Figuration circa 1970
From the moment when it became plain in the late forties that the first significant American style had crystallized in Abstract Expressionism, a certain unhappy majority began to look forward to the day when its discomfort at the absence from art of references to external reality would be mollified by a return to figuration in painting and sculpture. For this group the abandonment of the human figure and its environment reflected a failure with respect to "humanism."
--Alan Solomon, "The New Art"
Where is the figure in the carpet? Or is it just ... carpet?
--Donald Barthelme, Snow White
Philip Guston's Return to Figuration
If there is one thing that Philip Guston is known for it is his "return to figuration." The figuration he was presumably returning to-exemplified by paintings such as The Studio (see plate 1), one of the thirty-three canvases he exhibited in October 1970 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York-was a style of painting apparently inspired by some of the artist's earliest works, images like The Conspirators (fig. 1), a drawing Guston made in 1930, when he was seventeen and living in Los Angeles, in which vigorously modeled members of the Ku Klux Klan were depicted in dreamlike surroundings. Guston's return in 1970 angered many of his admirers and baffled numerous critics. After creating some of the most subtle and unabashedly beautiful paintings associated with abstract expressionism, like Attar (see plate 2), and then, beginning about 1956, producing some of the most awkwardly sensitive and allusive, with bulbous forms in bold and clangorous colors emerging on canvases like The Evidence (see plate 3), Guston seemed to turn his back on all the movement stood for. In these new works he appeared to have traded the abstract expressionist rhetoric of existential angst and artistic integrity for a crude representational imagery based on what seemed to many people a simpleminded and outdated idea of political engagement rendered in an awkward, faux-naïf social realist style.
In most sympathetic accounts of Guston's work this return to figuration has been presented as a bold and audacious, even a courageous gesture. The standard narrative goes something like this: the artist, incited by the growing political and social crises of the decade and fed up with what he saw as the hermeticism and rigidity of the formalist paradigm of modern painting, creates a shockingly unorthodox body of work that critics initially scorn and misunderstand; over time, however, it begins to influence younger artists who emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s-painters like Susan Rothenberg and Julian Schnabel. They would practice a new mode of figurative expressionist painting, and their success would sanction representational art after years of its widespread dismissal and validate the critical acceptance of Guston's own return to figuration.
Although these accounts succeed in placing Guston's Marlborough paintings in an ever-expanding art-historical canon, marking their origins in the figurative impulse of 1930s social realism and tracing their influence to the neo-expressionist figuration of the 1980s, they fail to situate Guston's figurative practice within the specific artistic and social conditions in which it emerged. In their emphasis on origins-both those of Guston's resurrected figurative imagery and those of a new generation of figurative painting-these accounts of the Marlborough paintings are more mythical than historical. Michael Auping has noted that "Guston's 1970 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York was one of those events that people tend to remember, especially if they weren't there. It had the immediate impact of a legend." By identifying the Marlborough paintings as the missing link between two traditions of figurative painting, the mythic narrative of Guston's return to figuration diminishes the historical singularity of the paintings and simplifies the complex and occasionally contradictory messages they contain. If in fact Guston's return to figuration about 1970 serves as the central moment in his career (a commonplace that this book accepts, though it is otherwise dedicated to reevaluating long-held beliefs about the artist and his work), then the role of figuration-its connotations and its conventions-needs to be more closely considered in the years before and after this return.
Philip Guston's Return to Figuration?
Before undertaking such an analysis, however, I want to suggest that Guston's mythic return to figuration in the Marlborough paintings was no return at all. For if, as the scholarship on the artist commonly and correctly states, the bulk of the revived imagery of the series originated in Guston's formative works of the 1930s and early 1940s, then the later works have no figuration to return to. Figuration was not a term widely used, at least in art history written in English, when the artist first produced the paintings that apparently inspired his later "return." Rather, seeing the Marlborough paintings as a return to figuration-the critic Robert Pincus-Witten first characterized the works this way in his harsh review of the show in Artforum-depends on imposing retroactively a concept specific to postwar modernist discourse on a period when the validity of figuration per se was not a central issue.
The term figurative was seldom invoked to describe a mode of art making before the mid-twentieth century. Most of the instances were in the translated writings of European modernists (where the original was a word like figuratif or Darstellbar). Even as late as 1947, when Guston's high school friend and sometimes rival Jackson Pollock began producing his drip paintings and, according to the conventional modernist account, banished figuration from his art altogether, the critic Milton Brown posed such a stylistic antithesis without recourse to any such terms. "Again," he writes, "we are faced with this recurrent counterpoint which has dominated American art since 1913-the struggle between modernist and realist tradition, expressed in other terms as an opposition between the 'pure' and the social artists." For the American Abstract Artists, formed in 1936-the principal group of abstract painters in the United States working when Guston created the so-called figurative works to which he would return over thirty years later-the term for the aesthetic project opposed to their own was not figurative art but representational art. Although at first glance such lexical differences might seem insignificant, their connotations and the intellectual debates in which they circulated reveal two different conceptions of art's relation to the world.
In the years before World War II, as the chronology in the passage cited from Brown, above, demonstrates, a divide existed between artists who practiced nonrepresentational painting and those who depicted identifiable objects. Yet the critical discourse on this "recurrent counterpoint" in American art employed none of the ardent, even moralistic polemics it would take on in the 1950s and especially the 1960s. The emergence of an art-historical discourse in which figuration opposed abstraction finds its origins in a constellation of events and social pressures that would have been irrelevant to Guston in the 1930s, when artists with divergent styles-the rigid geometry of Balcomb Greene and the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton-received commissions for the federal projects of the decade. Many curators and critics commended both abstract and representational art, not in opposition to one another, but as distinct and equally valid strategies for producing works of "honest literalism" (as Holger Cahill, the director of the Federal Arts Project, described the desired aim of such federally sponsored art in 1936) that could serve, in the words of the abstractionist Stuart Davis, as a "direct emotional or ideological stimulus." While zealous practitioners of both realist and abstract art saw their own modes of production as more socially and aesthetically progressive, the word figurative took on its morphological and vexatious connotations in art-historical parlance only when abstract expressionism entered the canon in the 1950s. In that decade figurative came to be commonly understood as the formal and ontological antithesis of abstract. When Salvador Dalí wrote in 1953 that the purpose of abstract art is "to restore its exact virginity to figurative art" he was asserting a dichotomy that is typically understood to have driven modern art for nearly a century.
