Marc Chagall and his art have been with us through most of the 20th century. At the beginning of his career, he absorbed the avant-garde movements in St. Petersburg and Paris. That's when he created what is considered his best body of work. But with the recognition and success that came later, his art lost quite a lot of vigor. The last fifty years of his long life (he died in 1985 at age 97) he continued to be very prolific - making paintings, prints and accepting quite a few high-profile commissions for murals and stained glass windows all around the world. Many share my view that his art, since the late 1920s, became increasingly decorative and with the passing decades, almost irrelevant.
I thought it strange that the curators selected so many mediocre late artworks. They even managed to find a few rather dull pieces from his very strong early period. The best moment at the exhibition I had in front of large murals that Chagall created in 1920 for the Moscow Jewish Theater, then at the peak of its short-lived avant-garde glory. A few years later paranoid Stalin ordered the theater's director to be killed and the theater was no more.
Okay now you're in the right mood to be introduced to the second museum exhibition, a remarkable retrospective of Philip Guston's luminous and frightening art. The general public is not that familiar with the work of this major American artist, a close friend of Jackson Pollock and other heroes of American Abstract Expressionism.
His Jewish parents emigrated from Russia first to Canada, but then ended up in the United States. The father, a blacksmith who hated the only job he could get as a junk collector, committed suicide. It was young Philip who discovered his body. The mother was left to take care of all seven children. Looking at Philip Guston's sublime abstract paintings from the 1950s, I felt like I died and went to heaven. Glowing from inside with a flicker of red and orange in the middle of a pearly gray and pink expanse, these paintings emanate an unparalleled sense of peace and quiet. I was reminded of Rothko, minus his brooding, and also of Cy Twombly, minus his frenzy.
In the late '60s, Philip Guston's art took an unexpected radical turn. In an era completely dominated by Abstract art, he became a figurative painter. His palette continues to be exquisite - pale pinks, frosty grays and milky blues. But the subject is another matter. Cartoonish, frightening, white hooded figures smoke phallic cigars. Disembodied one-eyed heads and hairy legs in chunky shoes are piled high in many compositions. It's known that the artist's brother's legs were crushed in a horrific accident, but it cannot be the only explanation for the persistence of this theme in his art. In the paintings from his last decade (he died in 1980) the mood is especially stark, reminiscent of the despair in the late black paintings by Goya. This is an absolutely first-rate exhibition - demanding and hugely rewarding at the same time. What a pity that the galleries were almost empty. Meanwhile, the lines for the Chagall show went around the block.
Marc Chagall July 26 - November 4, 2003
Philip Guston Retrospective June 28 - September 28, 2003
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 151 Third Street (between Mission and Howard Streets) San Francisco, CA 94103-3159 (415) 357-4000