- Telling Stories: Philip Guston's Later Works
In American Artists, Jewish Images (2006), Matthew Baigell remarks that his subject, Jewish American painting, is still in its infancy. Challenging the cliché of labeling Jews as aniconic, a bookish people of the word, rather than masters of visuality, Baigell has rectified the imbalance between attention to Jewish American contributions in fiction writing and the visual arts. In After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary Jewish American Photography (2011), I noted that Baigell reduces the ambiguity (and, one could argue, the complexity) of what constitutes the Jewishness of Jewish-American art. He limits discussion to art depicting symbols, iconography, language (that is, Hebrew letters) and historical or biographical imagery that he can identify as stereotypically Jewish and contends that no uniquely Jewish elements exist in Jewish American art except for when specific themes and overt materials (the painted Hebrew letters in a Shahn painting, for example) appear.
Baigell's scholarship is a valuable point of departure for further research on Jewish American visuality. His omission of the seminal Jewish-American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980), the subject of David Kaufmann's brilliant study, suggests an opening for a new generation of scholars to create fresh, inclusive narratives about what constitutes a Jewish American art. Does not the Los Angeles-born Guston, child of exiled Jewish parents born in Odessa "who fled during the upheavals of 1905" (73), who described himself as a "doubt-ridden Jewish painter" (74), whose speech was peppered with Yiddishisms, and whom the Jewish poet Stanley Kunitz described as "the last rabbi of western art" (75), merit treatment as a Jewish American artist? Doubtless, but how to offer a rigorous account of what exactly constitutes Guston's Jewishness? His late paintings sometimes include rolled-up scrolls that resemble an unwritten or unreadable Torah, but his work lacks the direct reference to Judaica, which serves as Baigell's litmus test for who belongs in the club and who doesn't.
In Telling Stories: Philip Guston's Later Works, Kaufmann accomplishes his task in an inventive and admirably succinct manner—four chapters of [End Page 187] lucid, if at time challenging, prose. He comes to terms with Guston's ambivalent Jewishness by placing a quintessential outsider artist—once associated with mainstream abstract stylings—within a complex matrix of art historical narratives. A narrative painter, as Kaufmann's title suggests, Guston, ironically, never quite fit in to the "master narrative" of post World War Two painting. And it is a good thing for Kaufmann's reading of Guston's Jewishness that his paintings didn't melt into the sanctioned history of art. The round peg in a square hole dimension of Guston's career is a key to understanding his peculiar Jewishness. Kaufmann interprets his subject as a non-believing secular Jew who, unlike peers such as Mark Rothko, declined to "pass" as a gentile artist bent on exploring universalist themes such as desire for transcendence of the quotidian. In his later works—from the late 1960s until his death in 1980—Guston rejected "forms of polite public behavior" by, in his own terms, painting "badly" (78; 81).
In chapter 1, "Sick of Purity," Kaufmann demonstrates how Guston, associated with an especially lush version of abstract expressionism in the 1950s and early 1960s, but who shifted to a very controversial cartoonish style of representational painting in the last decade or so of his life, turned his back on both the austere abstractionists and the commodity-drenched Pop scene. His breakthrough "bad" paintings depicted hooded, quasi Ku Klux Klan figures during off-hours from their nefarious activities. Cast with blank expressions that Kaufmann in his second chapter likens to Adolf Eichmann's thoughtlessness—described in Hannah Arendt's famous analysis—they tool around in a goofy little car in "City Limits" (1969). They hold stogies between blood-stained fingers after trashing dead bodies in a banal example of evil-doing as mindless toil in "A Day's Work" (1970).
Guston's Jewish difference emerges in his murky brand of story telling, which snubbed paradigmatic...