Dalí's statement expresses an anachronistic and generally false antithesis that has been superimposed on the history of modernism. Dalí's notion of abstraction's "virginity" could exist only in opposition to a debased representational art that had not been imagined when Guston created the paintings that ostensibly inspired his return. As many revisionist accounts of postwar art have shown, abstract expressionism's rejection of recognizable imagery, coupled with its rhetoric of aesthetic freedom and heroic individualism, resonated in a cold war culture in which representations, visual and otherwise, were the primary weapons in the battle for the hearts and minds of citizens on both sides of the ideological divide. Combined with a rapid increase in the sophistication and prevalence of new communication technologies like television and satellite transmission along with more nuanced techniques of consumer persuasion, this heightened anxiety about the duplicity of representation encouraged an oppositional understanding of abstraction and figuration in the discourse of art history. Abstraction was celebrated for its apparent purity, whereas figuration was seen as tainted by its objectionable associations. According to this characterization, it is thus wholly understandable that the most prominent manifestation of figurative art in the decades following World War II-pop art-was commonly based on imagery taken from that most manipulative of sources, commercial advertising. To call the Marlborough paintings a return to figuration is thus ahistorical-or better yet timeless. A more historically accurate description would consider them a return to representational imagery.
That said, figuration is not entirely absent from Guston's Marlborough paintings. Yet his engagement with figuration is neither a return to a previous moment in his career nor a stylistic about-face, the abandonment of abstraction for its apparent opposite. The Marlborough paintings are figurative but in a manner that has been largely misrecognized in most analyses of his works and, generally speaking, in the canonical account of postwar art. Art history's traditional understanding of figurative art and figuration as recognizable imagery or, more specifically, as the presence of the human figure appears narrow when compared with the term's denotation in the discourses of rhetoric and literature. In those discourses figuration entails not merely representation or illustration but also the elaboration of a literal or "proper" meaning by means of analogy (in figures of speech like metaphor and irony). The common denominator is a binary logic in which the figurative statement, whether rhetorical or pictorial, presents a supplementary representation to something beyond or behind itself, creating a semantic disparity that must be bridged by interpretation. Thus a figure of speech such as "things are looking up" refers to a literal or proper meaning as in "conditions appear to be improving." Although both statements mean the same thing, the figurative statement requires what the literary critic Paul de Man calls a "system of relays" in which the chains of semiotic association that relate words to concepts (the idea, for example, that vertical ascension implies positive development) are used to create a powerful and often memorable message. A figurative work of art operates, by a similar supplementary logic, as a substitute for something else, typically a referent in the world, so that a paradigmatic modern figure painting like one of Philip Pearlstein's portraits of nude female models points to a literal or actual woman or, in the most general sense, the concept of woman.
By forging associative chains of reference and analogy, figuration creates a structure of meaning. This analogical structure in turn posits that a work of art is separate from what could be called everyday life (which itself serves as the source of the literal references invoked by the figurative work of art). Simultaneously insisting on a divide between life and art and joining the two realms by associative logic, figuration is structurally incapable of producing the autonomous work of art often held up as an aesthetic ideal in postwar modernist discourse. Figuration as a reference to a literal source rather than as a stylistic antithesis to abstraction (that is to say, figuration as analogy rather than recognizable imagery) offers a better understanding of artistic production in the postwar years in the United States, a time when the autonomy of art, in a culture wary of commercialism and political manipulation, was a central issue. The morphological definition of figuration conventionally invoked in art-historical discourse has left art history unable to analyze alternative, analogical and temporal, models of figuration. The Marlborough paintings make meaning by setting up conceptual and temporal correspondences and syntheses and more generally by inviting interpretation and calling attention to their own constructedness and artificiality. In these ways the paintings were decidedly figural-a term I use hereafter in this book to denote the temporal figuration predicated on historical and sequential associations operating in these works.
"A Kind of Figuration"
Guston never explicitly articulated any general definition of figuration. Yet few artists of his generation spoke as forcefully or as frequently as he about the problem of "pure" abstraction. A statement Guston made during a panel discussion in 1960 conveys his suspicion of the antifigurative tenets of modernist art. Responding to the ascetic pronouncements of his co-panelist Ad Reinhardt, Guston registered his doubts about such an idealist, neo-Kantian aesthetic: "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure, and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces painting's continuity. We are image makers and image-ridden."
Notwithstanding the sentiment expressed at the end of Guston's remarks, the artist rarely associated figuration with the presence of recognizable imagery. When he invoked the term figuration, an accompanying word or phrase almost always signaled both its complexity and its inevitability. Asked by David Sylvester about "this whole problem of figuration" in a 1960 interview, Guston replied, "I think of my [abstract] pictures as a kind of figuration" (emphasis added). He asserted in the same interview that "the best painting done in New York today is figuration but it's not recognized as such." Guston reiterated his unease with the conventional definition of the term six years later in an interview by Karl Fortress. Discussing the diversity of stylistic approaches he had taken in his artistic career (and noting that he was on the verge of still another transition), Guston three times used the phrase "kind of figuration" to describe his work, as if to temper any antithetical connotations of figuration, later remarking, "It's a shame we have to use" terms like "figurative" or "non-figurative."
In 1966 Guston again addressed this apparent stylistic antithesis, revealing a remarkably flexible attitude toward figuration in the aesthetic act: "I'm puzzled all the time by ... the literal image and ... non-objective art, I don't know what non-objective art is. There is no such thing as non-objective art. Everything has an object, everything has a figure. The question is: What kind? Does it have illusions? In what way can you have figuration? That's what counts." The artist, speaking about the emergence of the New York school in an interview of 1979, again qualified his use of the term to suggest that figuration had associations beyond visual representation: "We were very aware that we were entering into ... something new, an unknown thing, in which figuration, that is recognizable figuration, couldn't play a part." Observing that many critics called the Marlborough paintings "figurative," Guston went on to say, "I don't really think of them that way-I wanted to get into more of what I call 'tangibility.' ... I felt all along, with the nonfigurative things [his abstract paintings produced in the 1950s and early 1960s], that they were simply nonrecognizable, figurative things."
