Philip Guston navigated through four distinct idioms in a career that spanned fifty years. Like others of his generation who came to be known as Abstract Expressionists, Guston was inspired by the muralists Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera. He produced his earliest works in this format, and was part of the New Deal WPA Art Project. The shift to easel painting took place in the realm of Social Realism, a logical segue from the deeply political arena of the mural. From there to abstraction was a more complicated transition, but one which earned Guston a reputation among the finest painters of that moment. Clement Greenberg identified Guston, alongside Gorky, as personifying the "romantic idea of the artist" (R. Storr, Philip Guston, Abbeville Press, 1986, p. 83). Finally, after a two-year period of relative isolation between 1966 and 1968, Guston emerged with a body of figurative paintings based on a comics idiom, and constituting one of the great late styles of the twentieth-century
The Conversation of 1978, a fine example of the complexity of the late figurative style, includes many of the emblems of Guston's ongoing formal experimentation. The suffocating cloud of grey, black and blue, punctuated by the figure's blood-shot physiognomy echoes Guston's abstract palette of the 1950s. The facture also displays Guston's atmospheric layering of pigment, creating a sense of spatial definition and formal drama. By the time he returned to figuration, Guston had perfected a delicate dance of figural allusion, with a ground tapering off at the edges while sharply drawn forms in heavy pigment cluster in the middle. The smoker was always closer than we thought.
Guston admits that there is self-representation in the late work, from the Klansman to the overcoat to the insomniac: "There is nothing to do now but paint my life" (P. Guston, 1972 quoted in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Philip Guston Retrospective, exh. cat., 2003, p. 63). The eye in the smoker is Guston's own self-image, his cyclopic vision influenced by a slow nicotine burn. The imagery evokes addiction and obsession, banality and boredom. And everywhere Guston implicates himself, revels in the impurity. Art becomes art-for-life's sake.
There is also humor, but of an unexpected, off-beat sort. A Conversation with whom, and about what? Guston once mused about his late paintings: "When I show these, people laugh and I always wonder what laughter is. I suppose Baudelaire's definition is still valid, it's the collision of two contradictory feelings" (P. Guston, quoted in Storr, Ibid.,. p. 54). It is a nervous laugh at first, like lighting a cigarette then realizing that you've still got one burning in the ashtray. But it grows into something more expansive when you recognize that Guston's mischief is a matter of freedom from orthodoxy, purity, and pedantics. Laughter, to paraphrase Mikhail Bakhtin, is freedom from fear.
Guston's late paintings, with their outsized scale, garish palette and deep mystery, were received with mixed reviews, but are now seen as masterpieces, not only because of what they departed from, but for where they led. Painters as different as Susan Rothenberg and Elizabeth Murray acknowledge their debt to Guston. In 1965, just before he would abandon abstraction, Guston wrote: "To paint is always to start at the beginning again, yet being unable to avoid the familiar arguments about what you see yourself painting. The canvas you are working on modifies the previous ones in an unending baffling chain which never seems to finish" (P. Guston, "Faith, Hope and Impossibility" in Ibid., p. 93). Each of Guston's previous modes feeds the late work, which is rich with history and memory. The Conversation was in part Guston talking to himself, but apparently others were listening.