The New York School was composed of any number of fascinating artists. At the moment, I’m most interested in Guston. What’s fixed my attention on him is the recent publication of his lectures and interviews. These reveal sides of Guston that have been obscured. I’ve probably read every single book on Guston published, and there have been a number of them. But what’s revealed in these new lectures and interviews are to me entirely new. It also not only adds to my previous picture of what happened with the transfer of power to the Pop artists, minimalists, photo-realists, etc.
Guston is such a complex figure. Unlike the others of the New York School, his earlier work that contained clear political content that was abandoned during the heyday of abstract expressionism reappeared in force when he returned figuration. This earned him near total condemnation from the ideologues of Abstract painting. De Kooning was the one artist who got it, according to Guston. De Kooning said, with his inimitable dry wit, “What did they think we were? Members of a baseball team.” It’s all about freedom. The mandate of any artist is to speak from his inner vision. Guston’s painting weren’t directly political. But he was doing ink drawings that were. Those drawings could find no publisher at the time. They were caricatures of Agnew, Kissinger, and particularly Nixon. Political content was expressly forbidden in Abstract Expressionism. The Social Realists were largely shut down and expunged from memory. Any descriptions in paint of social conditions in America were deemed “illustration” and not art. By who? Clement Greenberg, largely. Greenberg’s power as a critic was almost totalitarian back then. Of course, it also went hand in hand with the McCarthyite 50s.
It’s interesting to note that photo-realists avoided entirely any depictions of social realities. They still largely do. No Ashcan school for them. Recall that photo-realism came out of the late 60s, early 70s. Looking at their work, one wouldn’t have the slightest awareness that a war in Vietnam was raging that would leave over 50,000 US soldiers dead. As well as some 3 million Vietnamese. The country was plunged into massive social chaos. Yet in photo realism the subject matter would be Richard McLean’s paintings of show horses. Salt and Goings diners and rusty cars. Bechtle’s middle class ennui. Estes cityscapes devoid of human beings. etc. A kind of narcotic American fantasy world.
Here’s Guston’s Nixon in Key Biscayne.