During the 1940s, Guston watched from the midwestern isolation of his teaching posts, first at the University of Iowa and then at Washington University in St. Louis, as many of his WPA colleagues in New York City employed increasingly unidentifiable biomorphic forms and gestural brushwork in their paintings. Meanwhile he continued to produce the relatively conservative and unfashionable surrealist-inspired scenes of children and small-town nostalgia. (Some critics termed them symbolist realism, and Clement Greenberg derisively called them diluted Beckmanns.) After moving to New York in 1950, Guston struggled to develop a signature abstract style. As the tentative and quiveringly sensitive surfaces of his first forays into abstract expressionism from the late 1940s and early 1950s attest, the role and validity of figuration in art (in its traditional morphological denotation) occupied his thoughts for over thirty years. Yet he reiterated in comments that he did not accept the strict opposition of "pure" nonrepresentational image making and some "kind of figuration."
For Guston, abstraction entailed no suppression of recognizable imagery. In one of the earliest critical examinations of his art, H.W. Janson, his friend and then colleague at Washington University, described Guston's engagement with abstraction in his painting as a forging of relationships-in other words, a form of figuration. Guston's painting Martial Memory (fig. 2) was one of a series of images the artist painted in the early 1940s of masked children fighting on desolate city streets. In them, according to Janson, "The true meaning of the much abused term 'abstraction'" for Guston entailed the ability to order space "into meaningful relationships on the picture plane." Likewise, Guston declared in 1960 that "the problem of figuration" was "irrelevant" to him. Understanding figuration not as a matter of recognizable imagery but of making meaning, Guston saw all his artistic output in terms of that operation. "I can't find any freedom in abstract painting," he declared. He often linked his figurative engagement with the origin of his images in the imagination. For example, in one of the three instances in his 1966 interview where he invoked figuration, describing his symbolic realist work of the 1930s and early 1940s, he spoke of it as "imaginative." In many ways "imaginative figuration" defines Guston's figural work of the late sixties. If the Marlborough series returned to the artist's earliest paintings-not only overtly political works like The Conspirators but also more "abstract" (according to Janson) and allusive images like Martial Memory-then they are a return to imagination as much as to recognizable imagery. The imaginative, fictional, and interpretable elements of these paintings reveal an engagement with figuration deeper than mere morphological resemblance and distinguish Guston's work from the dominant literalist artistic production of the 1960s.
The World Figured
The discourse of figuration in the history of art, especially in the impassioned debates of the 1960s, must inform any productive discussion of figuration in the Marlborough paintings. Figuration is fundamental to the modern conception of the work of art. To recognize something as art, as something understood outside the boundaries of everyday experience-as a "thing" that is also "something else"-is to engage in a figurative act. This transformative power of figuration (actualized each time a viewer encounters an art object) provides a possible means to unite modern notions of the autonomous and "open" work with "the image before the era of art." In both cases-whether the object in question be a Vera icon, whose mimetic power imbues the image with an almost corporeal presence, or a nineteenth-century portrait that wears its representational function on its sleeve-it provides access to something beyond itself (Christian eschatology, for example, or an absent individual). As even this most condensed summary demonstrates, the historical and social conditions in which the "symbolic exchange" between viewer and work takes place establish the figurative potential of any object. Institutional criteria and conceptual horizons delimiting the exchange largely determine how the viewer actualizes this connection, as Marcel Duchamp's figurative proposition that a urinal is a fountain or, more generally, that a urinal is a work of art famously demonstrated in 1917. Different historical and social conditions have generated different figurative operations, some emphasizing morphological resemblance and others finding their most potent expression of figurative potential in temporal, institutional, or conceptual relationships.
Erich Auerbach's essay "Figura" of 1938 presents a detailed analysis of the historical development of figuration. Auerbach begins with an extensive philological analysis of figura, the figure, locating the etymological origin of the word in a family of Latin words describing the process of molding a plastic form. Soon thereafter, the word took on the visual and rhetorical connotations that still govern its meanings. In visual art, a figure suggests the plastic or two-dimensional representation of a form (literally its outline); in linguistics or rhetoric the term describes the molding of language, as in a figure of speech. The close correspondence between figuration and representation, first articulated in pagan antiquity, is predicated on the creation, in the act of figuration, of a copy from a prior and original model that is present in both the morphological and rhetorical versions of the trope.
The early Christian exegetical tradition, articulated most famously by Augustine, transformed the act of figuration from a rhetorical or hermeneutic trope into a temporal and theological postulate. For the church fathers, formulating a figure, either by illustrating the bodily forms of the saints or God or, in exegetical applications, by relating two events typologically to reveal a prophetically divine plan, was an earthly means of expressing the mystery of Christian faith. (Seeing Moses as a prefiguration of Christ is an example, as are the events of the Hebrew Bible as portents of those of the New Testament.) Figuration, for the Christian interpreter suspicious of the sensuous world, was decidedly symbolic and philosophical, rather than aesthetic or technical, as it was for the ancient world and would be for artists and humanists during the Renaissance. Christian typological figuration, rather than merely describe an object or event, explained it, revealed its innermost significance and its role in a cosmic scheme.
The modern conception of figuration in the visual arts, emphasizing morphological rather than analogical correspondence, originated in the Renaissance and was best expressed in the writings of Leon Battista Alberti. In De Pictura (1435), Alberti celebrated what he called the historia (as opposed to the figura) of an image: the harmonious arrangement of a complex, multifigure composition or the narrative content of a painting that depicts a significant event. This veneration of the optical (illustrated by Alberti's famous analogy between the picture plane and a window) and the suppression of the temporal would continue to dominate visual aesthetics until the twentieth century-in works like Gotthold Lessing's Laocoön (1766) and Clement Greenberg's mid-twentieth-century theory of modernist painting. What unites all of these morphologically based figurative models could be called an aesthetics of presentness. The rhetoric of painting, with its long tradition of producing a mimetic correspondence to the external world, endorsed a conception of the real defined by its immediacy and presence rather than its temporal exegesis.
