The 1970s did funny things to Philip Guston. Had he died in 1969, art history would remember him as one of the most delicately refined painters in the American canon, and a leading light of the New York School—something like the moon to Jackson Pollock’s blazing sun. Instead, he made it to 1980, long enough to complete an entire second career’s worth of art that has all the delicate refinement of truck-stop graffiti.

Guston’s work from the 1950s and 1960s tended toward silvery abstraction. The paintings that followed were bright and crudely figurative, comic-strip panels sapped of comedy. Every object was now bluntly—you could almost say mercilessly—itself: a shoe, a cherry, a clock, a trash-can lid, a hooded Klansman.