Canada 1913 – United States of America 1980
Bad habits 1970 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Bad habits was included in the first exhibition of Guston's late figurative paintings at Marlborough Gallery, New York, in October 1970. After the delicate painterly abstraction that had characterised his art since the early 1950s and made him a well-known member of Abstract Expressionism, the raw figurative paintings of the Marlborough exhibition came as a shock not altogether welcomed by art critics. In the New York Times Hilton Kramer entitled his review of the exhibition, 'A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum'.1 'It was as though I had left the Church', Guston said later about the generally hostile reaction to the Marlborough exhibition; 'I was excommunicated for a while'.2
In retrospect, the affinities between the late figurative paintings and his previous work are as apparent as their novelty; the inflected, creamy paint surface of his abstract paintings remains undiminished and his images re-invoke themes from his figurative paintings of the 1930s and 1940s. The hooded figures that appear in Bad habits recall his paintings of the Ku Klux Klan of the early 1930s, as does the image of flagellation.3
In a lecture given at the University of Minnesota in March 1978 Guston spoke of his relationship between his recent and earlier work in a way that is illuminating of Bad habits:
As a young boy I was an activist in radical politics, and although I am no longer an activist, I keep track of everything. In 1967-68 I became very disturbed by the war [Vietnam] and the demonstrations. They became my subject matter and I was flooded by a memory. When I was about 17 or 18, I had done a whole series of paintings about the Ku Klux Klan, which was very powerful in Los Angeles at that time … In the new series of 'hoods' my attempt was really not to illustrate, to do pictures of the KKK, as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me, and rather like Isaac Babel who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them and written stories about them, I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot. Then I started conceiving an imaginary city being overtaken by the Klan. I was like a movie director. I couldn't wait, I had hundreds of pictures in mind and when I left the studio I would make notes to myself, memos, 'Put them all around the table, eating, drinking beer'. Ideas and feelings kept coming so fast; I couldn't stop, I was sitting on the crest of a wave.4
The Gallery owns a second, later, painting by Guston, Pit 1976.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.412.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra