The painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) had a lifelong love of Italy and Italian Renaissance painting and liked to recount a story of once visiting the Accademia museum in Venice in the company of a Russian man who spoke no English. So the two communicated simply by calling out the names of the masters on the walls: “Giorgione! Piero! Tintoretto!” If the artist were there later this year, he could add “Guston!” to that roll call.
Beginning May 10, to coincide with the opening of this year’s Venice Biennale, the Accademia will present the work of Guston in a major exhibition, “Philip Guston and the Poets,” featuring 50 major paintings and 25 drawings dating from 1930 until his death. The exhibition, believed to be the first of an American artist in the halls of the Accademia, the greatest storehouse of Venetian painting, will relate Guston’s work to that of five poets he loved: D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T. S. Eliot.
Guston, who began as a muralist, painting for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, became a highly regarded Abstract Expressionist painter before returning to figuration late in his career, in a scabrous, cartoon-influenced style that shocked his contemporaries. In a letter to a friend in 1975, as he was making these images, he wrote of 15th- and 16th-century Italian art: “I am immersed in quattro- and cinquecento painting — more than ever! And when I go north, to Venice, faced with Tiepolo, Tintoretto, and even so-called ‘Mannerist’ work like Pontormo, Parmigianino, etc., I cheat on my earlier loves and fall head over heels.”
The exhibition will remain on view through Sept. 3 at the Accademia, whose director, Paola Marini, said in a statement that the paintings “he discovered in the rooms and halls of the Accademia exerted enormous influence upon his vision. To bring Guston’s work into context and to encourage continued study and new interpretation of his work, is a true pleasure for us.”