If works of art traditionally invoked effects of immediacy to reproduce or even produce reality, a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between representations-artistic and otherwise-and the world they ostensibly referred to began to emerge in the 1960s, in response to the growth of information technology and the global consciousness it engendered. As Pamela Lee has argued, because information technology could transcend long-standing barriers of time and space, the world began to seem temporally compressed and systemically interrelated. By the end of the decade the reality of immediate communication across the globe and even into outer space was brought home to millions of people by television. Ironically, as the world appeared more interrelated and compressed, the spaces between things became more noticeable. Cybernetic and structural theory made these spaces the focus of attention, analyzing how the network of interrelated systems keeps material and cognitive procedures operating. Meaning was seen to reside not in the thing itself but in its relation to a constellation of concepts. Consequently many aspects of life were understood as increasingly mediated and in turn increasingly figured. The first pages of Marshall McLuhan's 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy proclaim a figurative conception of existence. Arguing for the prosthetic nature of human technology-a theme the author would expand on in his book Understanding Media of 1964-McLuhan describes all aspects of human experience as an "outering or uttering of sense": the space between an individual's sensory perception and the stimuli of the external world can be bridged only by a figurative act: "Language is metaphor in the sense that it not only stores but translates experience from one mode into another. Money is metaphor in the sense that it stores skill and labor and also translates one skill into another. But the principle of exchange and translation, or metaphor, is in our rational power to translate all of our senses into one another. This we do every instant of our lives."
This sense of a figured life would bring unprecedented attention to the prefix in the word representation. Cybernetics showed how each repetition or re-presentation of a message produced feedback and noise, thus demonstrating the impossibility of an immediate translation from an external source. At a moment when new communications technology made the technical means of communication visible and significant as never before, the cognitive space between stimuli and perception-and, for those willing to think through the consequences of such a phenomenological gap, the conceptual space between words and things-become more discernible and undeniable. Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, articulated a skepticism about unmediated experience. The philosopher, in this expansive demystification of metaphysical presence, published in 1967, declared that "the re-presentation is also a de-presentation."
In a similar vein, Paul de Man, in his 1969 essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality," revealed the latent mediation in the romantic aesthetic ideal of a direct and instantaneous relationship between figurative language and experience. Moreover, he argued that the persuasive impression of immediacy of such tropes as symbolism and metaphor supported an individualist, humanist subjectivity in which people could see themselves as naturally accommodated to the perceptual world around them. In other words, their faith in their relationship to nature was nothing but an extension of their faith in the correspondence between words and things. When that correspondence is shown to be not only arbitrary but also based on power relations, the seemingly natural sense of perceptual and cognitive immediacy becomes only a form of "mystification." By deconstructing the temporal and conceptual associations and transmissions that produce immediacy in such figurative language, de Man argued for the inevitability of contingency and semantic slippage in any form of meaning making. The essential relationship he outlined between figuration and temporality would play a central (albeit usually unacknowledged) role in the aesthetic debates of the 1960s in which art's ability to defy figuration was seen to allow a degree of autonomy, sensuous immediacy, and even ethical integrity in a world of commercial manipulation and mediation.
The Antifigurative Apotheosis of Jackson Pollock
The critique of figuration in terms of temporality in the visual arts was most forcefully articulated by the critic Michael Fried in a series of intricate and impassioned essays written in the second half of the 1960s Fried first set forth his influential aesthetic theory in his catalogue essay for the exhibition titled Three American Painters, which he curated in 1965. In its account of the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, the essay reveals the important (if negative) role of figuration in the artistic discourse of the decade, paying special attention to the constitutive temporality of figurative art: the way it impedes a direct perceptual and conceptual experience of art.
Like de Man, for whom exposing the mystifying powers of valued forms of figuration was both a moral prerogative and an exercise in rhetorical analysis, Fried took a scrupulous and rigorously formalist approach in his analysis of figuration in the visual arts yet countered de Man's ironic (or relativist or even, some would argue, nihilistic) conclusion that such tropes were inevitable with an almost puritanical faith that art could produce absolute conviction in the viewer by turning any inherent figuration back onto the aesthetic realm so that the work referred to nothing external to itself. Unlike de Man-whose writings elevate figures such as irony and allegory that acknowledge the discontinuity and slippage produced by figuration-Fried argues that the work of art could provide a refuge from a world of illusion, a singular realm where figuration could be transcended and the viewer given a perceptual experience otherwise unavailable, whether because of a degraded world of spectacle and commercial manipulation or the inherent indeterminacy of ordinary language. Modern art for Fried provided the viewer "with the denseness, structure and complexity of moral experience-that is, of life itself, but life lived as few are inclined to live it: in a state of continuous intellectual and moral alertness. For Fried modernist art's radical autonomy and recursiveness, its ability to figure nothing but itself, invested it with what he later called "presentness."
Although Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Jules Olitski were the "Three American Painters" referred to in the exhibition's title, Pollock's classic drip paintings of the late 1940s like Full Fathom Five (fig. 3) provided the theoretical engine for the provocative catalogue essay. Fried argued that the younger artists' work was predicated on Pollock's achievement. His dripped and spilled skeins of paint created, according to Fried, a wholly visual experience that revolutionized the reading of line, "not as bounding shape or figure, whether abstract or representational," but as pure and immediate optical experience (emphasis added) That figuration for Fried was not simply a matter of representational imagery is made clear in a passage later in his essay: "I hope it is clear that the opposition 'figurative' versus 'non-figurative,' in the sense of the present argument, stands for a more fundamental issue than the opposition between the terms 'representational' and 'non-representational.' It is possible for a painting to be both non-representational-what is usually termed 'abstract'-and figurative at the same time. In fact until Pollock that was the most that so-called abstract painting had ever been."
In other words, the division between figurative and abstract (or better, representational and nonrepresentational) painting did not motivate Fried's aesthetic theory. Much later in his career, the critic called such an antithesis "an uninteresting opposition." As early as 1963, before he had articulated his mature aesthetic theory, Fried could write, "Whatever controversy it may once have provoked, abstraction per se is by now no longer a live issue ... both Pollock and de Kooning could 'return' to figuration after achieving masterpieces in their respective abstract styles without necessarily compromising the advanced status of their work." For Fried, figuration entailed a perceptual and cognitive delay, an artificial association between the work of art and something beyond itself that would in turn forfeit its autonomy, thereby diminishing its integrity, a blight, he notes, that could occur both in abstract or representational art. Pollock, by dripping paint onto an unstretched canvas lying on his studio floor, created works "resistant to ultimate focus"; the arabesques of poured pigment remain "wholly autonomous" because they never congeal into contours that connote external referents. By destroying the long-established pictorial dichotomy between figure and ground, such paintings produced what Fried called opticality, a perceptual immediacy that gives viewers a rare glimpse of existential presentness, total awareness, and, as he wrote, a model of "moral alertness." Fried's emphasis on the visual immanence produced by such antifigurative art as Pollock's demonstrates his awareness of the temporal components of figuration and the complexities of the concept, typically unrecognized in traditional art-historical usage.
