguable that Paris wasn’t really the bleeding edge of contemporary art in the early ’60s, but the film plays into British stereotypes big time.) This exotic outsider figure is adopted by the avant-garde because he is so different to them, and becomes a celebrity on the scene. Despite this, the only works that he can sell are those of his former studio mate, who has given up on art and gone back to London to work in an office.
It’s a pretty decent comedy film, and has some great lines in it, especially from Hancock’s landlady, Irene Handl. But at its heart – and this is where Guston comes back in – is quite a meta notion of what is good/bad/controversial in art, and how that perception can change.
You see, the joke in The Rebel is that Tony is a terrible, terrible artist. We are meant to see his paintings and sculptures as risible – a disembodied foot, fat red birds in a flat blue sky, a monstrous sculpture, ‘Aphrodite at the Waterhole’, hewn from lumps of concrete from a demolished town hall. (‘I did that from memory. That is women as I see them.’ ‘Ooh, you poor man.’) A posh London gallery owner, sleekly played by George Sanders, can see that these works are talentless ‘rubbish’, but Tony and the hipsters of bohemian Paris cannot or will not. Which confirms everything we are meant to suspect about artworld poseurs. Tony’s ‘infantile’ school is just the classic ‘my five-year-old could do better’ given a curatorial gloss, and we can all see right through it. Tony, who takes to the amateur art-theory café debates like a fat red duck to some flat blue water, gets to spout his own nonsensical jargon – as he tells his depressed studio mate, ‘your colours are the wrong shape’. In other words, he’s taking the piss.
When Guston first showed his later paintings, the New York artworld thought he was taking the piss too, and dropped him like a hot potato. He was a ‘traitor’ to Abstract Expressionism. His new work was insulting/childish/shocking. This portly, well-regarded artist in his mid-fifties was suddenly persona non grata. He had his defenders, sure, but they were in a minority. These are the works, though, for which Guston is remembered and esteemed; manifestly the definitive paintings of his career, they’re the ones that hang in national collections; one of them (not a Klansman, tbf) is on the cover of the catalogue of Philip Guston Now, and presumably the same image would have been on tubes and buses and in the Sunday papers. Time has alchemically infused these works with meaning. Guston’s personal frustrations about the world he was inhabiting – a small well-heeled clique of fellow artists and gallerists in a huge East Coast city – came out in his work as ugly and crude, informed by his own Russian-Jewish heritage, and seeing Ku Klux Klan brutality first-hand in his youth in Los Angeles. Now they seem full of prescient universal significance. And problems.
By the same token of hindsight, Tony’s work in The Rebel is stunningly and memorably original compared to the polite dross that the film presents as ‘good’ modern art. I don’t know who conceived and executed his paintings and sculptures for the film, but I wish I did. Hats off to them. The foot, the mad birds, his brilliant self-portrait are bonafide pieces of unique twentieth-century art. The Institute of Pataphysics even commissioned a show of contemporary artists’ versions of the works from the film a few years back, and put them on display in a gallery in Shoreditch. They are still fresh and funny and challenging. What is now horribly dated in The Rebel are its attitudes to art: that it’s essentially ridiculous and a con and that only ‘experts’ with Rolls-Royces who price things in guineas can tell – and tell us – who is good at it from all the charlatans.
So these two artists – one real, one made up – have both triumphed over their detractors, especially the ones who can only equate success with saleability. We’re always meant to be on Tony’s side in The Rebel. He may be an idiot (savant or otherwise) but he’s not a charlatan: he believes in his work, he’s prepared to let posterity be his judge and he’s been vindicated (in my opinion, anyway): ‘You wait till I’m dead, you’ll see I was right!’ Intriguingly, in the US, the film was retitled ‘Call Me Genius’, which actively shifts the focus away from Tony’s British anti-establishmentism and onto the notion of what constitutes ‘good’ art at any given moment. Guston’s narrative right now isn’t so clear-cut. Obviously, that’s partly because he was a real artist, not a caricature from an ancient comedy film. What is for sure, though, is that his works continue to repel, fascinate and question our response to them.
Perhaps if Guston had painted his hooded figures lynching and burning, these galleries wouldn’t have been so fearful as to how his work would be received and interpreted by contemporary audiences (albeit ones who have had plenty of opportunities to see them over the last 50 years). But his Klansmen aren’t doing those things. It’s much worse than that. They seem quite everyday: pottering round the city in cars, smoking cigars, even – in ‘The Studio’ – painting self-portraits. They are normal people, in other words; they are all of us. Of course, under the hoods, Klansmen are everyday ‘normal’ people; that’s what makes them so horrific and that’s what Guston so feared and hated amid the bloody Civil Rights battles of the ’60s. But maybe the problem right now is that his ‘powerful message’ doesn’t look quite as straightforward as powerful messages are meant to look in 2022. Or maybe his colours are just the wrong shape.
‘Philip Guston Now’. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May 1-Sep 11 2022. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Oct 23 2022-Jan 15 2023. NGA, Washington, Feb 26-Aug 27 2023. Tate Modern, London, Oct 3 2023-Feb 4 2024.
Next week: A Hard Dalek’s Night - 1964; unnerving children, loveable mop-tops and Doctor Who