Cartoon villains: Inside Philip Guston's Tate Modern exhibition

Philip Guston, whose paintings are on show at Tate Modern in London until early 2024, went from being a representative of 'abstract expressionism' to a visual storyteller on the verge of figuration.

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.

Cartoon villains: Inside Philip Guston's Tate Modern exhibition

When the great Japanese artist Hokusai, reached the age of 60, many of his greatest works were ahead of him. In Japan, that turning point in a person’s life is viewed as a rebirth. It even has a name: Kanreki.

Not long before his own Kanreki, the American artist Philip Guston seems to have undergone a rebirth in his style. The baptism that followed turned out to be a fiery one.

For years, Guston had been lauded as one of the foremost representatives of ‘abstract expressionism’ in America. He had even been at high school with its most celebrated star, Jackson Pollock. But, as his fifties wore on, Guston had drifted away from the aesthetic strictures of abstraction.

He’d grown tired of its purity and wanted his paintings to tell stories. Some of his abstract works had teetered uneasily on the verge of figuration. When he abandoned vivid colours and opted for darker works in black and grey, there were already suggestions of heads about to emerge from the gloom.

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
Painter III, 1963

It came as a shock, nonetheless, in 1970, when he exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan. His fellow abstract painters, seeing the new exhibits as a betrayal, dismissed them as an embarrassment.

The art critic Thomas Hughes, despite being the suave narrator of a TV series called Shock of the New, was among those who were shocked.

The depictions of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen seemed anachronistic (‘who now takes the Klan as a real political force?’), deliberately cartoonlike, fumbling and essentially childish: ‘We are left with a group of sumptuously painted canvases, sometimes witty, occasionally moving, and for the most part caricaturally blunt. As a political statement, they are all as simple-minded as the bigotry they denounce.’

We are left with a group of sumptuously painted canvases, sometimes witty, occasionally moving, and for the most part caricaturally blunt. As political statement, they are all as simple-minded as the bigotry they denounce.

Art critic Thomas Hughes on Philip Guston

Hughes would later recant and acknowledge the greatness in Guston's work that he had failed to see at the time. But actually, aside from his rather condescending presumption that political comment could no longer give art any relevance, his verdict was not so far off target.

Guston had not returned to the simplicity of his time as a muralist, working on vast allegories for Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration and later in revolutionary Mexico. He knew very well how anachronistic that would have been. Art had moved on. Instead, he had opted for a yet deeper anachronism, by returning to the bogeymen of his childhood, at a time when his surname was still Goldstein.

The Klan had first come into existence soon after the Civil War, only to decline. It then experienced a revival in 1914, a year after Guston was born, and its success lasted for a decade. At its peak, it boasted three to six million members north and south of the country.

The money came from initiation fees and the sale of the smart white costume, which they copied from D.W. Griffith's epic silent movie The Birth of a Nation, along with a penchant for burning crosses.

Silent movie minus the slapstick

They were notorious for their hatred of Blacks, especially the men, whom they considered over-sexed and obsessively enamoured of white women. The plot of The Birth of a Nation concerns one such man who is accused of raping a white woman. Ironically, he was played by a white actor with blackface.

But the Klan were equal opportunity haters. They were also hostile to Hispanics, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, leftists, the list went on. In fact, it would be far less time-consuming to list the people the Klan were in favour of: Anglo-Saxon Protestants mostly, though Scots sometimes got an honourable mention.

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
Black Sea, 1977: A long-forgotten home

The prevalence of such views must have come as a bitter dose of reality to Guston's parents who, having fled persecution in Odessa, had yet to make it in the New World. His father had to collect garbage for a living.

Many of his son's pictures would hark back to this trade in rag and bone. Shoes, limbs, heaps of objects, what the artist liked to call 'crapola', evoked rubbish dumps, but also the way people at the bottom of society can be treated as rubbish:

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
Monument, 1976

The Klan were a further vexation to his father's American dream. His poverty and sense of homelessness must have felt inescapable. One day, the young Guston discovered his father hanging by the neck in his shed. To save the men in hoods the trouble, he'd lynched himself.

The fact that these evil bogeys were no longer potent was surely part of Guston's point. One can see this by comparing a hooded figure from one of his murals, a study of terrorism, with the Klan members he was painting in his sixties.The earlier figure is sinister, combining the appearance of a KKK member with the brutal reputation of the Inquisition:

But by the time Guston comes back to this phenomenon, some fifty years on, absurdity has all but replaced menace:

The slits in the hoods, allowing the Klansmen to see, give them an air of dumb perplexity. In a photo from the Twenties, during the second coming of the KKK which followed the release of The Birth of a Nation, we see some members taking a ride. With their faces exposed, their hoods take on the appearance of dunces' caps, though this particular confederacy of dunces are far too stupid to have noticed.

