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Philip Guston Now: An Exhibit Reflection

By Mia Weintraub

If you are considering visiting the Philip Guston Now exhibit on display at the National Gallery of Art from March-August 2023, I sure hope you like the color pink. “I’ll just take white and I’ll take cadmium red medium, which is my favorite color, and mix it up and make a pink. That mess of pink makes me want to paint.” - Philip Guston. The exhibit walls are drenched in Guston’s pink, along with the decades of artwork that his pink inspired.

However, I would be incorrect in crediting Guston’s inspiration to a singular color. In actuality, his inspiration came from everything around him; other artists and artistic styles, social and political injustices, and simply the world he saw around him.

The exhibit was a storybook, showing the beginnings of Guston’s life and artistic journey, traveling through his years of learning and exploration, building to his collections of great emotion and controversy, and concluding with self-examination and open-endedness.

As I’m writing this review, I’m finding it difficult to describe the exhibit’s rare power without spoiling the magic. Thus, I’ve decided that I do not want to report, I want to reflect. This exhibit is only meaningful when one experiences the story on their own, using their own eyes and personal contexts to make sense of Guston’s abstractions. So here is my viewing experience, presented to you with the hope that you will see this collection for yourself.

If I was plopped into this exhibit without the knowledge of where I was or what I was seeing, I would assume that I was viewing a collection of about a dozen different artists. Throughout his five or six decades of artistry, Guston mastered works of surrealism, abstract-expressionism, realism, pop-art, cartoons, and much more. And if this art history jargon means nothing to you, just know that most of the historically famous artists you think of only worked in one artistic style. The drastic changes from style to style were almost manic to look at, like I was viewing the work of a child who kept getting bored with his craft and starting over.

But style aside, the most jaw-dropping aspect of Guston’s work was the content. No matter how a piece was painted, it was showing a reflection of the world at the time. He showed images of political violence, social issues in his home of New York City, general human suffering, and created a collection that caused great uproar and controversy at the time of its creation.

An annexed room from the main flow of the exhibit held this collection, marked by a sign that read, “Please be advised that this exhibition contains depictions of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, including images of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and victims of Nazism.” As I stepped in, I was quite nervous to see Guston’s interpretations of these horrific acts. However, I was met with cartoon pictures and even more pink. At first glance, the paintings were… friendly… sweet even. But as I moved closer and absorbed their content, their imagery was disturbing and not at all sweet. As I walked through this section, I realized that their approachability made these works even more scary. Guston was again mimicking the world, showing us that the most heinous of acts are not always going to scream “EVIL!” at you, but can often be hiding in seeming goodness.

At the end of the exhibit, a short video of an old interview with Philip Guston himself was available to view in a small theater. As I watched, Guston spoke in the same manic fashion that his pieces replicated. He was talking to the interviewer, saying that he always wants to keep moving and he becomes exhausted and dissatisfied by his works and that he never created anything new in his life, he just replicated the past. I was taken aback by his words at first, but I soon began to make sense of who he was as a person.

Philip Guston was a feeler of feelings. He was empathetic and caring and just wanted the world to be a happy place and thought his art could make that come true. But I think as he grew older, he became overwhelmed and sad by how much hurt and darkness there really was… and how little he could do about it. Sadness can easily turn into mania and discontent, and I could only hope that he was satisfied with all he created in his lifetime.

By now, I’m sure you can tell that I loved this exhibit. The artwork was fascinating, the history was engaging, and Guston’s story was one worth telling.

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