Fried ends his essay with an assertion that seems paradoxical: "Despite its rejection of representation and traditional tactile illusionism ... modernist painting today is perhaps more desperately involved with aspects of its visual environment than painting has even been." Modernist critics like Fried denounced traditional modes of figuration in the visual arts not for aesthetic reasons but because of the historical and social conditions that made such artistic strategies no longer tenable. Fried's claim that modernist art, in the seemingly figured world of 1965, had a pressing need to assert its antifigurative integrity drew on a critical legacy first expressed in 1939 by Clement Greenberg in his essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." That well-known text argues that as the simplifying influence of mass culture (materializing frighteningly in the fascist regimes rising in Europe at the time the essay was published) impinged more and more on everyday life, it became the responsibility of avant-garde artists to preserve a space for complexity and unadulterated contemplation in their works by fidelity to the essential characteristic of the medium they had chosen.
For Greenberg, that characteristic in painting was flatness, manifested in the literal two-dimensionality of the painted surface (as the critic explained in his essay "Towards a Newer Laocoon,"published in 1940) Such "pure" criteria would buttress a work of art against the ancillary connotations inevitably grafted onto images and things, as much by fascist propagandists as by capitalist marketers. Although Greenberg typically framed his discussions in wholly aesthetic terms, social and political factors always motivated these arguments. In such a modernist paradigm, art's ability to simultaneously assert and transcend its literal materiality-which Fried described as "the basic 'truth' that paintings are in no essential respect different from other classes of objects in the world"-would acknowledge the artificial or illusionary nature of the work of art (exactly what political propaganda and commercial advertisements typically efface). For instance in Full Fathom Five the skeins of dripped paint seem to proclaim nothing but the inherent liquidity of the medium, yet the painting's very literal assertion of the essence of its medium demonstrates the work's intelligence and intentionality and gives it its status as something beyond a mere object. This tension between the literal materiality of the work of art (what Fried would later call its objecthood) and the inherent figurative capacity to refer to something beyond itself (even if this was only the concept of art itself) could, by presenting viewers with a rare glimpse of authenticity, elicit disinterested reflection. According to this line of reasoning, a work of art had to acknowledge both its artifice and its status as an object among other objects-its figurativeness and literalness-to make a significant statement and distinguish itself as authentic in a world obfuscated by the "foggy mist" emanating from kitsch and other products of mechanical reproduction.
The Antifigurative Impulse in 1960s Art
In the 1960s anxiety about the veracity of representation spilled over from aesthetic debates and artistic practice into political discourse and popular culture, taking a definitive motive of modernism into the streets, so to speak, and pushing a large body of modern art into a new and, for many viewers, challenging position where it had to define and sometimes defend itself against a figured world of seemingly rampant illusion and artifice. Nowhere was the sense of a world infiltrated by illusion more clearly expressed than in Daniel Boorstin's popular book of 1962, The Image; or, What Happened to The American Dream. Best known for its introduction of the term pseudo-event to describe scripted phenomena that are presented as spontaneous, the book was an extended meditation on the growing sense that everyday life was illusory. "Now, in the height of our power," Boorstin wrote, investing his language with a sense of impending danger, "we are threatened by a new and peculiarly American menace.... It is the menace of unreality." In the final pages the author presents the prospect of a world where the real and the false are no longer discernible. "More and more accustomed to testing reality by the image, we will find it hard to retrain ourselves so we may once again test the image by reality.... We must discover our illusions before we can even realize that we have been sleepwalking." The popular psychologist Ronald Laing, in 1967, would take Boorstin's insight one step further, arguing in his book The Politics of Experience that as illusion infiltrated everyday life, truth can be discerned only negatively. "Around us are pseudo-events, to which we adjust with a false consciousness adapted to see these events as true and real, and even beautiful. In the society of men the truth resides now less in what things are than in what they are not. Our social realities are so ugly if seen in the light of exiled truth, and beauty is almost no longer possible if it is not a lie."
The implications for art and criticism in a world rampant with such pseudo-events was explicitly addressed in Susan Sontag's 1965 essay "Against Interpretation," in which the author set out to discredit what she saw as the long-held notion that "art is always figurative." For Sontag, the sense that art can figure the world, which she relates to a focus on content over form, has become "mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism." To counter the "reactionary" and "stifling" art and criticism that "presuppose ... a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers," Sontag posits an art of "transparence" that would allow the reader (or the viewer, in the case of a visual "text") to experience "the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are." She calls for an art that helps us "recover our senses" and for commentary that "make[s] works of art-and by analogy, our own experience-more, rather than less, real to us." The phenomenological ideal expressed in such a statement makes explicit the dialogue between the antifigurative impulse of the 1960s and the figured world from which it emerged.
Unlike most art-historical accounts of the 1960s, which present the rise of movements like pop, minimal art, and post-painterly abstraction, with their rhetoric of cool, affectless, and objective detachment, as a reaction to the overheated expressionism of the preceding generation of painters, Sontag's essay grounds her antifigurative/antihermeneutic polemic in the social conditions in which she writes, suggesting how a broad segment of the antifigurative art of the decade can be seen as a negative response to a figured world. She writes, "Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.... To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world-in order to set up a shadow world of meanings." Interpretation, which thinkers like Sontag understood as an allegorical mode of sensory experience, took art in the wrong direction, away from the immediacy it alone could provide in a cluttered and degraded world of spectacle and speculation.
As everyday life appeared increasingly mediated, the relationship between art and the world appeared more difficult to reconcile. In a society seemingly filled with gaps, not only between words and things but among generations and missiles, figuration was regarded by a growing number of critics and artists as duplicitous because of its association with political and commercial manipulation or, worse, as a form of ideological mystification. These critics focused on the dangers associated with such a decidedly hermeneutic project as figuration, arguing that such synthetic analogies systematically disregard the individual differences between events or things. For these writers, figuration, whether rhetorical or morphological, naturalized the relationship between disparate entities and was thus the enemy of difference and heterogeneity, making what is cultural appear natural. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, figuration and interpretation represented the same model of rhetorical rationalization that prevented postwar society from addressing the problems of poverty and injustice on a global scale.
