The Gift of Freedom in Guston’s Flatlands

Justin Richel interprets Philip Guston’s Flatlands (1970) as a metaphor for the painter’s career, which was marked by a search for new modes of expression.

justin richel interprets philip guston’s flatlands as a metaphor for the painter’s career, which was marked by a search for new modes of expression
© The Estate of Philip Guston, SAN FRANCISCO Museum of mODERN ART

“After a lifetime, I still have never been able to escape my family…. It is still a struggle to be hidden and feel strange—my favorite mood.”

—Philip Guston

Painting is perhaps the most malleable of all artistic mediums. It captures every bit of the artist. The physical, mental, and emotional are recorded in the paint. The movement of a sore shoulder, selfish desires, and the pain of existential dread stick to the surface of canvas. In this way, every painting is a self-portrait.

Flatlands is a painting from the third act of Philip Guston’s career. Depicting a barren landscape littered with symbols, elements of the studio, objects that recall the passage of time, old shoes, canvases, body parts, and a disembodied hand aiming an accusing finger at an unknown subject, it treats the objects equally, rendering them at similar scale and detail, without hierarchy. Near its center, two hooded figures face each other, staring through the narrow slits in the ideologies that shroud their heads. The figures, which evoke the KKK, represent something far more complex and frightening than the evil that terrified Guston as a young Jewish boy; they are the shadows of moral righteousness. With this painting, we could almost decode the entirety of the artist’s work, as if Flatlands were a visual Rosetta stone, cataloging the language of his repeating and evolving forms.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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Guston is somewhat of a hero to me since he followed the direction that the work demanded, shrugging off the expectations of an adoring audience and his prestigious standing as an abstract expressionist painter at the height of his career.

Beginning with the social realist murals he painted in the 1930s and ’40s, Guston moved to abstract expressionism before re-creating himself with the reductive cartoonish style of his later works. This courage, or perhaps stubborn ambivalence toward acceptance, has allowed artists like me to explore materials and varied approaches to making art. His example is a gift that has given me the freedom to work in many different mediums, as a printmaker, painter, and sculptor.

Compressed into Flatlands is the arc of Guston’s career, which can be seen through the symbols populating the landscape, as in a mural, and then in the treatment of the paint itself, the scrubby brushstrokes that are reminiscent of his abstract works.

A thread of conflict runs through the oeuvre of Guston’s paintings. And that is to see and be seen, yet remain oblique. If you look closely enough, however, you can find the artist, present in the paint, misunderstood and strange.•

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