This weekend, while reading the Financial Times, I discovered the art of the late, great Canadian-American artist, Philip Guston.
I was particularly struck by one of his most famous works, “The Studio,” in which a KKK hood appears to paint its self-portrait. A little Googling and deeper looking reveals that the painting is both social commentary and introspection.
Guston (born Goldstein) is musing on the banality of evil and, it turns out, his place in the world as a white painter privileged enough to, in essence, muse on canvas while, outside, bodies are devoured.
In 1969, the year he painted “The Studio,” hundreds of thousands had been slaughtered in the Vietnam War, and Fred Hampton was assassinated on the West Side. The relative comfort and distance from all of this existential pain tormented Guston, who wanted to do something about it.
The art historians at Hauser & Wirth explain on the gallery’s website that Guston transitioned from abstraction to figurative painting in 1969 and 1970. His series of paintings featuring hooded figures were the result.
Guston’s “hooded figures are engaged not in acts of terror but in ordinary everyday pursuits, smoking their cigars and going about the quotidian routines of American life, as in the paintings ‘Riding Around’ and ‘Blackboard’, as well as ‘Open Window II’ (all 1969),” Hauser & Wirth explain.
Guston once said that in the 1960s, “I was feeling split, schizophrenic,” due to the Vietnam War, “what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of a man am I sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. … I wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.”
I read that line again — “I wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt” — and read it again and again.
That was on Sunday. Earlier in the week, on Monday, the supercell storm blackened the sky over the west suburbs and 95-mile-per-hour winds uprooted generations-old trees, downed power lines and damaged parked cars.
On Monday evening, about a half-hour after the storm, I drove to Bellwood and parked in a lot where the residents of an 18-unit apartment building wandered around with dazed and delirious faces because the wind had ripped off the apartment building’s roof, rendering about 30 people homeless.
Down the street, an obviously drunken man dramatically played to a TV news camera, waving his arms and hollering in front of a single-family home that also lost part of its roof. The man thanked God that there were no injuries before wondering aloud what may have made God so mad.
Some minutes later, I got back into my car, which I let idle as I rushed to do interviews and because, half the time, I cannot bear the greenhouse heat of a sweltering car, not even for a minute. But whenever I return to the air-conditioned car, I feel like Guston’s hooded self-portrait.
I tell myself I know better and should do better. Most of the time, though, I don’t. I retreat to books, to words, to abstractions, to empty gestures and anachronistic hopes and dreams. I tend to my ambitions. I watch Netflix. I go to the mall. I want more stuff. Meanwhile, the world of this stuff’s making continues to end and I am, partly, to blame, even if infinitesimally.
Guston, a Jew whose family migrated from Ukraine to Canada, knew the banality of this kind of evil as intimately as Hannah Arendt and the contemporary political historian Coby Robin, who channels Arendt in Fear: The History of a Political Idea.
Robin writes that “it was the singular achievement of” Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem “to remind readers that the atrocities of the twentieth century grew out of the most mundane considerations and familiar institutions: careerism and the workplace. ‘What for Eichman was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.’”
Nowadays, I see Eichmans everywhere, most pungently in myself and in all of the accoutrements of modernity that have become extensions of me — my phone, my computer, my TV, my car, my air-conditioner, my Starbucks iced coffee. All of it, in all of its boring, apocalyptic entirety, its majestic mundanity, staring at me like Guston’s canvas. And the best I can do is stare back.
Monday’s storm made global warming tangible for me in a way I’ve never felt before and knowing that things will only get worse from here on, I don’t quite know what to do. The grandeur of this tragedy would make racism seem petite, if racism were not, part and parcel, of the tragic whole.
“We live in a world that has established itself beyond any justification,” writes the Invisible Committee. “Here, criticism doesn’t work, any more than satire does. Neither one has any impact. To limit oneself to denouncing discriminations, oppressions, and injustices, and expect to harvest the fruits of that is to get one’s epochs wrong.”
There is no longer a right and wrong side of history. As David Wallace-Wells reminded us in The Uninhabitable Earth, we’ve already left that world behind. What is history on a planet that cannot grow enough food to sustain a complex civilization, let alone a culture?
There is, however, some light at the end of my foreboding. I found it in another work of art featured in a recent Financial Times article, Theaster Gates’ “Black Chapel”, an installation inside the pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
The black chapel, made with the roofing material that characterizes Gates’ work (an homage to the artist’s craftsman father) and punctured with a hole at the top that lets in sunlight, was inspired by Rothko Chapel in Houston.
“It was this idea that a place could be dedicated to the sacred,” Gates said, adding that Rothko’s Chapel, opened in 1971 — two years after Fred’s assassination — is a space that merges the everyday and the sacred, the secular and the spiritual (“the Black Panthers occupied the space along with avant-garde music”).
I’m realizing that the Panthers, Fred especially, were, at bottom, all about radical commonality and human decency and human dignity and the will to fashion a self amid struggle, by any means necessary. It is a radically simple ethos that works for any epoch and can command any moment, even a storm.
A few days ago, I interviewed Gus Noble, president and CEO of Caledonia Senior Living and Memory Care in North Riverside. One of his employees, a CNA, had been displaced after Monday’s storm ripped the roof off that Bellwood apartment building.
Noble told her she could stay at Caledonia while she got back on her feet and shouldn’t worry about taking enough food from her workplace to feed her and her three children. He said the gesture reflects the facility’s ethos of mutual care.
“If something like that happens to one of us,” Noble said, “it happens to all of us.”
The world is dark, yes, but we still have the power to create light.