The Soothsayer’s Recompense
Santa Monica Museum of Art
Santa Monica, CA
Propheteering can be a tricky thing. The Pythia at Delphi, for example, was one of most powerful women of the ancient world. John the Baptist, on the other hand, ended up as a head on a plate. Visionary artists are always a delicious prospect, and “ahead of their time” is an epitaph reserved for some of history’s most tasty specimens. Artworks themselves often posture as prophecy, though sometimes only artists hear their utterances.
Such is the case of The Soothsayer’s Recompense, a painting by Giorgio de Chirico that hung in the Hollywood Hills home of Walter and Louise Arensberg where it inspired a young Philip Goldstein to become a painter, one known to us as Philip Guston.
Like Elgar’s orchestra theme after which it is named, the exhibition, Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico, uses shared motifs and contextual nuance to create a tapestry of resonances. Co-curated by Michael R. Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Lisa Melandri of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the show’s powerful impact is the result of a canny exhibition design in which evocative juxtapositions highlight not only the territory shared by the two painters, but also their crucial differences, differences which are vital to an understanding of the uneven status awarded to the later works of each.
Upon entering the space, the first thing this viewer encountered was de Chirico’s iconic 1913 canvas, The Soothsayer’s Recompense— the very painting that a teenaged Goldstein saw at the Arensberg home. Two early works by Guston hang to the right, along with a wall text and an image of the room at the Arensberg’s in which the painting hung at that time. Guston’s Nude Philosopher In Space Time (1935) succinctly makes the case for de Chirico’s influence on the young painter. Guston wasn’t even Guston yet, (the painting is signed Philip Goldstein), but the science fiction setting and Dutch Boy palette already set him apart from his inspiration. Pantheon (1973), hanging opposite The Soothsayer’s Recompense, makes the link explicit with its who’s who list of heroes. The names Masaccio, Piero, Giotto and Tiepolo hover in red letters on a pink field between a cartoon- style easel and light bulb. To the left of the easel is another name, the only one from the 20th century, that of de Chirico. Further evidence of Guston’s close tracking of de Chirico is on display in the paired hanging of 1979’s Ramp with de Chirico’s The Invincible Cohort, of 1973. That Guston found de Chirico inspiring for at least 40 years is evidenced by yet a third pair—de Chirico’s Gladiators and Lion (1927) and Guston’s Gladiators (1938). Guston clearly returned to de Chirico and followed his work for both inspiration and homage throughout his career.
While both artists embraced the use of dramatic, depersonalized figures, the bringing together of de Chirico’s mannequins and Guston’s hoods underscores the affective gulf separating the two artists’ projects. De Chirico’s 1925 The Poet and His Muse, a painting that was also part of the Arensberg collection, hangs on a wall adjacent to Guston’s 1969 By the Window. In both, a faceless figure sits, head in hand, in a traditional pose of melancholy. In de Chirico’s work, a second figure stands behind the seated one, its chest made of an aggregate of what looks like studio detritus. Guston’s Klansman, in nearly the exact pose as de Chirico’s mannequin, sports a pink void in his robe, as if the painter couldn’t fill in the place above the figure’s heart with white paint. A table lamp shoots up from the bottom edge of the canvas like a missile topped with a repulsive red-fringed shade. While The Poet and his Muse is saturated in a quaint poignancy, By the Window revels in buffoonish menace. De Chirico’s pensive mannequins inhabit a rickety room of bare floorboards on a canvas less than half the size of Guston’s pink field with lamp, window and tiny picture hung from a nail. The disquieting lyricism of the older artist’s toga-clad figures is worlds away from the gruesome churlishness of Guston’s hood. The difference is even more pronounced when one moves down the wall to Double Portrait (1969), a cramped picture of two hoods staring dumbly to the right, a green window shade with dangling pull above them. Their white impasto is muddied with black and red, as if dirtied after a long night of murder and cross burning.
