Another artist who made a significant contribution to the expressionist sensibility in Boston was Flora Natapoff. Natapoff began her career in New York, where she absorbed the influence of Abstract Expressionist painters, primarily de Kooning. But by the time she came to Boston in 1974 to teach at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, she had begun to mature artistically and arrive at her own style. For works like , Natapoff developed a collage technique writ large. She combined torn bits of paper with brushy applications of paint to create ambitious urban and technological landscapes. These works are expressionist in their deliberate formal distortions, and in the artist’s intention to capture the feeling, rather than the look, of the city, its architecture, and its dynamism. And while heavily indebted to a collage technique, they can be confidently considered paintings. As art historian Carl Belz explained, “the fragments of paper are descriptive; they function like a repertory of brushstrokes, each possessing a different shape, edge, or color, depending on the combined requirements of the subject and its image.”53 The twentieth-century collage aesthetic is largely about the juxtaposition of images. In Natapoff’s technique, collage is used like paint to make an overall image coalesce. Although the artist left Boston for London in 1982, she continued to address the theme of the city in her new home and still shows her work in Boston.
But the most art historically significant and far-reaching stimulus to the expressionist tradition—both nationally and locally—was the towering figure of Philip Guston. Guston basically had three careers, in the thirties and forties as a Figurative Expressionist with a distinctly political agenda, in the fifties and sixties as an Abstract Expressionist who painted in a lyrical, idiosyncratic style, and after 1970 as a stylistic maverick who became an important progenitor of the Neo-Expressionism that swept the international art scene in the late seventies and early eighties.54
Guston’s maverick days began with his famous October 1970 solo exhibition at New York’s prestigious Marlborough Gallery. The art world expected yet another show of non-objective paintings—gently inflected fields of pink, rose, and gray. But Guston shocked everyone, presenting instead large canvases, painted in a klutzy cartoon style, that featured figures and objects in narrative scenes— all anathema to the prevailing non-objectivity and formalism espoused by critic Clement Greenberg and legions of doctrinaire Minimalists. Moreover, the images were bizarre: piles of shoes, smoking cigarettes, disembodied limbs, and, most famously, figures hooded like Klansmen, racing around in jalopies. The show was panned by stunned critics.” Guston responded: “I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories.”56
Despite the initially hostile press, Guston continued to paint his stories. And he found refuge from New York brickbats in Boston. Throughout his career, the painter had enjoyed a long and positive relationship with the Boston art world. As early as 1949, while still a Figurative Expressionist, Guston lectured at the Museum School under the auspices of Karl Zerbe. In 1966, he had a major exhibition of his Abstract Expressionist work at The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, and in the following year he held a public conversation on art with Professor Joseph Ablow at Boston University. Then, in 1970, at the instigation of David Aronson, Guston received an honorary doctorate from the university, which also enthusiastically hosted an exhibition of the painter’s new work shortly after the Marlborough Gallery debacle. In 1972, he became a Visiting Critic, and in 1973 he was appointed University Professor, a post that he held until 1978 (fig. 26). As University Professor, Guston traveled from his home in Woodstock, New York, to meet with students in Boston University’s graduate painting program for intensive three-to four-day stretches. In 1974, he showed another body of new paintings at the university.57
Guston’s time at Boston University meant a great deal to him, both professionally and personally. During a period of great stress, occasioned by continuing carping over his new work by friends and critics in New York, Guston found a faculty, student body, and audience unconstrained by Modernist orthodoxy and genuinely appreciative of Figurative Expressionism. He also gained public recognition, academic justification, and a forum for expounding upon his new ideas. The seventies also proved to be the most fertile decade of Guston’s career, in terms of both sheer output and free artistic experiment and risk-taking. is typical of the kind of painting that he made during his time at Boston University. In it appear standard issues from his late iconography: disembodied hairy legs fitted into impossibly flat shoes, a light bulb, a cockroach, bottles and paint tubes, an ashtray— all crazily adrift in a shocking pink artist’s studio. Space, scale, and narrative are all ambiguous. What is the function of the giant looming door, seemingly off its hinges? What really goes on here, in this expressionist allegory of the artist’s creative desires?
Guston just didn’t give a damn any longer about the priorities and protocols of the New York art world, especially in light of all that he saw going on around him. He said:
When the sixties came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality or the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead or me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid. . . . Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I tell.58
And this is the great legacy that Guston passed on to his students at Boston University. He stressed that painters should follow their own honestly and strongly felt muse. There should be no disjunction between form and feeling, and no difference between deeply personal and potentially universal content. The strict integrity of emotion, expression, and the act of painting was the ultimate goal, the ultimate truth. Jon Imber, one of Guston’s favorite students at Boston University, remembered that “Guston would differentiate between just making art and expressing the thing that is most important to you. … He felt you can learn to make a painting technically, but would ask if you were touching the thing that inspires you. Were you expressing something about humanity? Every line, every gesture, every piece of surface had to mean something.”59 Through these teachings, and by his example, Guston substantially reinvigorated the heritage of Figurative Expressionism in Boston.