Here we see Guston's version of a similar jaunt:

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
City Limits, 1969

The three hooded figures squeeze into a Ford Model T car as it might look rendered by a child. Its wheels unsuccessfully reinvented, it trundles through an urban landscape where the tenement windows are as opaque as the slits in a hood. This is a case of the eyes being windows to the absence of a soul. A pink haze envelops the tenements.

On the white garments of the Klansmen, there are the pink smears of their victims' blood. It's a nuisance; what self-respecting man of blood doesn't like to keep his costume in pristine condition? Nonetheless, they appear relaxed, quietly diligent. A henchman's work is never done and the next wet job beckons.

In a similar painting, three more Klansmen are seen pootling along. This time the killers are clearly intent on living their best life. They puff impassively on Cuban cigars of the kind rolled on the thighs of virgins. One of them, possibly the driver, points a red digit in the direction of their next operation. He's like some psychotic doubting Thomas, his finger forever about to probe an open wound.

Jarring artlessness

The shock one feels in looking at these images has nothing to do with gore or cruelty. What strikes one, rather, is the apparent clunkiness of the style, the jarring artlessness of its naivety. Even the garish pink of Guston's later paintings is only vaguely suggestive of flesh. It's nothing like the real thing, just a visual shorthand for it, of a hue never seen in real life.

The shock one feels in looking at (Guston's paintings) has nothing to do with gore or cruelty. What strikes one, rather, is the apparent clunkiness of the style, the jarring artlessness of its naivety.

Yet, in a gallery of such paintings, the effect is to turn the walls into a panorama of tenderised meat, the colour of an undercooked burger. And this pink, which could just as easily be encountered in a nursery, hangs over the entire cartoon metropolis.

The tenements are squat red and pink stacks quite unlike your average apartment block. Surely, Guston is remembering the flat-topped, terraced pyramids of the Aztecs, which he would have seen in his formative years, while residing in Mexico.

Just like the Klansmen, the Aztecs were addicted to human sacrifice, hence the blush on these structures hints at a recent blood-letting:

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
City, 1969

Guston seems to be imagining a world run by the men in hoods. It's the racially hygienic world that would have come about had their dreams been realised. Thus, in the hygienic classroom, the Klan members are found chalked on a blackboard.

They are phantoms trying to intimidate us. Every child knows they're only pretending to be ghosts. Their quizzical eyes, now failing to focus on each other, have become slits in old bedsheets.

Bug powder at the ready, they prepare to exterminate in the name of white civilisation, but they are powerless. They can only glide through imaginary pink walls.

In this alternative universe, the Klansmen even have pretensions to artistic expression. Guston shows one bloody-handed spook painting a self-portrait.

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
The Studio, 1969

Of course, it's a portrait that shows nothing of the artist's actual features. The motifs that Guston became addicted to – the bare light bulb, the blood smears on the white linen and on the canvas itself, the cigar and the clock with one hand – are distilled into a moment of compromised self-awareness as the Klansman attempts the same impossible feat as Guston is attempting: the depiction of evil.

The joke is that the Klansman has not thought to remove his hood. Perhaps because even the expression of his personality would be a form of degenerate art. The artist of pure evil, like any good fascist, must cleanse himself of personality.

Self-portrait of a self-portrait

The hood adds another layer of ambiguity, the question of whether Guston himself is painting a self-portrait of himself painting a self-portrait. This would amount to possibly the most extreme case of mise en abyme (or placement in abyss) known to art history, yet he sometimes spoke of the hood in precisely this way.

"I perceive myself behind the hood," he said. "Well, it could be all of us. We're all hoods." The idea of evil fascinated him, to the extent that he even tried to imagine living with the Klan: "What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot."

These hoods haunt the mind of civilised individuals, like the barbarism that Walter Benjamin detected in the documents of culture. By creating this intolerant parallel universe for his cartoon villains, Guston was eventually able to address his own barbarism from an oblique angle, seeing himself reflected back by it, crudely, in the guise of the once high-brow artist.

These clunky pictures were also his reckoning with art itself. Just as Hokusai had begun his life again at sixty, Guston was rejecting the abstract expressionism of his middle years to tell a very dark story. His picture of a kettle on a horizon might have been inspired by Goya's dog from the Black Paintings, which were also the works of a very old man. Or it might be a deliberate introduction of bathos into what was otherwise a pared back Rothko:

Photo of Philip Guston's work, taken by Bryn Haworth.
Kettle, 1978

To this mischievous quotation of abstract art, the older Guston added the memory of cartoon strips from his childhood. It wasn't their style he drew upon, which could often be sophisticated, but the impish, zany humour. Back in 1970, when there was such confusion among the critics, John Perrault had noticed the influence. He wrote in the Village Voice:

'It's as if De Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart... It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.'

