The gorgeous show of Philip Guston’s small oils at McKee Gallery has got me thinking about the many meanings of the hooded figures in Guston’s late work. The standard interpretation is that these represent the KKK, a reprise of the early political cartoons Guston did during the Depression, inspired by the Klan’s intimidation of Jews, like Guston, and blacks in Los Angeles at the time.
A hint that these figures may have multiple connotations lies in one picture at McKee, in which two hooded figures piggyback on a jalopy. The first figure’s hood is raised just a tad to reveal that it is iconic cartoonie Krazy Kat! In some paintings in the show, two hoodies face each other, reminding me of Soviet and American nuclear silos.
Other hoodies half appear over the bottom of a given picture, evoking condoms on erect penises. Indeed, the number of wry phallic symbols in this tasteful show are legion. One painting of colored squiggles looks exactly like the Franz West sculpture now on view in nearby Central Park, courtesy of collector Adam Lindemann and the Public Art Fund. How’s that for synergy?
The picture I enjoyed most in the McKee exhibition is a simple painting of a dark green window shade, which illustrates a theory I have long proffered, to much ridicule from Irving Sandler and others of his generation, about Mark Rothko.
In the Manhattan apartment world of the 1950s that I grew up in, people covered their windows with standard heavy widow shades the color of pine trees. (Today, of course, as Gail Albert Halaban’s excellent recent photographs of New York’s apartment voyeurs demonstrate, everything is lookie-lookie). The shades rolled down awkwardly on a heavy wooden dowel, which often had to be tugged forcefully into place, to cover the standard vertical double squares of a New York prewar apartment window. As the sun set, the double square image with fuzzy edges in different color tones looked exactly like a Mark Rothko.
Rothko saw this image every day, and, in my view, co-opted it for spiritual use. These window shades were beautiful and I thank the great Guston for painting one, so I can tell you my eccentric theory.
"Philip Guston: Small Oils on Panel, 1969-1973," Nov. 5-Dec. 31, 2009, at McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10151.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).