The French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet explored what he saw as the "dangerous" influence of metaphor, especially "anthropocentric analogies" in modern literature, in For a New Novel (1965), a collection of his essays from the late 1950s and 1960s published in English-language journals, that became a popular success. Robbe-Grillet called for "a mopping-up" of the "animistic and protective adjectives" that have contaminated the world and argued for an art in which "man and things would be cleansed of their systematic romanticism." After such a purification, "The world would no longer find its justification in a hidden meaning," for "its existence would ... reside ... in its concrete, solid, material presence." In a 1968 interview published in Studio International, Robbe-Grillet engaged the discourse of visual art directly, extolling what he called the elimination of metaphor in minimal art as a model for "anti-humanist" art.
The relation between antifigurative art and a new, anti-humanist sense of realism was explored in the 1968 exhibition Art of the Real, 1948-1968, organized by E.C. Goosen at MoMA. In the brief catalogue essay, Goosen defined what he called "the stubbornly literal idea of the 'real'" then accepted by a large number of artists and exemplified by the anti-expressive and mostly nonrepresentational works by Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and Donald Judd included in the exhibition: "The 'real' of today as it is posited by this new art has nothing to do with metaphor, or symbolism, or any kind of metaphysics.... Today's 'real,' on the contrary, makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor it is involved in uplift. Indeed it seems to have no desire at all to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth-in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object."
Judd's Untitled of 1966 (fig. 4), one of the many versions of "stacks" the artist created beginning in the mid-1960s and similar to one included in the Art of the Real show, epitomizes the literal, antifigurative aesthetic espoused in Goosen's exhibition. The work's nontraditional, industrial materials (in this version, galvanized iron), coupled with its serial composition based on geometric forms, prevent viewers from investing the piece with psychological import or seeing in it references to other things in the world. According to Judd, in his polemical statement of aesthetic purpose "Specific Objects," written the year he created Untitled, the intransigent materiality of his nonallusive objects would provide a "credible" experience for viewers, free from any external connotations. The sense of figurative art as superannuated was fundamental to Judd's criticism. Because figurative art, for artists like Judd, lacked credibility, it could not dispel the sense of a spectacular and illusionistic world.
Yet if Judd's boxlike "specific objects" sought to make a space of perceptual credibility in a world of deception, and if Robert Morris, in his L-shaped plywood forms-another canonical example of minimal art-could heighten the viewer's sensitivity to the difference between "the known constant" of the object and "the experienced variable" of the individual viewer's embodied perception of the work, Andy Warhol's sculptural reproductions of commodity packages, such as his Brillo Boxes, made the difficulty of perceiving the distinction between art and life the motivating theme of the work instead of trying to transcend it as Judd does.
Dore Ashton, a close friend of Guston's, recognized this antifigurative aspect of pop art. During a symposium on pop art that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962, she noted the connection between what she took to be pop art's lack of figurative content and its engagement with realism: "The contemporary artist, weary and perplexed by the ambiguities of idealism ... decides to banish metaphor." This artist, she states, "doesn't aspire to interpret or re-present, but only to present.... In his rebellion against metaphor, the pop artist generally begs the question of reality." Like minimal and modernist art of the period, pop art attempted to navigate and make sense of a world that appeared increasingly untrustworthy and artificial. Understood in these terms, Robert Rauschenberg's famous remark that he wanted his art "to act in the gap between" art and life is less an expression of a long-held avant-garde desire for artistic agency than a symptom of a world in which the divide between the real and the figured was growing less apparent and the spaces between things, the "gaps," as Rauschenberg put it, were becoming more significant.
Specters of Figuration
If the 1960s were not a good time for figuration, neither were they the best years for abstraction, especially the sort of painterly and ostensibly confessional abstraction practiced by Guston and many of his New York school contemporaries. With the emergence of the so-called second generation of abstract expressionists in the mid-1950s (Guston, arriving relatively late arrival to abstraction, was regularly grouped among them), the fabled heroic, immediate, and authentic painterly gesture associated with the movement was increasingly seen as a style, a new form of mannerism. In the figured world of the 1960s, where some argued that even innermost feelings were a social construct, the romantic ideal of a direct connection between an artist's expressive intention and the painterly mark no longer appeared credible. Action painting-Harold Rosenberg's name for the dynamic gestural mark making associated with abstract expressionism-seemed more like acting than action, more theatrical than existential.
Guston took a path unlike that of younger artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, who began their careers as second-generation abstractionists but made the transition in the 1960s to a mode of painting featuring popular imagery, or Frank Stella, who transformed the all-over gesture of abstract expressionism into a crisp and affectless geometry. Guston continued to paint-artists such as Judd would abandon painting altogether-in an intensely expressive abstract style through the sixties, even though many of his canvases from the decade appear to express a looming doubt, as evinced in his darkening palette and the brooding black forms that float upon gray backgrounds like discarded tires upon a dull ocean (fig. 5). As early as 1958 he asserted his reservations about the burgeoning antifigurative impulse: "I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss from which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart." While artists like de Kooning continued in the 1960s and 1970s to produce gestural abstractions that showcased technical bravura painting, Guston reached a point where his long-standing suspicion about the "ridiculous and miserly ... myth we inherit from abstract art: That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself," ran up against the rising currency of an antifigurative aesthetic among younger artists associated with pop, minimal, and conceptual art. The Marlborough works capture this confrontation at a critical moment when Guston's desire to "tell stories" struggled against his anxiety about the possibilities of figurative art and humanistic expression.
A letter Guston wrote to his friend Tom Hess, the editor of Art News, in the summer of 1962, reveals these impulses at war in the artist's consciousness. In it Guston acknowledged the antifigurative avant-garde threatening to invade his own backyard. He writes, "'Happenings' have hit Woodstock (abstract art was last year). [The art historian] Sidney Geist has brought new culture here, lectures on Neo-Dada. He's admired by the art colony leaders who say (I hear) the N.Y. School is dead since they are all suiciding and that proves it. They are waiting for me?"
