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Philip Guston's wide-ranging 50-year career in art. Major exhibition traces significant shifts in interest

Philip Guston (1913-80) is famous for several things, including the fact that his painting career was divided into three distinct phases: Social Realist (1930s and '40s); Abstract Expressionist (1950s-'60s); and a final, highly idiosyncratic period (1968-80). During all of them, Guston drew almost as much as he painted, not only to develop ideas, resolve formal problems, and explore new directions, but also for the pure pleasure of it and as an end in itself.

Small wonder, then, that he left so many drawings behind, and that they represent so many styles and approaches. When an artist ``thinks'' in linear images with pen or pencil in hand, it's very likely that these images will be almost as numerous and wide-ranging as his thoughts.

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All that, of course, only complicates the task for anyone trying to assemble a representative selection of Guston's drawings for a major retrospective. And yet, that's exactly what Magdalena Dabrowski did for the Museum of Modern Art here. She chose 153 of his most revealing and significant works on paper from those produced during his whole 50-year career.

The earliest is a 1930 study for the painting ``Conspirators,'' drawn when he was only 17, and the most recent, a grotesque rendering of a head, executed in color in 1980.

Guston began his career as a Works Progress Administration muralist, switched over to easel painting in the early 1940s, and by 1945 had received enough critical attention to be considered one of America's most promising younger painters. About 1950, determined as always to follow his inner vision, he renounced his earlier, rather stylized representational approach for a totally abstract one, and within a year or two he began to establish himself as a leading Abstract Expressionist.

In 1969, after nearly four years of working exclusively at drawing, Guston began once again to paint - but this time in a style that was figurative, startlingly ``cartoonish,'' and even downright garish at times.

The art world's reaction, at first, was largely negative (several of his colleagues snubbed him for ``betraying'' the formalist cause).

Things might have remained that way if a number of younger artists and art professionals hadn't perceived the extraordinary nature of these later works and argued on their behalf. Needless to say, the art world soon changed its views, decided that these ``vulgar'' pictures were art after all, and ultimately gave Guston even more acclaim than he had before.

Guston, however, remained unsatisfied, and continued to use drawing as the primary probing device in his restless search for new forms and ideas.

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This is particularly evident in his drawings from 1974 on, which are both more bluntly, even brutally, drawn and more obsessively preoccupied with provocative imagery than any that had gone before.

His complex - one could almost say cluttered - ink sketches of 1980, perfectly illustrate Ms. Dabrowski's statement about his drawings in general. Writing in the exhibition catalog, she indicates that Guston's drawings ``have a certain almost obsessive quality of trying to come to grips with an unmanageable profusion of thoughts and images. Looking at them, we do not simply contemplate the results of this process but instead are forced to reenact the artist's struggle to create.''

This profusion no longer exists, however, in the series of smallish acrylic and ink studies he made later that same year. These are simple, stark, monumental, grotesque, and iconic in effect. Their impact is final and rather awesome, and the fact that they are in color gives them a touch of warmth and character most of his purely linear drawings lack.

Of all his works on paper, these are the most powerful and original and the ones that best epitomize what his final phase was all about.

There are other outstanding pieces, of course, but only a handful manage to rise above the style of the period in which they were made.

``Study for Queensbridge Housing Project Mural,'' for instance, while technically excellent, is too mannered in typical late-1930s fashion to be of more than historical interest. And the ink abstractions of 1953-54 have already failed the test of time.

On the other hand, three sketches from 1950-51, especially ``Drawing'' (1951), hold up very well. And many of the blatantly idiosyncratic ink drawings produced between 1975 and '80 would look good in almost any company.

After its closing at the Museum of Modern Art on Nov. 1, this informative and valuable exhibition travels to Museum Overholland in Amsterdam (Jan. 16-Feb. 26, 1989) and then to museums in Madrid, England, Dublin, and Rome.

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