De Chirico’s 1968 Gladiators After the Battle, coupled with Guston’s painting Martyr from ten years later, lays wide the geographical and contextual divide between the two artists. De Chirico’s canvas, a crowded Greco-Roman locker room scene painted with a technique both precious and awkward, evokes a compressed pseudo-Renaissance aesthetic. Nearly naked young men are squeezed into a shallow picture plane, each staring off into space as if in a post- battle/post-coital fugue state. Cadmium orange highlights and blushing cheeks give the scene a heated air, as if it were taking place inside of a toaster oven. The sensuous, fey physiognomies recall Mantegna’s St. Sebastian while the arrows, shields and a rather bizarre tower with a curtain shielding the eyes of one of the figures gives the impression of a stage set. In Guston’s painting, a primitive wooden box replaces the St. Sebastian figure, its sides skewered by a whole quiver full of crudely painted arrows. The European artist’s sophisticated, faux- historical ambience contrasts sharply with Guston’s more populist, cartoon-inspired figuration, each painter acting as an almost caricatured representative of his continent’s take on the trajectory of modern art.
Like the “hidden theme” of Elgar’s variations, there seems to be something begging to be interpreted between the works on view here, or rather, between the works that are not on view. The entirety of Guston’s career as an abstract painter is absent, the exhibition starting off with works the artist made in his teens and then leaping into the work he made in his mid ‘50s. While it is true that Guston’s shift to figuration was contentious at the time, it wasn’t long before those works found their way into the critical pantheon. Initially making his reputation as an “Abstract Impressionist,” it seems that Guston’s influence and enduring legacy now lies more with his late, figurative paintings. A shock to purists elated by his earlier canvases, the painter’s return to image making, in the end, seems more than prescient. Ten years after the hoods were first shown, Guston’s heirs were everywhere. By the late 1970s, scores of painters were working in a figurative, expressive manner. The Whitney Museum’s 1978 exhibition New Image Painting, for example, seems unthinkable without Guston’s precedent.
While I was familiar with Guston’s work, having seen it en masse in the 2003 retrospective in San Francisco, my understanding of de Chirico was less than thorough. The Santa Monica exhibition skips about 40 years of de Chirico’s production, starting off with his acclaimed Metaphysical work of the teens and then skipping ahead to the late 1960s, the same period in which Guston began his figurative style. I had seen the Metaphysical pictures in reproduction countless times, but the work after 1925 or so remained, well, an enigma. Their schlocky reputation having preceded them, it was a treat to actually have a gander at de Chirico’s maligned later works. De Chirico’s Sun on an Easel (1973) seems as exemplary as anything in the show of the artist’s post-Metaphysical exclusion from the canon. What is one to do with a painting like this? The small canvas seems to embody so many of “serious” art’s no-no’s as to be a cautionary tale in paint—the saccharine, lite palette, the corny pseudo-surrealist displacement of sun and moon from above the horizon to the easel and floor, the bathetic limpid curtains framing a space more shoe box diorama than High Renaissance—all create a mood almost antagonistic in its banality. Inscrutable in its chipper whimsy, the painting becomes almost perverse in its palatability. Is there irony here? Would it be comforting to know that there was? Perhaps it is ultimately the believability of these paintings that has barred them from acceptance.
If the questionable nature of a painting like Sun On an Easel ends up creating a kind of unease, a painting like Guston’s Entrance (1979), brings it to a fever pitch. In it, a bleary door of muddy, mushy paint vomits forth a veritable holocaust of dismembered legs ending in things more akin to horseshoes than the variety most humans wear. Nasty pinks, reds and yellows mixed with tar black and a cold white both define and deflate the forms, as if the whole stinking pile were rotting before your eyes. Some of the paint has been scratched away with the end of the brush, slicing through the fetid mass like pristine threads of dental floss. Huge creepy- crawlies skitter past along the bottom edge as the doorknob and keyhole stare stupidly out of the picture plane like the empty sockets of a skull. If de Chirico needles us into an ambiguous emotional response, Guston bludgeons us with a brutality whose cartoonish means only intensify its effect.
Avoiding the pitfalls inherent in this type of exhibition—forced comparisons, a too- diffuse thesis, an overly narrow range of work—Enigma Variations succeeds with its potent combination of the well known and the under-examined. Concise comparisons, such as The Invincible Cohort with Ramp, clearly define the show’s premise while the inclusion of less obvious works, such as Sun on an Easel or the horrifying Entrance, opens up a space for dialog and allows the artists’ works to claim their own territory. It’s a pity the show will not travel; one can only hope that the catalog can reach the wider audience that this exhibition so richly deserves.
Tom Allen is a painter who lives in Pasadena and shows at Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles, and Galerie Michael Janssen, Cologne.