Guston's wittily macabre remarks provide a point of reentry into the Marlborough paintings. For death is a central theme in them, not only the artist's anxiety about his own death-spurred by the recent deaths of other New York school luminaries like Marc Rothko as well as the haunting legacy of his lifelong friend Pollock-but also, more generally, by the imminent death of painting (threatened by the antifigurative impulse in the visual arts) and "the death of man" that Michel Foucault, the foremost anti-humanist voice of the decade, would proclaim. If the reappearance of the Ku Klux Klan hoods in the Marlborough paintings alludes to Guston's earliest works from the 1930s, it also symbolizes the threat of death that haunted the artist in the 1970s. The presence of the hoods points to both a beginning and an impending end. In the Marlborough paintings, the hoods take on a more pronounced air of malice than they exhibited in their initial appearance, when they referred self-evidently to actual historical events. The later hoods of Guston's resurrected iconography are ghosts as much as they are representations of the Klan. In notes for a 1977 lecture, Guston described his relationship with the hoods in decidedly spectral terms, claiming, "The KKK has haunted me since I was a boy in L.A." Along with the many clocks that also populate the imaginary world of the Marlborough paintings, the ubiquitous hoods embody the temporal model of figuration operative in them. Symbols of origins and endings, presence and absence, the hoods forge temporal relations between Guston's artistic beginnings in the 1930s and the always provisional ending of each newly completed painting. In a 1971 interview Guston reluctantly enlarged on the motif: "They're obviously based on Ku Klux Klan figures but I didn't mean to make a story of the Klan, I am using them as, what would you call them, a symbol." As specters, the hooded figures of the Marlborough paintings, whether Klansmen or painters, reveal how Guston's images take into account "their own possible 'ageing'"-as Derrida said of Marx's spectral philosophy. That is to say, the images figured the passage of time, or, more precisely, the resurrected iconography figured the passage of historical time, simultaneously acknowledging their continued relevance and disconnecting them from the ever-changing, ever-expanding sphere of history and time itself.
As ghosts, the Marlborough hoods also exemplify the nonvisual and temporal elements of Guston's figuration. Even as conventional morphological figuration was deemed passé, unable to compete in a world of spectacle, conceptual models of figuration and representation were suspect on account of their homogenizing tendencies. A sphere of experience remained, however, that was regarded as preconceptual and nonideological and thus devoid of figurative potential. This was the sphere of time itself. At the moment Guston was exhibiting his new works, the philosopher Louis Althusser, one of the first theorists to consider the ideological possibility of time, noted that for most thinkers time remained an "uncriticized" concept (even though, he notes, when understood as a concept and thus a humanistic invention, time is itself "constructed"). In its seemingly obdurate "timelessness,"' its one-directional trajectory into the future, time seemed uncorrupted by culture. The early films of Andy Warhol explored, often at frustrating length, this literalness of time-in works such as Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964) the camera was left to document, deadpan, the passage of time as someone sleeps or as night passes on the Manhattan skyline.
As Pamela Lee shows in her study of the "temporal crisis" of the 1960s, the emergence of information technology and a growing awareness of systems theory privileged time as a site of artistic interest. The question, How to figure temporal presence in the work of art? became a critical issue at this moment when time itself, compressed and fragmented by new technologies, seemed ever more elusive. (Warhol exploited that point in his films by using the slower projection speed of silent films to emphasize their otherworldly temporality.) At such a "liminal" moment, Lee writes, "Time ... becomes a figuration of uncertainty about the mechanics of historical change itself." If, as she implies in the title of her book, much art of the 1960s demonstrated a particular "chronophobia" in reaction to the pervasive sense of time's uncertainty and inscrutability, such a fear may suggest how time itself could effectively serve artists committed to an antifigurative aesthetic and those who might explore new models of figuration.
Althusser's description of a temporality that was not organized by "visible" human constructs corresponds strikingly to the prehumanist model of figuration articulated by Auerbach and outlined at the beginning of this chapter. At a moment when technology and a heightened sense of the interconnectivity of humans and machines made the end of man philosophically and literally imaginable, when the humanist tradition was coming under scrutiny and the visual world was seen as increasingly untrustworthy, it is understandable how a prehumanist conception of figuration-albeit one whose power was now controlled by technology and institutional fiat rather than divine omnipotence-could be reconsidered. If earlier medieval models of figuration were founded on an eschatology that left little room for individual agency, a different set of social conditions in the mid-twentieth century led to a comparable de-centering of the human subject-a post-humanist subjectivity-that was similarly conducive to such conceptual and temporal models of making meaning (and perhaps equally suspicious of the man-made image).
Some of the most influential writers of the decade saw connections between prehumanist subjectivity in the Middle Ages and the post-humanism emerging in the present. Marshall McLuhan filled The Gutenberg Galaxy, his account of the revolutionary changes brought about by the information age, with allusions to ways in which new media take civilization back to a premodern condition, before vision was isolated as the principal sense and oral and aural (rather than textual and visual) paradigms determined perception. McLuhan claims that "our present involvement" in such new media "produces in many an involuntary alienation from our Renaissance heritage." Roland Barthes, at a conference addressing "the condition of the humanities," at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, presented a paper stating that the "ancient opposition" between nature and discourse that "was lost between the end of the Middle Ages and our own time" is now "reviving." And Clement Greenberg wrote an essay titled "Byzantine Parallels" in 1958 (reprinted three years later in his book Art and Culture), arguing that modernist art, like medieval art before it, reversed the "naturalistic devices of Greco-Roman painting ... to reaffirm the flatness of pictorial space." Greenberg's comparison may have been inspired by an article Leo Steinberg published in 1953 in Partisan Review (where he was an editor in the early forties and a frequent contributor through the mid-fifties) that asked the question, "Has modern art, then, like Byzantium, broken with the sensible world?" Modern and Byzantine styles, Steinberg contended, shared an interest in an "ideal, extra-sensory reality" despite their otherwise divergent aims.
What Barnett Newman in 1948 called a new sense of fate emerged when humans began to see themselves as diminutive components in large impersonal systems. As modern technology came to be understood as information rather than industry, thus dematerializing many aspects of everyday life, its power seemed an unbridled force beyond the comprehension of humanity. Norman Weiner, the father of cybernetics, wrote a short book in 1964 on the relationship between a systematic conception of the universe and religion, arguing that the self-regulating and self-producing capabilities of modern technologies had in effect blurred the division between divine and mechanical power. Concurrently new modes of communication expanded the reach of Western capitalist culture into previously inaccessible geopolitical sectors, producing what is now recognized as globalization, a paradigm that further undermined conceptions of a universalized subjectivity, totalizing historical narratives, and a grounded sense of semiotic reference-in other words, discrediting the humanist tradition of Western culture.
