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Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist who late in life became a painter of dark, comic images, was a great as-if artist. He wanted, he said, “to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet.” He aspired “to paint as a cave man would.”

Of course Guston (1913-1980) was no troglodyte, with all due respect to the Geico cave men. He was an erudite cosmopolitan who revered Italian Renaissance painting and counted among his friends the novelist Philip Roth, the composer Morton Feldman and the poets Stanley Kunitz and Clark Coolidge, with whom he collaborated in the 1970s on drawings combining words and images.

Yet working from primal instinct was his driving fantasy. It animated both the abstraction of his 1950s and ’60s work and the cartoon-style representations of the 70s. And as a continuing impulse it gives a powerful autobiographical momentum to a spellbinding survey of Guston’s drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum…

The show skips the first chapter of Guston’s career, the politically charged, social-surrealist paintings and murals of the 1930s and ’40s. In so doing it gives a clearer picture of the continual struggle with abstraction and representation that defined his mature art.

Its earliest drawings have fragmentary images in them: a boy who might have been drawn by Ben Shahn in a congested room in “Untitled” from 1946; a vaguely theatrical tableau in “Study for ‘Tormentors’ ” from 1947-8.

Clocks, shoes, glasses and other objects can be discerned in drawings of the early ’50s, but abstract, linear improvisation prevails. Here Guston’s drive to eliminate artifice — to get rid of his abundant traditional skills — takes over.

Despite his efforts, however, the drawings look elegant. Skittery, scrawly and staccato lines in black ink with quill pen or brushes play on loosely gridded, Cubist scaffoldings, producing a kind of suavely roughed-up Chinese calligraphy. In the late ’50s and the first half of the ’60s, the lines become more willfully clumsy and irregular. The drawings parallel the trend in Guston’s painting from atmospheric fields of colorful marks in the ’50s, which earned him the label “Abstract Impressionist,” to smudgy gray paintings of lumpy shapes in the ’60s.

In 1966 Guston stopped painting and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted, he said, “to clear the decks.” Here the impulse to get down to basics asserts itself in rigorously spare, black ink compositions: a single vertical mark at the top of a page; two vertical lines from top to bottom; a horizontal line meeting a vertical line; a sagging, flat-bottomed circle made with short strokes as though by a careful child. In such drawings it does look as if Guston were going back to the prehistoric origins of drawing.

Then a surprising thing happened. He started making cartoonish images: a jar of brushes, pens and pencils; open books with texts represented by rows of dashes; three people in Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes.

For two years Guston oscillated between abstraction and representation, a process whose transformative flow can best be appreciated in studio photographs showing scores of drawings sequentially pinned to the walls. He finally decided in favor of representation, and so, at the end of the decade, his famous last chapter began. That final phase, from 1970 to 1980, the year he died, is given its own room at the Morgan, and it is thrilling. Suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out in almost 50 works of joyful graphic invention.

It begins with images of the mysterious yet funny, conspiratorial Klansmen, who are said to be symbols of political protest but are, more likely, surrogates for Guston’s own enigmatic creative self. On the other hand, the monstrous caricature of Richard M. Nixon dragging a horribly swollen, phlebitis-afflicted leg is blatantly political. But if the drawings seem at first to open up to the world, they quickly shut us into the studio with his Guston mordant anxieties about art, eating, smoking, drinking and death. And then they open up again to visionary landscapes, dreams and nightmares.

Guston still drew like a cave man in these works, but instead of basic formal elements he made archetypal images in bold, wobbly lines and, in the case of a few paintings on paper or cardboard, colored them in dull reds, fleshy pinks, pale blues and dirty grays.

He told stories of Sisyphean ennui. The beat-up, bandaged head with the big sad eye gazing uphill; the boards with nails pounded into them; the empty shoes; the man smoking in bed, staring at the ceiling: these images exude that sense of futility that almost all artists must periodically endure.

Sometimes there is the relief of simple pleasures: a pile of cherries, a sandwich, sitting with one’s wife and looking out the window at the sunset. And then there is the junk-covered hillside with the gravestone at its foot presciently marked P. G. 1980.

Today the drawings don’t look as shockingly crude as they did to critics in the 1970s. They look like the work of a brilliant cartoonist knowingly inspired by “Mutt and Jeff,” “Krazy Kat” and other classic Sunday funnies. They may appear Neanderthal, but they are the products of a sophisticated performance, a kind of method acting. The mandarin playing the stumblebum with passionate, Brando-esque conviction.

Ken Johnson
New York Times