The Guston restrospective, which I viewed at the SFMOMA in July 2003, was a rich, disturbing, illuminating exhibit. This catalogue of that show reprints a tremendous range (over 130 works) of Guston's work, all of it in fine, nuanced photography of the canvases. The early work includes realistic paintings with war themes, street scenes, and images of urban childhood in the manner of Ben Shahn. Eerily, Guston's hoods and bootsoles already appear. Next, the book's coverage of Guston's abstract phase reveals indebtedness to Mondrian's first abstractions; then Guston finds his own vocabulary in brisk, thick aggregates of rough rectangles on gently boiling backgrounds. Pink and red predominate, as in his later work. As part of both his oevre and Abstract Expresionism, these are among the most successful, aesthetic works of this great period in American art. For offering this total record of his development and contributions, the book provides something of great value.
His brief but famous "Klan" period follows, and then the long final phase--the pink "lima-bean" heads, the skinny, runny-meat legs, the stubble, the huge stunned eyes. The book, like the show, exposes a startling range in these paintings, confirming that Guston's seemingly narrow palette and imagery served his imagination and themes with great breadth and force. Especially powerful are two drawings and a large painting of Nixon. The last work in the catalogue is a Guston-style deli sandwich, a small (18 by 18 inches?) but hugely sensual and humorous work that surprised me at the exhibit. The book also reproduces a number of crude yet painterly black drawings done in few but expressive strokes.
The catalogue includes a useful chronology of Guston's life and work, many many photographs of him in various times and circumstances, and critical/historical exporation of his work via 4 or 5 articles penned by writers who cover varied topics relevant to his career and aims--all illustrated and all drawing on Guston's own statements and articles. His words include some provocative criticisms of the limitations of abstract art, a form which he of course abandoned in the mid 1960's. Abstract art fascinates me, yet Guston's statments gave/give me much to think about.
My sole major criticism of this otherwise terrific book is that it fails to reprint several of the works in the exhibit. Most of the missing work is owned by SFMOMA, which was one of the host museums, so this is a real mystery. Further, the missing works are among the best of the exhibition--and are thus as good as anything included in the book. The single most egregious omission is 1975's "Head and Bottle," a grim, transfixing portrayal of alcoholism. Also gone are a work Guston painted inspired by T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" and an epic and (arguably) hopeful triptych called "Red Sea, The Swell, and Blue Water." These great works all appeared in the exhibit, yet are nowhere in the catalogue. A few others are missing as well, but I'm not familiar enough with Guston's work to identify or even accurately describe them just from my visual memory of this enormous and stirring show, and that is precisely what is so frustrating about the book. Surely one essential purpose of an exhibition catalogue is to honor the total visual experience of its exhibit.
Of course, for each of these missing works, the book reprints several that are just as evocative and harrowing. Thus, as a monograph of Guston this is an excellent choice, one I will always find useful, beautifully produced, and engaging. I'm still very glad I bought it. But as a record of what the exhibit actually offered, as a way of re-experiencing the "Retrospective" of the book's title, the book falls a little short.