The seeds of the full-scale critique of humanism in the 1960s were sown after World War II when the failure of Western intellectuals to respond adequately to the atrocities of the war revealed the bankruptcy of their methods and traditions. Hannah Arendt declared in the conclusion of her Origins of Totalitarianism: "The whole of nearly three thousand years of Western civilization, as we have known it in a comparatively uninterrupted stream of tradition, has broken down; the whole structure of Western culture with all its implied beliefs, traditions, standards of judgments, has come toppling down over our heads." The literary critic George Steiner, in the preface to his collection of essays Language and Silence (1967), went a step further, implicating the humanistic tradition in the horror of the war: "The house of classic humanism, the dream of reason which animated Western society, has largely broken down.... The reach of technological man, as a being susceptible to the controls of political hatred and sadistic suggestion, has lengthened formidably toward destruction.... We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning."
Guston, writing to his friend the poet Bill Berkson in 1973, acknowledged that he was aware of the challenges posed to the humanist artist after Auschwitz: "Our whole lives (since I can remember) are made up of the most extreme cruelties of Holocausts. We are the witness of this hell. When I think of the victims, it is unbearable." Although Guston, like Arendt and Steiner, would never wholly abandon the humanistic tradition, despite recognizing its failures, many other artists and thinkers sought to reimagine, if not wholly discard, these traditional models of aesthetic creation and reception that seemed to adapt so readily to the uses of deception and manipulation.
At the same time thinkers like McLuhan, Weiner, and Steinberg were presenting alternatives to the modern Western tradition and drawing parallels between modern art and Byzantium's break with the world of the senses, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was invoking figuration in temporal terms that hark back to its prehumanist usage. Presenting a series of lectures in March 1969 at the American Museum of Natural Sciences in New York, published as Culture and Commitment the following year, Mead outlined her theory of generational communication. Framing her argument in the context of debates about the generation gap, Mead argued that American society was now in what she called a cofigurative state, in which the generation of elders no longer had a monopoly on societal knowledge that they could pass on to succeeding generations. Instead the young, because of the rapid increase in new information and communication technologies, were "taking on a new authority," making the exchange of generational knowledge coequal. Mead predicted that Western culture, as a consequence, would soon become prefigurative, with each generation required to learn anew the conditions basic to social existence.
For Mead this movement toward a prefigurative society entailed a changing sense of history that challenged the seemingly timeless values of a postfigurative society because they seemed obsolete. The changes, she wrote, were turning those born before the emergence of the postwar technological explosion into "immigrants" in time. Elements of the past could survive in a prefigurative culture only if they were seen as "instrumental rather than coercive." That is to say, the relevance of the past depended on whether it prefigured aspects of the present.
As the chapter that follows demonstrates, a similar nonmorphological and distinctly temporal conception of figuration characterized the Marlborough paintings. Moreover, it was equally fundamental to the paintings' original reception, although that relevance was never explicitly stated. For the critic Robert Pincus-Witten, Guston's return to figuration was linked to the reappearance of certain motifs from his works of the 1930s like The Conspirators that prefigure paintings like The Studio. In other words, the Marlborough hoods carry a historical reference that did not alter when they reappeared almost forty years later but rather took on a new significance in the later work. The Marlborough hoods, as symbols both of the political activism associated with the art of the 1930s and of its bankruptcy following the Second World War, embody this model of temporal figuration, described by Erich Auerbach in his analysis of Christian eschatology: "Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but both, being real events or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life. Only the understanding of the two poles is a spiritual act."
As Hayden White describes it, Auerbach's concept "places the principal weight of meaning on the act of retrospective appropriation of an earlier event by the treatment of it as a 'figure' of a later one.... The later figure 'fulfills' the earlier by repeating the elements thereof but with a difference." Just as Moses in Christian theology is both a historical figure and a precursor of Christ, the resurrected Klansmen of Guston's Marlborough paintings represent an actual moment of the artist's past oeuvre as well as the seemingly diminished prospects for such directly political art in the present.
Guston himself, as an artist whose personal "pantheon" of painters-documented literally in a 1973 painting (fig. 6)-included such masters as Masaccio, Piero, and Giotto who invoked typological figuration in their own work, saw his later work in terms of such parallels. Though no evidence proves that Guston knew of Auerbach's essay, the artist's admiration of Piero's Legend of the True Cross, a work deeply rooted in the typological structure Auerbach outlined, suggests why Guston might have been interested in such a model. In May 1965 Guston published a short essay, "Piero della Francesca: The Impossibility of Painting," which explored the medium's deep-seated ambition to capture physical and temporal dynamism in still images (what he calls its "impossibility") and what he saw as Piero's unrivaled capacity to depict this "anxiety." When Guston received the Prix de Rome in 1948, he set out immediately to track down the work of his hero: "I went to Arezzo many times, and to Florence. Seeing the frescoes, the Uffizi in Florence, and Siena excited and exhausted me." In 1971, in a lecture at the Studio School in New York, Guston described his experience seeing the Legend of the True Cross fresco: "Before you even recognize the subject matter [you see] these big soaring verticals and very full circles. And the color ... dull reds, milky blues, liver umber, dirty whites." Besides revealing the influence of Piero's palette on Guston, his description suggests how such a model could reconcile the modernist ideal of optical immediacy with a temporal narrative structure. It also suggests how such a typological figurative model may have influenced Guston's own return to figuration.
Guston expressed his nonmorphological or, better, anti-optical figural position in a 1978 lecture at the University of Minnesota: "In a recent article which contrasts the work of a color field painter with mine, the painter is quoted as saying, 'Painting is made with colored paint on a surface and what you see is what you see.' This popular and melancholy cliché is so remote from my own concern.... I think that the idea of the pleasure of the eye is not merely limited, it isn't even possible. Everything means something. Anything in life or in art, any mark you make, has meaning, and the only question is, 'What kind of meaning?'"
The pages that follow demonstrate how the search for a kind of meaning that could still be constructed, and still be credible in a moment when meaning was suspect, was precisely what motivated Guston's figural project in the Marlborough paintings. If figuration, in its traditional morphological manifestation, appeared discredited and if even its more complex metaphorical models, which posited the work as an analogy (or representation) of something in the world, were out of favor, Guston, like other artists who continued to produce art that communicated something about the world, would find a figural solution in temporality and history.
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