Surprise lesson lurks in show of painters’ works

Outwardly, the paintings of the Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico do not have much in common. De Chirico’s world is a silent place of deserted plazas, long afternoon shadows and motionless trains. In his interiors, faceless mannequins sit in airless rooms, surrounded by spears, shields and other emblems of ancient Rome. Guston’s paintings, on the other hand, are exuberant and crude looking, like enlargements of comic strip images from the Krazy Kat era. Far from the dignity of the classical world, Guston’s atmosphere is 100 percent American, a world of car horns, pratfalls and Bronx cheers.

The surprising lesson of “Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico,” currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is that the irascible Italian master and the restless Jewish American painter are profoundly linked. The source of the link is the unwavering admiration of Guston (1913-1980) for the older artist (1888-1978). The admiration began in 1932, when Guston, then a teenage art student, first encountered two de Chirico canvases — “The Soothsayer’s Recompense” (1913) and “The Poet and His Muse” (1922) — in the Hollywood Hills home of Louise and Walter Arensberg. (Both works are on view in this show.)

After seeing this show of only 26 paintings, one can no longer look at Guston without thinking of de Chirico. And the hard-to-understand world of Guston opens up a little bit, when confronted with the many conscious references to images or devices in de Chirico’s work — a half-open door, a floor that floats in space, empty picture frames containing other empty frames – which the American painter made part of his personal iconography.

Both de Chirico and Guston eluded the neat categories often applied to modernist art. The Italian master was one of the most independent artists of the 20th century, and his most famous works date from the years just prior to World War I.

The irrational, non-narrative quality of his dreamscapes were quickly embraced by the Surrealists. (A 1922 canvas by de Chirico, “A Song of Love,” was a pivotal influence on Rene Magritte, the famed Belgian Surrealist.) Yet despite their admiration, the Surrealists failed to recruit de Chirico to their movement, and the Italian painter subsequently found himself left behind, isolated and even vilified by the fast-changing fashions of his time.

Guston would also find himself criticized for bucking the “official” line of the art world in 1969, when he exchanged his trademark abstract expressionist style of the 1940s and ’50s into the “impure” style of more narrative, cartoonish images. Using figurative imagery was anathema to serious-minded artists at the time, like painter Lee Krasner (widow of Jackson Pollock), who never spoke to Guston again. A look at Guston’s history, however, shows the seeming betrayal as a return to his roots, both pictorial and political.

Born in Montreal of financially struggling Russian Jewish parents, Guston, born Philip Goldstein, grew up in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Like many children of immigrants, Guston was a self-denying Jew (his daughter, Musa Mayer, has said she was unaware of her ethnic heritage until adulthood). And like many second-generation Jews, Guston was intensely political, a conviction probably strengthened by open anti-Semitism and the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in California during his childhood and early youth.

After a series of “metaphysical” paintings clearly influenced both by de Chirico and his teacher, Lorser Feitelson, Guston graduated to lightly veiled leftist themes in murals he made for the WPA in the late 1930s, then finally moved to total abstraction by the early 1940s. After spending nearly 30 years as a respectable second-rank figure in the group that included boyhood companion Jackson Pollock and Wilhelm de Kooning, Guston startled the New York art scene with his unexpected break from abstraction.

Guston’s contemporaries might be forgiven for not knowing what to make of his later paintings. Comical-looking men wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods go wheeling through town in squash-shaped cars. They lie in bed smoking fat cigarettes emitting cartoonish smoke. Enormous unblinking eyes stare at the ceiling or the sky.

These “funny” paintings were never intended as jokes, however. They have no punch line. Indeed, they are strange, sad and enigmatic — not unlike to the evocative mood of the “metaphysical” paintings of de Chirico. The hooded klansmen are sometimes menacing and at other times benign and pensive; they seem to be alter egos of an artist never entirely comfortable with himself.

“The hoods are not just powerful and menacing, nor are they entirely benign,” said Lisa Melandri, one of the co-curators of the show. “They are complex, ambiguous, silly; they’re all these things at once. There is also a pathos to them.”

Other allusions point directly to de Chirico, such as a hooded figure leaning on its arm in “By the Window” (1969), which appears to be a reference to “The Poet and His Muse” or a clangorous battle of garbage can lids and baseball bats in “Ramp” (1979), reminiscent of the collision of spears, shields and legs in de Chirico’s “The Invisible Cohort” (1973).

As an institution without a permanent collection, the Santa Monica Museum of Art stands or falls on the quality of its shows. The interest of exhibitions like “Enigma Variations” suggests that the museum, standing almost hidden among the former industrial sheds in Bergamot Station, now occupies a presence in the art world far beyond its tiny footprint.

“Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico” is on view through Nov. 25 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica.

Morris Newman has written about architecture and other subjects for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.