It's as if De Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart... It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.

Critic John Perrault

Perrault was spot on – one of Guston's favourite strips was Krazy Kat. It had also been celebrated by numerous artists and writers, among them Picasso, Wodehouse, Willem de Kooning and T.S. Eliot.

Herriman's brand of Krazy

The artist Paul Nash called the Kat's creator, George Herriman, a 'fantastic philosopher.' The strip's intellectual fans loved the ever-shifting backdrops, drawn from the landscape of Arizona, and the strange argot spoken by the characters – "A fowl konspirissy. Is it pussible?" – with its mixture of English, French, Spanish and Yiddish. Some claimed that the strip anticipated the surrealists. Others averred that it was a forerunner of modernism and postmodernism.

The plot was simple: Krazy Kat was a black feline of no fixed gender whose unrequited love for Ignatz, a white mouse, was rewarded with bricks that Ignatz hurled at his head. Krazy chose to interpret these bricks as tokens of love.

It's a familiar kind of cartoon violence. Later it would reappear in the tribulations of Tom outwitted by Jerry, or the doomed efforts of Wile E. Coyote to entrap the Road Runner. But perhaps the attraction for Guston went deeper than this.

Just as the abstract artist, on arriving in New York, had changed his name from Goldstein to Guston in order to conceal his Jewishness, so Herriman had settled for a white identity when, as a mixed-race individual, he was compelled by the laws of the time to identify as one or the other.

It was a crazy choice to have to make. Though Herriman confessed to a friend that he was Creole and that he knew he had some black ancestry, because his hair was 'kinky' – that is to say, tightly curled – he may have worn a hat to conceal this fact. Colleagues referred to him as 'the Greek' and only after his death would it become clear that he had, among other things, black Cuban roots.

Now, there were times when the perpetual struggle between his black cat and white mouse was suspended briefly. When Ignatz was covered in soot, for instance, Krazy would no longer find him attractive. On the other hand, when Krazy was momentarily white, for one reason or another, Ignatz would fall for his charms.

This comic interchangeability of white with black is a simple but effective critique of the hooded worldview. Beyond the token of difference lies a shared humanity that the Klansmen cannot acknowledge. If Krazy loves Ignatz, is it because he secretly wants to be a mouse? And when Ignatz hurls the brick at Krazy's head, is it a way of suppressing his own desire to be a cat?

In the old cartoon strip, it was this secret love affair between racists and the objects of their hatred that Herriman sent up. The absurd lack of common feeling must have been obvious to a man who embodied the racial dichotomy; who was, in effect, both cat and mouse.

Without ever making this explicit, the strip's comic zest comes from enacting Herriman's own ambiguous identity. One image has Ignatz saying "So you are a dual personality, eh?" Krazy Kat replies (translating loosely), "Oh sure, darling – I'm practically a twin."

This humour attaching to identity chimes with the theme of assimilation in the Jewish tradition. As an assimilated Jew himself, Guston must have known that he might be accused of complicity with the white supremacists. It is an artist in his studio who paints the hooded self-portrait.

Under the hood

It's no surprise that Mel Brooks, the great slapstick comedian of prejudice, would gleefully tap into the same comic potential of mistaken identity. In a scene from Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder (who is Jewish) and Cleavon Little (who is black) happen upon two members of the Klan.

The Klansmen are standing some way off with their backs to the two heroes. On their smart white costumes are cheerful logos of smiling yellow faces and the words 'Have a nice day.'

Wilder hides Little behind a rock, then shouts "Hey boys, look what I got here!" He quickly pulls his companion out by the scruff of his neck. Cleavon Little then utters the one question calculated to get a Klansman's back up:

"Hey, where are the white women at?"

Once they've been lured behind the rock, we hear the Klansmen being knocked unconscious, and in a trice our heroes emerge wearing their gear. They look entirely convincing. After all, who has any way of knowing what's under a hood? Little is only discovered when he attempts to sign a document, revealing the colour of his hand. Wilder immediately scolds him for not 'washing up after our weekly cross burning.'

Cleanliness. It's next to godliness, after all. In a real sense, it was the overriding motive for joining the Klan. Yes, you got to spend weekends with like-minded fellas, dressing up in identical costumes and setting light to crosses, but behind the high jinks was a serious inquisitorial purpose.

The watchword with this kind of fun was Keep It Clean. No one could claim this was easy. As Guston's cartoon villains discovered, those blood stains can be a devil to get out.

Philip Guston is at Tate Modern in London until 25 February 2024.

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