Hooded Ku Klux Klan figures first appeared in Guston’s works in the early 1930s in portable murals that depicted the widespread violence against African Americans. Prompted in part by the violence and civil strife of the late 1960s, Guston returned to the subject in City Limits and other paintings. “They are self-portraits,” he reflected. “I perceive myself as being behind the hood. . . . The idea of evil fascinated me. . . . I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil?” The principal story told here is that of an America run afoul of its democratic promise. Guston refused to exempt himself from responsibility: in other paintings, he depicted an artist in Klan robes at his easel.
Guston began his career as a ﬁgurative painter, then, around midcentury, developed a unique style of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1960s, however, he made a surprising return to representation—but not in the classic studio tradition in which he had trained. His new paintings were scathing and satirical, often implicitly addressing current events. Guston’s switchover has served as an inspiration and a touchstone for generations of artists in the years since.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
A three-man crew of slapstick thugs cruises a vacant metropolis in a beat-up jalopy. Wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods, they are plainly up to no good; but rather than invoking a specific evil, these men are symbolic embodiments of a general know-nothing violence. The principal story told here is that of an America run afoul of its democratic promise. Guston refused to exempt himself from responsibility: in other paintings he depicted an artist in Klan robes at his easel. Guston began his career as a figurative painter, then, around mid-century, developed a lyrical Abstract Expressionism, a typical path for a member of the New York School. In the late 1960s, however, Guston made a surprising return to narrative painting—but not in the vein of the classic studio tradition in which he had trained. The art of Guston's last decade is antically cartoonlike. It has precedents in his earlier figurative period (and in his occasional satiric drawings of artists and writers), but rephrases them in a type of caricature dating to his childhood imitations of comic strips such as Krazy Kat. At the same time, paintings like City Limits have a strange baroque grandeur, and a bitter undertow—an insistence on the fascination of cruelty.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 265.