Art: Philip Guston

    Guston died in 1980. He keeled over, aged 67, at dinner, in front of his doctor. But before he did that, he had a career of such curious and cosmic symmetry that this unique trajectory of his appears almost divinely traced. While most lives are a line that stops, Guston’s achieved a return to its own beginning. He was something. Then he became something else. Then he re-became the thing he originally was, but with new force. Thus, his life is a masterpiece of emblematic circularity. And congratulations are due to the Royal Academy for laying it out before us with such clarity, and in stepping stones of such wilfully and uncrushably fascinating pictures. If ever an artist needed his entire life placed before us in order for us to understand properly any single bit of it, it was Guston.

    He was Jewish. He had to be, really. For better or for worse, in sickness or in more sickness, it has, in the modern artistic world, fallen chiefly to Jewish lives to best reflect the horror of contemporary creative being and, interestingly, to aspire most closely to the condition of a parable. Guston was born Philip Goldstein in 1913 in Montreal. His parents were Russian immigrants from Odessa. In 1919, the Goldsteins moved to Los Angeles, where Guston met Jackson Pollock at the Manual Arts High School, from which both were later expelled for distributing leaflets criticising the popularity of sport. Guston, who went on to smoke three packets of untipped Camels a day, and eat and drink so much, and who somehow succeeded in making noble, even heroic art about these excesses, wasn’t the sporty type.

    In this display, there’s a wonderful painting from 1973 called Painting, Smoking, Eating, in which the artist shows himself in bed — it’s actually a one-eyed hairy red blob in a bed, but by this stage of the show, we know it’s him — puffing away at a fag, a tray of biscuits on his chest, a naked light bulb swaying above him, his one good eye snapped open and bulging with fear. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night petrified, your heart racing? That’s what the painting captures. Van Gogh once knocked off a lightly disguised self-portrait as a skeleton puffing on a fag, which has about it this same manic determination to laugh death in the face. It takes more than self-awareness to paint a picture featuring this much aggressive autobiographical slovenliness. It takes a programme, a mind-set. Guston smoked, drank and ate as an act of existential protest against the insufferably sporty textures of modern America. At heart, his work was, you feel, a crazed defence of the inner life.

    The show has a jumpy beginning, with lots of different styles being sampled, and lots of different guys being quoted — Goya, Picasso, Beckmann. After he was expelled from school, Guston developed an interest in the art of the Mexican muralists, the aesthetic rebels from just across the border, whose whopping great communistic allegories were determined to taunt the capitalist gringos on the other side of the Rio Grande. By siding with the Mexicans, he was not siding with his own people. Thus, from the off, he sets himself up as the outsider, sitting there in his lonely little room, with its one light bulb, smoking, eating, painting. How tangible his sense of displacement is.

    The most important of the early images is a smallish drawing, from 1930, of a bunch of hooded Klu Klux Klansmen lynching a black man on a tree. His own father committed suicide in 1924, and Guston found him swinging from a rope. The father had been a rag-and-bone man: a failure on American terms. Thus, on the son’s terms, America had killed him, and the creepy Klu Klux Klansmen were, surely, in this instance, meant to represent not just the actual bad guys, but the whole rotten American present.

    So far, so obvious. Guston’s art doesn’t do small talk. Not now, not ever. It’s what happens next that feels utterly surprising and, as they say down LA way, left field. Because for no obvious reason, he suddenly becomes an abstract expressionist.

    The show doesn’t explain how, or even when, this happened. In one room, Guston is trying out figurative styles. In the next, he is painting pulsing abstractions of rare and awkward beauty, in which groups of colours thicken and thin into scruffy quilts of overlapping patches. The influence of his pal Pollock seems to have played a part. And, perhaps, some mystical Jewish thing about not making graven images, like Rothko. The colours at least are unmistakable: bubblegum pinks, Astroturf greens, Tarmac blacks. Typical Guston colours.

    Having seen lots of examples of his late work, and a few of his early endeavours, it was this abstract art that I knew least about and most wanted to encounter. The pictures are gorgeous. More thoughtful than the usual CIA-supported blurtings of free American expression, they seem always to be striving, unsuccessfully, to form a form, like bits of stray ectoplasm seeking to regain a ghost shape. Does this only seem to be so with hindsight? Is it an overview illusion? I dunno. But just as suddenly as Guston took up abstraction, he dropped it again.

    It took place in 1970, at an infamous show at the Marlborough Gallery, when Guston unveiled a set of unmissably extraordinary figurative paintings featuring his old friend, the hooded Klu Klux Klansman, who starred in a series of sloppy, poppy, pink paintings in which the Klansman cruised the city in his car, smoked, pointed and painted. If pictures made noises, then these ones, produced by the formerly exquisite, abstract quietist, would have burped, ranted, cussed and farted. Since the Klansman can be seen wielding a brush in several of the pictures, and is definitely to be found inside an artist’s studio, we have to recognise him as some sort of weird and inexplicable self-portrait.

    The American art world was shocked. These were the days when figurative and abstract art were deemed to be mortal enemies, not other sides of the same coin. You didn’t step blithely from one to the other, as Guston did. “I got sick and tired of all that purity,” he famously explained. “I wanted to tell stories.” The works are familiar now, and have come to be recognised as some of the most original and unexpected paintings of the post-war era. Other Americans have been influenced by comics. Other Americans have made noble things out of trashy subject matter. But nobody has been anything like as poignantly slobbish as Guston.

    One picture, called Pit, shows a rubbish heap of old shoes, seemingly dumped into a hole in the ground. There’s a ladder leading down into this hole, and also down there is one of those blobby heads shaped like a testicle that always stands for Guston. It’s only when you remember that he had a comic-book fondness for atrocious puns, involving the confusion between sole and soul, that this doomy image makes its full meaning clear. It’s a last judgment. The pit is hell. It ’s full of lost soles.

    What is amazing is how big these tragically comic images play. The Royal Academy’s central gallery rings you with a spectacular selection of aggressively impolite pictures and you quickly realise that mere impoliteness is not part of their ambition. And never was. Their ambition has always been to present cosmic truths about modern life, its dangers, its decrepitude, its hopelessness. These, you know, continue to be paintings about the forces that killed Guston’s dad.