In his art and in his life, the abstract expressionist Philip Guston suffered in the mid-1960s. He had been drinking too much, he had smoked too much, he had just become a father, and he had extramarital affairs. He moved to Florida and quit painting for a couple of years, doing nothing but drawing.
But in 1968, motivated in part by his childhood love of comic books, he returned to painting and tried to resolve the racial tensions that were tearing America apart at the time. And so, he started painting Klansmen as clownish characters in paintings like The Studio. That didn’t mean, however, that they were not dangerous. “stupidity is one of the predicates of ordinary evil.”stupidity is one of the predicates of ordinary evil.
Guston said of these paintings, “I had no illusions that I could ever influence anyone politically,” “That would be ridiculous. I mean, that’s not the medium.”
Yet art was inspired by him. Guston died in 1980, and modern artists and cartoonists have discovered his work in the years since. Today, perhaps, his art is more valued than at any point in his life. It is, more depressingly, still true.
Laurence King publishes Philip Guston: A Childhood Spent Drawing, by Robert Storr.