Time and influence are funny things. Artistic debt is generally attributed vertically, across a linear pedigree from master to apprentice, teacher to student, art star to poseur. Just as often, though, a cultural Zeitgeist will emerge from a flurry of tightly orchestrated stylistic homages, satires, ripostes and outright thefts among a peer group of artists — ideally producing a recursive, fractally detailed blast of feedback like the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. Among artists, though, connections can also span millennia, or even seem to move backward in time. Picasso’s lengthy and spirited dialogue with 17th-century fellow Spaniard Velázquez arguably left a legacy as vital as his hothouse-pas-de-deux invention of Cubism with Georges Braque in 1909.
Somewhere in between lies the case of hometown boy Philip Guston and Italian proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico — two artists whose greatest commonality would at first seem to be their admirable stubbornness of vision in the face of critical derision during their late careers. Guston’s crime was his betrayal of Pure Abstraction, which he turned away from in the late ’60s. Repopulating his trademark shimmering pink voids with a company of cartoonish stock characters (hooded Klansmen and eyeball people) and props (shoes, cigars, bottles, light bulbs and art supplies), Guston brought a soiled quotidian slapstick into what had been a militantly polite and transcendentally fastidious conversation.
De Chirico’s pre–World War I “Metaphysical Pictures” — dreamlike scenes of locomotives and long-shadowed mannequins in abandoned piazzas — were an enormous influence on André Breton and subsequently to generations of official Surrealist painters. But his ill-timed midcentury championing of old-master craftsmanship and Nietzsche reduced him to art-critical-footnote status, in spite of the fact that he continued working almost up until his death in 1978.
This rebel vibration turns out to be just one of many unlikely consonances between the two painters, whose mutually interpenetrating oeuvres are cataloged in an exceptionally visually intelligent exhibit currently occupying the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Guston, who died just two years after the generation-older de Chirico, had a profound imprinting experience at the tender age of 19, when he had his first in-the-flesh encounter with two of de Chirico’s works at the home of Los Angeles’ premier Modernist collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Both of the paintings in question —The Soothsayer’s Recompense and The Poet and His Muse— are included in the show, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (home to most of the Arensberg chapter of L.A. art history — most infamously, their Duchamps).
In fact, the first surprise of many in “Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico” is its substantiality. The quantity and quality of important paintings from both artists’ bodies of work — ranging from the iconically familiar to the previously unsuspected in North America — rival anything that SMMOA’s better-endowed sister museums could muster. Guston’s work is unfailingly impressive — it’s hard to imagine anyone not getting it the first time around. In fact, the mythology of his martyrdom probably exceeds the actual extent of his disenfranchisement from the mainstream. Guston was slightly ahead of the curve when he returned to potent personal symbolic figuration, which positioned him as a pivotal legitimizing figure in the ’80s New Image period and reopened the floodgates for nonstructuralist content (i.e., paint for something other than paint’s sake) in contemporary painting. But Guston is a far better painter than most of those who coasted on his posthumous rep.
His chops were honed over decades of magpie scavengings: Kicked out of L.A.’s Manual Arts High School for publishing an antiauthoritarian zine with Jackson Pollock (I am not making this shit up), Guston shortly became an acolyte of L.A. Post-Surrealist (and later Hard-Edge Abstractionist) Lorser Feitelson; explored Mexican Muralism firsthand by collaborating with Reuben Kadish on The Struggle Against Terror in the Palacio de Maximilian in Morelia; then followed Pollock to Manhattan, where he became an original member of the aforementioned New York School Abstract Expressionists, whom he eventually betrayed and yadda yadda.
Apart from his very successful Cold War foray into the nonrepresentational, all of Guston’s various periods are represented in “Enigma Variations.” Post-Surrealism — Feitelson’s cleaned-up and demystified version of pictorial Surrealism — allowed the young Guston (Philip Goldstein at the time) to show off his considerable formal and conceptual gifts, producing de Chiricoesque vignettes like the splendidly titled (as in going directly to the top of my next resumé) Nude Philosopher in Space Time. Guston’s early NYC years — when he seemed to be aiming for some kind of Ben Shahn–style relevance — are represented by The Gladiators, an exquisitely composed sociopolitical knot rendered in a shallow, decorative theatrical space: kids playing soldier in the yard. And I guess nobody needs to make a case for Guston’s heretical late paintings, now beloved by the People and the Painters alike.
To be honest, de Chirico is the bigger surprise here. The scale of the coed dorm-room-poster fave The Soothsayer’s Recompense throws you off balance right from the start. And in spite of a powerful line of critical discourse branding him a repetitive burnout, de Chirico demonstrates a consistent idiosyncratic inventiveness across his 90 years — both aesthetically and as a participant in the definition of our society’s symbolic vocabulary — that makes him all the more relevant in today’s signifier-saturated visual culture. The cluster of de Chirico’s later works that close the show — the poetically up-to-the-second The Return of Ulysses, the almost-Outsider Sun on an Easel and the ridiculous but haunting Head of a Mysterious Animal— look like they might have come straight out of Chelsea (or “the old Culver City,” as we call it here). Minus the chops.
The secret star of the show is the curation. Taken at face value on the basis of moment-to-moment pleasure, this is already a remarkable collection of paintings. Arranged as they are — as twin oscillating streams of art-historical resonance — they become a consummately argued walk-through visual essay. In many ways, the exhibition (co-organized by Michael Taylor and Lisa Melandri) is an essay laid out by Guston. His perennial revisitation of de Chirico’s oeuvre, while translating it into a more palatable and painterly language, is fundamentally an acknowledgment of the Italian’s semiotic innovations — most conspicuously the construction of nontemporal narrative clusters of pictorial symbols that puzzle and reassure us at the same time. Guston ultimately recognized that de Chirico gave him permission to fly his freak flag, and he never forgot it.
Nevertheless, the show’s imposed simultaneity not only maps out but adds overtones to the Guston–de Chirico vortex. It’s a subtle thrill, but the fine-tuned curatorial sensitivity to the formal and conceptual appropriations and synchronicities between the two artists’ work creates an overlaid moiré pattern of experiential meaning above and beyond anything that could be put into words. Balancing scholarly research with inspired nonchronological visual juxtaposition, “Enigma Variations” is as close to actual art making as a historical museum show can get.
Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico | Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building G-1, Santa Monica | Through Nov. 25